Carolyn Shuttlesworth
Literature & Culture
Material Type:
Primary Source
Community College / Lower Division, College / Upper Division
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18th Century: 1791


African American Literature 1619-1926

Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806)

                                                          Letter to Thomas Jefferson

                                                                                                   Maryland, Baltimore County

                                                                                           Near Ellicotts' Lower Mills, August 19th, 1791

Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State.

Sir:- I am fully sensible of the greatness of that freedom, which I take with you on the present occaision, a liberty which seemed to me scarcely allowable, when I reflected on that distinguished and dignified station in which you stand, and the almost general prejudice and prepossession which is so prevlaent in the world against those of my complexion.

     I suppose it is a truth too well attested to you, to need a proof here, that we are a race of beings who have long laboured under the abuse and censure of the world, that we have long been considered rather as brutish than human, and scarcely capable of mental endowments.

     Sir, I hope I may safely admit, in consequence of that report which had reached me, that you are a man far less inflexible in sentiments of this nature than many others, that you are measurably friendly and well disposed towards us, and that you are willingand ready to lend your aid and asistance to our relief, from those many distresses and numerous calamities, to which we are reduced.

     Now, sir, if this is founded in truth, I apprehend you will readily embrace every oppoortunity to eradicate the train of absurd and false ideas and opinions, which so generally prevails with respect to us, and that your sentiments are concurrent with mine, which are that one universal Father hath given Being to us all, and that he hath not only made us all of one flesh, and that also without partiaclity afforded us all the same sensations, and endured us all with the same faculties, and that however variable we amy be in society or religion, however diverified in situation or colour, we are all of the same family, and stand in the same relation to him.

     Sir, if these are sentiments of which you are fully peruaded, I hope you cannot but cknowledge, that it is the indeispensable duty of those who maintain for themselves the rights of human nature, and who profess the obligations of christianity, to extend their power an influence to the relief of every part of the human race, from whatever burden or oppression they may unjustly labour under, and this I apprehend a gull conviction of the truth and obligatio of these principles should lead all to.

     Sir, I have long been convinced that if your love for yourselves and for those inesteemable laws, which preserve to you the rights of human nature, was found on sincerity, you could not but be solicitous that every individual of whatever rank or distinceiton, might with you equally enjoy the blessings thereof, neither ould you ret satified, short of the most active diffusion of your exertions in order to their promotions fro any state of degradation to which the unjustigiable cruelty and barbarism of mmen have reduced them.

     Sir, I freely and cheerfully acknowledge that I am of the African race, and in that colour which is natural to them of the deepest dye, and it is under a sense of the most profound gratitude to the Supreme Ruler of the universe that I now confess to you that I am not under the state of tyrannical thraldom anf inhuman captivity to which too many of my brethren are doomed; but that I have abundantly tasted of the frution of those blessings which proceed from that free and unequalled liberty with which you are favoured and which, I hope you will willingly allowyou have received from the immediate hand of that Being, from which proceedeth every good and perfect gift.

     Sir, suffer me to recall to your mind that 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, look back I entreat you on the variety of dangers to which you were exposed; reflect on that time in which every human aid appeared unavailable, and in which even hope and fortitude wore the aspect of inability to the conflict and you cannot but be led to a serious and grateful sense of your miraculous and providential preservation; you cannot but acknowledge that the present freedom and tranquility which you enjoy you have mercifully received and that it is the pecular blessing of Heaven.

     This, sir, was a time in which you clearly saw into the injustice of a state of slavery and in which you had ju apprehensions of the horrors of its condition, it was now, sir, that your abhorrence thereof was so excited, that you publickly held forth this true and valuable doctrine, which is worthy to be recorded and remembered in all succeeding ages.  "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all en are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certai unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

     Here, sir, was a time in which your tender feelings for yourselves 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; but, 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 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 nuerous 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 prefessedly detested in others in respect to yourselves.

     Sir, I suppose that your knowledge of the situation of my brethren is too extensive to need a recital here; neither shall I presume to prescribe methods by which they may be relieved, otherwise than by reccomending to you and all others to wean yourselves from those narrow prejudices which you have imbibed with respect to them and as Job proposed to his friends, "put your souls in their souls stead," thus shall your hearts be enlarged with kindness and benevolence towards them, and thus shal you need neither the direction of myself or others, in what manner to proceed herein.

     And now, sir, although my sympathy and affection for my brethreb hath caused my enlargement thus far, I ardently hope that your candour and generosity will plead with you in my behalf when I make known to you that it was not originally my design; but that having taken up my pen in order to direct to you as a present, a copy of an almaniac, which I have calculated for the succeeding year, I was unexpectedly and unavoidablyl ed thereto.

     This calculation, sir, is the production of my arduous study in this my advanced stage o life; for having long had unbounded desires to become acquaited with the secrets of nature, I have had too gratify my curiosity herein through my own assiduous application to astronomical study, in which I need not to recount to you the many difficulties and disadvantages which I have had to encounter.

     And although I had almost declined to make my calculation for the ensuing year, in consequence of that time which I had allotted therefor being taken up at the Federal Territory by the request of Mr. Andrew Ellicott, yet finding myself under several engagements to printers of this state, to whom I had communicated my design, on my return to my place of residence I industriously applied myself thereto which I hope I have accomplished with correctness and accuracy, a copy of which I have taken the liberty to direct to you and which I humbly request you will favourably receive.  Although you may have the opportunity of perusing it after its publication yet I chose to send it to you in manyscript previous thereto that you might not only have an earlier inspection but that you might also view it in my own handwriting.

     And now, sir, I shall conclude and subscribe myself, with the most profound respect, your most obedient humble servant,

                                                                                                                               B. Banneker