In early America, many slaves learned to read and write and demonstrated intellectual capacity equal to any white person. But whites generally frowned upon Slaves learning the arts claiming, “What has the slave of any country to do with heroic virtues, liberal knowledge, or elegant accomplishments?” Even the most peaceful of white Americans, the Pennsylvania Quakers, had harsh, hypocritical, and ridiculous laws calling for the torture and starvation of slaves for minor “offenses!”
One such great intellect was Benjamin Banneker who was a mathematician and an astronomer. He was born in Maryland, November 9, 1731, to parents who were freed slaves. Banneker taught himself astronomy and mathematics, and published an almanac. Because of these efforts he became one of the first African Americans to be recognized for his contributions to science.
On August 19, 1791, Banneker sent a copy of his almanac to Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. With the almanac he included a respectful letter in which he appeals to Jefferson asking him to use his influence to end the prevailing prejudice toward blacks. What makes the letter so amazing is Banneker’s masterful tact. He asks Jefferson, in humble language, how he can claim to be a “friend of liberty” while at the same owning slaves, and Benjamin brings home his appeal by using the language of the Declaration of Independence, which Jefferson wrote. Let’s examine the letter.
First: Banneker praises Jefferson with these words:
“There was a time in which you clearly saw into the injustice of a State of Slavery, and in which you had just apprehensions of the horrors of its condition. Your abhorrence of this slavery was so excited, that you publickly held forth this true and invaluable doctrine, which is worthy to be recorded and remember’d in all Succeeding ages. ‘We hold these truths to be Self evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happyness.’
“Here Sir, was a time in which your tender feelings for your selves had engaged you thus to declare, you were then impressed with proper ideas of the great valuation of liberty, and the free possession of those blessings to which you were entitled by nature…”
Banneker begins by praising Jefferson for his words which set forth the principles of liberty, the laws of nature and of nature’s God, which justified the emancipation of the white colonists from tyrannical King George.
Second: Banneker now lovingly rebukes the slave-holding Jefferson and other revolutionary whites who were hypocritically applying the laws of nature by practicing the same tyranny over their “brethren,” the African race:
“but Sir how pitiful is it to reflect, that altho you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of those rights and privileges which he had conferred upon them, that you should at the Same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the Same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.”
Stirring words! Think about the implications of them. Now that Banneker has praised Jefferson for his understanding of liberty and then lovingly rebuked him in his hypocritical application of it, Banneker now exhorts Jefferson and his friends to live up to liberty principles by saying,
“that it is the indispensible duty of those who maintain for themselves the rights of human nature, and who profess the obligations of Christianity, to extend their power and influence to the relief of every part of the human race…”
How shall they do this? Banneker has the answer. He says you need “to wean yourselves from these narrow prejudices which you have imbibed with respect to them (the black race), and as Job proposed to his friends ‘Put your Souls in their Souls stead,’ thus shall your hearts be enlarged with kindness and benevolence toward them, and thus shall you need neither the direction of myself or others in what manner to proceed herein.”
Benjamin was saying, to paraphrase, “Mr. Jefferson, if you simply put yourself in the shoes of the slave you will know exactly what to do without needing the advice of anyone else. Conjure up some empathy and you will soon realize the action you must take is SELF-EVIDENT, just as you wrote in your Declaration.”
The Founders weren’t perfect. But the principles they espoused, even though hypocritically applied, would eventually bring freedom to all. Banneker never questioned the principles, he questioned the practice. Frederick Douglass saw in the writings of the Founders the seeds of hope when he said,
“The arm of the Lord is not shortened, and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.”
The principles of liberty apply to everyone, everywhere. These principles bring us together. That’s a cheering message.