Who was Benjamin Banneker? Scientist, clock maker, Assistant to the Surveyor of Washington, DC, creator of bestselling almanacs, and possibly the first African American to publicly challenge Jefferson on the topics of slavery, race, and equality.
In this episode of In the Course of Human Events, we look at letters Banneker and Jefferson exchanged in 1791 and consider how the problem of slavery prevented two individuals with so much in common from forming a friendship.
David Thorson: I think all Benjamin Banneker wanted was acknowledgment that he was Jefferson's peer, without a racial qualifier regarding his intellect.
Ariel Armenta: Hi, my name's Ariel Armenta and I'm a guide and volunteer coordinator here at Monticello.
Chad Wollerton: I'm Chad Wollerton. I'm the Director of Digital Media and Strategy at Monticello.
Ariel Armenta: Welcome to “In the Course of Human Events.”
Chad Wollerton: Today, David Thorson is going to tell us a story about Benjamin Banneker.
Ariel Armenta: Banneker was a famous astronomer, surveyor, an inventor, and someone who is going to challenge one of the most powerful individuals in the country, Thomas Jefferson.
Two Men of the Enlightenment
David Thorson: I'm David Thorson, a digital guide at Monticello.
Imagine two men of the American Enlightenment who share a love of liberty, a passion for science, a fascination with clocks, an insatiable curiosity about the world around them, and a famous exchange of letters we can read today. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, right?
In this case there's another Benjamin: Benjamin Banneker, the free Black scientist, clockmaker, Assistant to the Surveyor of Washington, DC, creator of a series of popular almanacs, and the man who wrote Jefferson in 1791 and challenged him to live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.
Chad Wollerton: The letter you're talking about, David, Banneker wrote in August of 1791. It's a long letter, so we won't go over all of it, but partway through the letter, he talked about his own identity. He says that he "freely and cheerfully acknowledged that I am of the African race, and in that color which is natural to them of the deepest dye." He's telling Jefferson that I'm African. I'm not very mixed. I'm not of deep European ancestry. He then goes on to mention that he's not held in slavery. He feels very lucky. And he likens his state of being free to that of Jefferson's.
But then he writes later in the letter, when he's challenging Jefferson on slavery in the United States at the time, he quotes directly the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal." And then he presents this almanac of his own creation as testament to what you can do when you are free, and not tethered by slavery, regardless of race, and you have access to education.
David Thorson: Almanacs were quite popular at the time, and Banneker's Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris followed in the format established years earlier by the Franklin brothers, James and Benjamin Franklin. It included weather forecasts, tide tables, lunar and solar eclipses, times of the rising and setting of the sun and the moon, poems, proverbs, and other bits of general information.
Banneker himself calculated the astronomical predictions for his almanacs, and then he went a step further by adding commentary, letters from notable individuals, literature, and ideas directly challenging the notion that Blacks were inferior to whites.
He's including a handwritten copy of the forthcoming 1792 almanac in the letter that he writes to Jefferson.
Chad Wollerton: And it's handwritten because he wants no mistake whose work it is. He follows up with it and says, please don't share this with anybody because I've made commitments with the publisher, and I don't want this to be taken out from underneath them. It's really funny, because there’s this whole large argument, and then it's like, you know, I'm a businessman too, right?
David Thorson: What I find fascinating about that is that implicit in there is this idea that, this is so good that I don't want you running off with it.
Who was Benjamin Banneker?
David Thorson: Let's back up and talk a little bit about Banneker's background. What's his backstory? Where did he come from?
Ariel Armenta: Benjamin Banneker was born on November 9th, 1731, and Banneker spent most of his life on his family's 100-acre tobacco farm near Baltimore, Maryland.
Banneker's grandmother was an English dairymaid who was brought over to America. She was an indentured servant. She was the one who established, initially, the family farm. She purchased two slaves. One of them she ended up marrying, despite the racial laws at the time, and they have four children. One of them is a daughter named Mary. They buy another slave his name is Robert. Mary meets this individual. They get married and they have children. By the time Benjamin Banneker is born though, the father, was able to achieve his freedom, and because his mother Mary was a free woman, her children were free, hence Banneker was born free, he was never enslaved.
