On this dayAug 19, 1791
Benjamin Banneker Challenges Thomas Jefferson's Support for Slavery
On August 19, 1791, black writer, scientist, and farmer, Benjamin Banneker, wrote a public letter to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, challenging Jefferson’s pro-slavery views as inconsistent with the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.
Born in 1731, Benjamin Banneker was the eldest son of a free black couple who owned a tobacco farm in Baltimore, Maryland – but his father had once been enslaved. Largely self-taught, Mr. Banneker grew to be a talented scientist, mathematician, and farmer, publishing a popular almanac and working to disprove dominant beliefs that black people were naturally intellectually inferior to white people. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, was a prominent white statesman who owned a Virginia plantation and large numbers of enslaved black people. He had also played a significant role in drafting the Declaration of Independence and establishing the new nation of the United States.
Benjamin Banneker sent the August 1791 anti-slavery letter to Thomas Jefferson with a copy of his Almanac. In the letter, he invoked the American struggle against Great Britain and called on Jefferson to recognize slavery’s cruelty and hypocrisy. Mr. Banneker also noted the conflict between Jefferson’s embrace of the principles of freedom and equality laid out in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, and his support for the continued existence of slavery.
“[The] time in which the Arms and tyranny of the British Crown were exerted with every powerful effort in order to reduce you to a State of Servitude” was a time when Jefferson “clearly saw into the injustice of a State of Slavery,” Banneker wrote. “[It is] pitiable,” he continued, “[that] in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, you should at the Same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.”
Benjamin Banneker’s letter sparked a correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, and the two men exchanged several letters in 1792. Their writing further revealed Jefferson’s contradictory views on slavery and race, as he expressed misgivings about the slave trade while owning enslaved African people, and asserted that the black and white races were naturally distinct. Thomas Jefferson also insisted that freedom for Africans would have to be followed by a colonization plan to relocate them outside of the United States.
Ultimately, Benjamin Banneker’s courageous effort to publicly challenge Thomas Jefferson on one of the most controversial issues of the time did not succeed in swaying the future president’s view. Even the personal example of Mr. Banneker’s considerable talents could not overcome Thomas Jefferson's blind and self-serving beliefs in racial inferiority. Just a few years after Mr. Banneker’s death in 1806, Thomas Jefferson criticized him in correspondence with others, and embraced the views of racist and pro-slavery writers who claimed that Mr. Banneker’s vast literary and scientific accomplishments could not have been his own.