From: Tim Patterson
Time: 9:43:41 PM
Remote Name: 188.8.131.52
Who was Benjamin Banneker and why did Thomas Jefferson write this letter to him in August, 1791? What does it tell us about Jefferson's own attitudes on this subject at that time?
Benjamin Banneker was a free black man living in the time of the Revolutionary War. He is considered the first African-American inventor and did a lot with his life. He grew up on a farm and attended an elementary school run by Quakers. At a young age he was given a pocket watch which fascinated him greatly. He reproduced this watch in wood and it kept perfect time for forty years. This led Banneker to other scientific studies, including the design of a farm which fed U.S. troops during the Revolutionary War, predicted an eclipse and published his own Farmerís Almanac. He also reproduced the plans for Washington D.C. from memory, after L'Enfant left the job. His Farmerís Almanac won him international fame and he used this notability to promote the status of African-Americans. Banneker had written Thomas Jefferson a letter and included a copy of one of his almanacs in order to show Jefferson that blacks were equal to white in their ability to achieve and succeed. This was an important issue to Banneker and it would seem from his response that it was an important issue to Jefferson as well. Jefferson was so impressed with Bannekerís case against slavery that he wrote Banneker in thanks and to tell him that he passed his almanac on to Monsieur de Condozett, Secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, and a member of the Philanthropic Society. Jefferson also shows his admiration for Bannekerís wit and logic. Jefferson was a slave holder himself and Banneker wrote to point out the contradictions in the Declaration of Independence and his own life. Jefferson takes a passive attitude in this issue. Rather than directly address the issue of slavery to Banneker he simply passes the letter on for a man in the scientific community to examine. And while Jefferson shows a concern for the issue in his letter, he makes no political or personal move to change the way things were. He was in the position to do so, but he didnít act probably out of fear for social alienation or loosing support from the voting body of the Southern states. This isnít a justification for his actions (or lack thereof) but simply a reasoning. Jefferson was touched by the letter and it showed in his thoughtful response. His response, however, did nothing to change things.