Banneker also received an education. His grandmother, Molly Walsh, taught Banneker how to read and write, and Banneker continued his studies at a one-room school led by a Quaker teacher. So in terms of formal education, that was all that he had as a young boy.
Chad Wollerton: But he was able to borrow a lot of books, including from the man who started the school. He was reading philosophy, the history of Rome. He read Plato. He read Principia, Newton's almost unreadable treatise.
Ariel Armenta: He always had a strong aptitude for math, engineering, sciences. When he was 22 years old, Banneker gained local admiration by hand carving a wooden clock that kept perfect time. Someone called it quote, "one of the curiosities of the wild region."
Chad Wollerton: The story goes, that he showed such promise that he was noticed as a young boy for his skills with mathematics. He supposedly was helping some other farmers with their accounts. He came into contact with a number of Quakers who lived in the area. One of them invited a merchant businessman with interests abroad, and they supposedly sat down at this Quaker's house and just started talking. Banneker was very interested in time, and when this man pulled out his pocket watch, he got focused on it. The man, whose name was Joseph Levy, liked Banneker enough that he said, "here, please take it while I'm away, and when I come back, I'll pick it up." He never came back. He died in a shipwreck.
Banneker decided to take it apart to see how it worked. When he opens it up, he sees this beautiful, finely wrought clock. He understands how it's working, but he doesn't have the machine tools to make something like that. So what does he do? He does something even more incredible, in my mind. He takes that small version and he upscales it, makes it larger, and makes it into this wooden clock that does become the curiosity of the neighborhood. It's really quite wonderful.
Laying Out the Federal City
David Thorson: The most significant thing, I believe, that happened in the life of Benjamin Banneker was when he met the Ellicott family. He's in his forties. They are anti-slavery, abolitionist Quakers, who are well-educated astronomers, surveyors.
Ariel Armenta: The Ellicott family moved to Baltimore County, Maryland in 1771. They established a gristmill just a few miles down the road from Banneker's tobacco farm, and so they befriended one another. In particular, George Ellicott, who was a land surveyor with a passion for astronomy, lent Banneker tools and books on astronomy.
George Ellicott's cousin, Andrew, invited Banneker to work as an assistant surveyor and map out the initial layout of Washington, DC. It was the first time in his life Banneker ventured more than 15 miles from his home.
Chad Wollerton: This is not laying out the streets of the federal city of Washington, DC. It's really establishing the boundaries.
David Thorson: Banneker is assisting Andrew Ellicott and a man named Isaac Briggs in laying everything out. He's doing the calculations for the marks and then plotting where those surveyor's stones are. And the other significant thing about those is those stones are then used to measure distance all over the United States as a point of origin.
Chad Wollerton: I believe he's the person who's staying up at night, Banneker is, to check their position. Because what we're dealing with is not just a flat, featureless land, but you're also dealing with distances where the curvature of the earth could really throw you off.
David Thorson: Yeah, absolutely right, Chad, because of his skill as an astronomer, he can do the astronomical calculations to verify that the position is correct and when they start off the next morning that they're beginning from the correct point of origin for the next step in the survey. So it's a huge job.
Chad Wollerton: That's right, because if you're off even a foot, if you're going a certain amount of distance, as you get further and further away, a small degree of difference will really widen how far off you are, so you have to be correct.
David Thorson: To be a surveyor is a huge thing in that timeframe. Jefferson was a surveyor. Washington's a surveyor. Surveyors were among the most respected people in colonial and post-colonial society because they're the ones who are telling you, wait a minute, if I have a dispute between Maryland and Virginia, who's going to settle that dispute over whose land is whose? If I have a dispute with my neighbor over our property, you have to hire a surveyor.
The whole thing about the Age of Enlightenment is this idea that if you can measure things, then you can control things. So clocks measure things, now I can control time, and now I can control human beings by using time. I can measure by surveying, and now I can control who owns land. People forget the Enlightenment is about human beings controlling the future.
Chad Wollerton: Similar to this is this fascination with clocks. Jefferson's fascinated with clocks. Other people like George III and Louis XVI, they were fascinated by clocks as well, and they would talk to you about them. It was another way to be a learned person at that time period, and Banneker is among them.
