Which Black Man Told Jefferson He Was Racist?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Many schools bear his name, but his legacy is poorly understood.

Illustration of Benjamin Banneker; U.S. President Thomas Jefferson Library of Congress; Wikimedia Commons

As with Banneker’s clock, there are amazing stories about those first surveys of what would become Washington, D.C., but not all of them ring true. One of the more popular stories is that that architect Pierre L’Enfant, angry with the Washington administration, withheld the only existing plan for the city, and all would have been lost to history had Banneker not miraculously recreated it from memory. According to historians at the Smithsonian, however, by the time L’Enfant abandoned the project, the Washington administration had drawn up its own plan based on L’Enfant’s, without giving him credit. Again, it’s important not to be distracted by what Banneker didn’t do. While he may not have saved Washington, the city, from memory, the fact that a largely self-taught black man worked as a surveyor’s assistant for the Washington administration is astonishing when you consider that four out of the first five U.S. presidents were slaveowners.

That Benjamin’s Almanac?

After Ellicott and Banneker completed their work, Banneker returned to Maryland to pursue another dream: publishing an almanac. The primary purpose of an almanac back then was to provide readers (mainly farmers) with a calendar and compendium of astronomical information and weather predictions. Among the more popular almanacs in Banneker’s America was Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, launched in 1732. 

Rejected by three different publishers, Banneker almost gave up until his idea attracted attention from Pennsylvania abolitionists who saw in the project an opportunity to present a powerful argument against slavery in the form of free and quite literate black man. Banneker’s first almanac, published in 1792, was reviewed and approved by scientist David Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse was the first director of the U.S. Mint (as well as president of the American Philosophical Society, and a renowned scientist and clockmaker in his own right praised by Thomas Jefferson as a “genius” in his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia).

Banneker and Jefferson

If only Jefferson had stopped at praising Rittenhouse in his Notes instead of making disparaging, essentialist claims about the black race’s “much inferior” capacity for reason. 

Because of those claims, in August 1791 Banneker sent Thomas Jefferson an advance copy with a letter urging the then Secretary of State to “embrace every opportunity, to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinion, which so generally prevails with respect to us”—meaning, black men. Banneker then reminded the sage of Monticello of his authorship of the American creed, “ ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ ” only to point out his contradictory actions “detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression,” so “that you [Jefferson] should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.” When I read this admonishment of Jefferson by Banneker, I paused to read it a second and third time. Banneker was no stranger to powerful white men, but these were incredibly direct words to put to the writer of the Declaration of Independence. In essence, he was accusing Jefferson of failing to live up to his own expressed ideals or, worse, hypocrisy.

Banneker had his reasons. In Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, the same notes in which Jefferson praised David Rittenhouse as a genius, he stated that, “the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” Jefferson then went on to argue that “this unfortunate difference of color, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.” Reading these lines, it is no wonder Banneker felt perturbed, and, perhaps given the affirmation he had received from Rittenhouse, compelled to assert himself as the living proof that unraveled Jefferson’s so-called science.

Jefferson’s response? I thought he would have ignored Banneker, but to my surprise, he responded, noncommittally, in a letter of his own on Aug. 30, 1791. In it he wrote, “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 colors of men; and that the appearance of the want of them, is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America.”

Jefferson promised to send Banneker’s almanac on to one of his contacts in Paris. Privately, however, he gave a more negative assessment in a separate letter, confiding to his friend Joel Barlow in 1809, “we know he [Banneker] had spherical geometry 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 a mind of very common stature indeed” (as quoted in Benjamin Quarles’ The Negro in the American Revolution). Perhaps Jefferson failed in that moment to appreciate that scholars like Quarles would one day come along and, in evaluating both letters, discover Banneker was right about the hypocrisy part.