August 19, 1791 — Today, African American scientist, surveyor and farmer, Benjamin Banneker (November 9, 1731 – October 9, 1806) sent a manuscript to Thomas Jefferson with the goal of getting him to change his stance on slavery.
In the letter, Banneker accused Jefferson of criminally using fraud and violence to oppress his slaves, stating:
“Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath 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.”
Jefferson responded amicably, sympathizing with Banneker’s words. Although a fire on the day of Banneker’s funeral in 1806 destroyed many of his papers and belongings, one of his journals and several of his remaining artifacts are presently available for public viewing.
Words of Wisdom for August 19, 2016
Philadelphia Aug. 30. 1791.
I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th. instant and for the Almanac it contained. no body 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 colours of men, & that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & America. I can add with truth that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body & mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecillity of their present existence, and other circumstance which cannot be neglected, will admit. I have taken the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet, Secretary of the Academy of sciences at Paris, and member of the Philanthropic society because I considered it as a document to which your whole colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them. I am with great esteem, Sir,
Your most obedt. humble servt.
— Thomas Jefferson's reply to Benjamin Banneker's letter of Aug. 19, 1791. Without directly responding to Banneker's accusation, Jefferson replied to Banneker's letter in a series of nuanced statements that expressed his interest in the advancement of the equality of America's black population.