David Thorson: I want to make sure I have this straight. Thomas Jefferson, clocks. Benjamin Banneker, clocks. Thomas Jefferson, surveying. Benjamin Banneker, surveying. Thomas Jefferson, education. Benjamin Banneker, education. These guys should be the best friends.
“A Very Extraordinary Performance”
David Thorson: When Banneker finished his work surveying Washington, DC with Andrew Ellicott, he embarked on the creation of his almanac.
Ariel Armenta: In this process of getting his first almanac published, there were a few publishers capable and willing to check Banneker's calculations. The task of peer review had fallen to David Rittenhouse. He was a scientist, a fellow surveyor, abolitionist, and one of Thomas Jefferson's good friends. Rittenhouse was approving of Banneker's work. He called the almanac's measurements, and I quote, "a very extraordinary performance, considering the color of the author," end quote. Banneker wrote, quote, "I am annoyed to find that the subject of my race is so much stressed. The work is either correct, or it is not. In this case, I believe it to be perfect."
It appears that Banneker's intolerance about the issue of slavery had taken hold, and for Banneker, it was time to address this issue head on. Cue in Thomas Jefferson.
David Thorson: What I'm fascinated by, Ariel, is this idea that sometime around 1790, 1791, surveying Washington, DC, the relationship that Banneker establishes with the Ellicott family, his decision that he now is going to embark on publishing an almanac, and then writing this letter to Jefferson, it just seems to me that he's embarked on a very definite, planned campaign to prove not only his worth as an individual, but the worth of every African American, the worth of every Black person, who's given the opportunity to excel. This is the perfect opportunity for Banneker to become seized with the idea that, I, Benjamin Banneker, am merely an example of what can happen when a human being, regardless of their race, creed, or color, is given the opportunity to excel.
Chad Wollerton: And that's his argument. He seems to be wary of being branded as special, because if he's special, then he's exceptional. If he's exceptional, he's an exception, so you don't have to change anything.
David Thorson: He writes this letter to Jefferson in the belief that if Jefferson becomes aware of the facts, that Jefferson will then take up the mantle and actually become a standard bearer in making his own words come true.
Chad Wollerton: I haven't seen any evidence that Jefferson and Banneker ever met, but he must have learned a little bit about Jefferson's character, not only from the Declaration of Independence, but also Jefferson knew the Ellicotts pretty well. I wonder if he thought, look, I've got this almanac. I have contributed materially to the creation of this nation. I'm helping lay out the boundaries of its capital. Now's a good time to make some kind of move, a statement.
David Thorson: It really is a bold thing that he's doing because he is a free Black believing that he is the intellectual equal of Thomas Jefferson. He's writing the author of the Declaration of Independence as one man to another. In that time, that's a pretty bold move.
Ariel Armenta: Quoting Jefferson to Jefferson is very bold.
Chad Wollerton: Absolutely. Yeah.
Ariel Armenta: And also part of it, I believe, was to refute Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, his views that Black people were quote "inferior in the endowments of both body and mind."
Chad Wollerton: Reading Notes on the State of Virginia and the passages about race, it's really difficult. I find it one of the most gut-wrenching things that I read around my job here at Monticello. One thing that Jefferson does and that has been an escape hatch for him and for a lot of people is that even though he says all these horrible things, he says it's a suspicion only, and he says if somebody has evidence to the contrary, my mind can be changed.
Jefferson’s “Soft Response”
David Thorson: Ariel, Jefferson gets Banneker's letter, gets the almanac. Does he reply to Banneker? And if he does reply, how does he reply? What does he say to Banneker?
Ariel Armenta: That's a great question, because his response is a political one, or to use his own words, quote, a "soft answer." Thomas Jefferson passively entertained Banneker's suggestions, writing that, and I quote, "I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th and for the almanac it contained. Nobody wishes more than I do to see such proofs, as you exhibit, that nature has given to our Black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America," end quote.
Chad Wollerton: What's soft about that?
Ariel Armenta: What's soft about that is he just avoids discussing in depth the notion that Blacks and Native Americans might be equal to whites in their intellectual potential. He also avoided sincerely evaluating the institution of slavery in his response or encouraging further correspondence from Banneker. Whereas Banneker writes this 1400 word letter, Thomas Jefferson's response was less than a paragraph.
Chad Wollerton: And then he does this thing where it's another thing that sounds positive. I'm going to take this almanac and I'm going to send it to a leading French scholar, so that this can become part of the conversation.
David Thorson: The Marquis de Condorcet. This is fascinating because Jefferson, in his letter to Banneker, he says, what a wonderful thing it would be to establish schools of higher education and ways to ameliorate the suffering, but he doesn't say that he, Jefferson, is going to lead the way or establish any of these schools, does he? He says, won't it be nice? In other words, I look forward to the day, but I'm going to do nothing to hasten that day's coming. He's the Secretary of State, governor of Virginia. He's proposing these ideas for education.
Chad Wollerton: In 1791, people know him as the author of the Declaration of Independence. Who else has the authority to take this challenge up? Not really many people, I think.
Ariel Armenta: And I think Thomas Jefferson's also just thinking of his future political career, knowing how controversial the issue of slavery is, especially as a man from a southern state like Virginia, someone who's always trying to walk that middle ground, fully endorsing Benjamin Banneker would be political suicide for him.
Ariel Armenta: So Benjamin Banneker takes this correspondence and he publishes it in his almanac.
David Thorson: That's a really fascinating thing: Benjamin Banneker includes his letter to Jefferson, Jefferson's reply, and David Rittenhouse's favorable review of Banneker's work. The unusual thing that Banneker is including in his almanacs, that you really aren't going to find in any other almanac, is a public agenda in opposition to slavery.
Ariel Armenta: It's here where we actually see another way in which Banneker and Jefferson relate, both social critics, speaking out loud against an institution, in this case Banneker when it comes to the issue of slavery.
But what happens is that Banneker steps back from it, perhaps and most likely because of the potential threat he faced living in a slavery state, Maryland.
Chad Wollerton: He does record, not too long after this, that his house gets broken into. Gunshots are fired on his property. He does feel threatened. He feels the violence that's going on around him. I would very much be worried for his personal safety.
David Thorson: So this fascinates me, because he clearly jumps onto the public stage, he challenges Jefferson, he publishes his almanacs. They're bestsellers. By 1797, he seems to step back and withdraw from the world. And there's no more publications. There's no more letters that he writes. He's not a young man anymore. I'm sure age is a factor, but I'm really struck by this idea that there's no tangible movement toward abolition.
Chad Wollerton: My sense is, he seems like a very private person. He's much more interested in reading books and learning. This time from 1791 to 1797 is a bit of an aberration for him to be out there in the public.
Also, slavery's not just not improving, it's getting worse. Many of the founders, even Jefferson, thought that it was something that was just going to, going to wither out and die. By the late 1790s, it's becoming clearer and clearer that's not gonna happen.
David Thorson: I think that's great point, Chad, because as the United States begins to expand to the West, slavery expands into the West. Eli Whitney who invents the cotton gin, and now slavery becomes ever more profitable. Banneker is a witness to all this and just seems to retreat back home to his farm in Maryland.
Chad Wollerton: We don't know what he was thinking at this point. We don't have a lot of his writings. We have the almanacs. We have some things that survived because they happened to be in the possession of the Ellicotts when he died. The reason why we lost a of that stuff is because...
Ariel Armenta: Of the fire that took place when he passed away at the age of 74 in October 1806. It was just a few days after his death that the funeral was held, and on the day of the funeral, someone burnt Banneker's house down, including all of his possessions, his tools, and what breaks my heart is his clock.
David Thorson: So really his life's work and all the records that would prove his point are mysteriously burned on the very day of his funeral. Jefferson says the letters of a person form the only full and genuine journal of his life, and so Banneker's genuine journal is destroyed.
Chad Wollerton: Absolutely destroyed.
David Thorson: If you're justifying slavery by denying someone's humanity, then you have to eliminate the evidence of their humanity. So the fire is mysterious, but you just can't help but suspect that it was deliberate.
A Duplicitous Jefferson
Ariel Armenta: A few years after the death of Banneker, what we know is that Thomas Jefferson writes a letter to a friend named Joel Barlow.
David Thorson: Barlow is an author. He's a diplomat. Barlow is friends with a lot of the people in France that are friends of Jefferson as well. One of them is the French bishop, Henri Grégoire, who has written a book in which he is making the case that Blacks are the intellectual equals of whites, and one of the examples he offers is Benjamin Banneker.
Ariel Armenta: Thomas Jefferson writes to Barlow about Banneker and says, quote, "The whole do not amount in point of evidence to what we know ourselves of Banneker. We know he had spherical trigonometry enough to make almanacs, but not without the suspicion of aid from Ellicott, who was his neighbor and friend, and never missed an opportunity of puffing him. I have a long letter from Banneker, which shows him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed."
Chad Wollerton: Wow. It's a tough read. He's just completely dissed Banneker. Before when he was writing to Condorcet, he's like, this is an example of someone who shows that people of African descent can be endowed with the same faculties as Europeans. And then he goes back and says no, not really. He was helped, probably. And then he says he has this letter from Banneker that shows him to have had a mind of "very common stature."
David Thorson: I find it fascinating that Banneker writes a letter to Thomas Jefferson that I think anyone reading it would find compelling in its eloquence and the logic of its argument, and then Jefferson in 1809 dismisses it entirely because once again, Jefferson's unfortunate, deep racism always gets in the way.
Ariel Armenta: It just completely goes against what he had written to Banneker, quote, "Nobody wishes more than I do to see such proofs, as you exhibit, that nature has given to our Black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men," end quote. Even when these proofs are presented to him, it is still not enough. It's where you see one of the best examples of Jefferson's duplicity.
Chad Wollerton: It was well-noted. Many, many people at the time believed that Jefferson was a bit duplicitous and two faced, so it shouldn't surprise us that we describe him as such today because you can see it. You can see that record of correspondence. We can get deep into it and Jefferson reveals himself in many ways.
David Thorson: No, there's no question, this is not a modern interpretation of Jefferson. In his own day, he wasn't just challenged by Benjamin Banneker, he was challenged by many people for the contradiction between his words and his actions, and by the contradiction of the words themselves from one document to another.
An Unresolved Challenge
Chad Wollerton: One thing that strikes me about this, the loss of Banneker's papers, his objects, his home is absolutely tragic. One other thing that strikes me as a bit of a tragedy, and this is what you were referring to at the very beginning, David, was that I think if you had put a barrier between these two men and allowed them to talk without seeing each other, they would have connected immediately. Without the distinctions of race, these two would have been fast friends, able to continue a correspondence about anything and everything throughout their lives if Jefferson could have seen his way through it.
David Thorson: I think all Benjamin Banneker wanted was acknowledgment that he was Jefferson's peer, that his accomplishments were noteworthy without a racial qualifier regarding his intellect. In my mind, Banneker's legacy is just a testament to the still unresolved challenge that the United States has in reckoning with its racial past.
Ariel Armenta: Yeah, certainly, his life reflects the defining paradox of the early United States. He also demonstrates other ways in which African Americans resisted. Today, we often learn resistance through escape, and so forth, but here you have an intellectual, political, social form of resistance. That boldness and that courage it took to do what he did is a story that really should be told all the time.
Chad Wollerton: When you go to Washington, DC, you can still see the markers for the survey. The location of Banneker's house I think now is marked with a park and a memorial.
David Thorson: If you come to Monticello and you tour the house and you take a look inside Jefferson's cabinet, you're going to see a telescope and you're going to see a surveyor's theodolite, and you might want to just think, these two guys, those two instruments are things they had in common, and yet they were separated forever by the problem of race.
Chad Wollerton: David and Ariel, thanks for talking today. This is a wonderful story about the life of a truly remarkable American.
Ariel Armenta: Yeah, thank you so much for having me today giving me the opportunity to help share this story.
David Thorson: I feel the same. It was a great pleasure to talk about the remarkable life of Benjamin Banneker.
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Hosted by Ariel Armenta, David Thorson, and Chad Wollerton
Direction and editing by Joan Horn
Sound design by Dennis Hysom
Production by Chad Wollerton and Joan Horn
Read more about the fascinating life of Benjamin Banneker in this biography by Charles Cerami.