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Biography of Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker, the Negro astronomer and scientist, was born in Baltimore County, near Ellicott's Mills, on the 9th of November, 1732. Banneker's grandmother was a white woman, Mary Welch, who was sent out from England, and, who, having served her master for seven years, purchased a farm and two black slaves. One of these slaves she married. Benjamin seems to have been quite a favorite of his grandmother who taught him how to read. About the same time there was a "pay school" in the neighborhood to which a few colored children were admitted. A part of Benjamin's education was secured in this school.

Very early in life Banneker showed fondness for mechanical knowledge. He became much interested in the construction of the Mills which were then being erected nearby. Mr. George Ellicott was very much drawn towards Banneker, and gave him the use of his library, and such mechanical tools as were available. In 1754, Banneker constructed a clock, which not only told the time of day, but struck the hour. Through correspondence, Banneker became acquainted with scientific men in all parts of the world. Upon invitation of the Commissioner, he assisted in the laying out of the District of Columbia. After his return from this work, in 1791, he got out his first almanac, for the year 1792. Before it went to press, he sent a manuscript copy to Thomas Jefferson, seeking to interest Mr. Jefferson in the freedom of the slave. The letter is here given, together with the reply which it elicited from Mr. Jefferson:

Maryland, Baltimore County
Near Ellicott's Lower Mills
August 19, 1791

To Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, Philadelphia:

Sir: I am fully sensible of the greatness of that freedom which I take on the present occasion, a liberty, which to me scarcely allowable, when I reflect on that distinguished and honorable station in which you stand, and the almost general prejudice and prepossession which is prevalent 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 labored under the abuse and censure of the world, that we have long been considered rather brutish, than as human: and scarcely capable of mental endowments.

Sir, I hope I may with safety admit, in consequence of that report which hath reached me, that you are a man far less inflexible in sentiments of this nature than many others; that you are measurably friendly, and ready to lend your aid and assistance to our relief, from the many distresses and numerous calamities to which we are reduced. Now, Sir, if this is founded in truth I apprehend you will embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions, which so generally prevail 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, but that He hath also, without partiality, afforded us all the same sensations, and that, however variable we may be in society and religion, however diversified in situation and color, we are all of the same family and stand in the same relation to Him.

Sir, if these sentiments, of which you have long been persuaded fully, I hope you cannot but acknowledge that it is the indispensable 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, from whatever burden or oppression they unjustly labor under; and this I apprehend a full conviction of the truth and obligation of these principles should lead us all to.

Sir, I have long been convinced that if your love for yourselves and for those inestimable laws which preserve to you the rights of human nature, was founded on sincerity, you could not but be solicitous that every individual, of whatever distinction might enjoy equally with you the blessings thereof; neither could you rest satisfied short of the most active diffusion of your exertions, in order to their promotion from any state of degradation to which the unjustifiable cruelty and barbarism of men may have reduced them.

Sir, I freely and cheerfully acknowledge that I am of the African race; and, in that color 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 that state of tyrannical thralldom and inhuman captivity to which too many of my brethren are doomed; but that I have abundantly tasted of the fruition of those blessings which proceed from that free and unequal liberty with which you are favored, and which I hope you will willingly allow you have received from the immediate Hand of that Being from whom proceedeth "every good and perfect gift."

Sir, suffer me to call 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, to 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 peculiar 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 just apprehensions of the horrors of its condition; it was now. Sir that your abhorrence thereof was so excited that you publicly held forth this true and invaluable doctrine, which is worthy to be recorded and remembered 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 inalienable rights, that amongst these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Here, Sir, was a time in which your tender feelings for yours engaged you thus to declare; you were then impressed with a proper idea of the just valuation of liberty, and the free possession of those blessings to which you were entitled by nature, but Sir, how pitiable it is 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 numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and 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.

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 recommending to you, and to 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 shall you I need neither the direction of myself nor others in what manner to proceed therein.

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

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

And though I had almost declined to make my calculations for the ensuing year, in consequence of the time I had allotted thereto, 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: address to you, and which I hope you will favorably receive, and although you may have the opportunity of perusing it after its publication, yet I choose to send it to you in manuscript previous thereto, that thereby you might not only have an earlier inspection, but that you might; also view it in my own hand writing.

And now. Sir, I shall conclude, and subscribe myself with the most profound respect.
Your most obedient, humble servant,
B. Banneker

To Mr. Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State:

Mr. Jefferson at once replied and said:
"Sir : I thank you sincerely for your letter and the Almanac it contained." Nobody wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit that Nature has given to our black brethren talent 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."

 Maryland Biographies | Maryland AHGP

Source: Gazetteer of Maryland, by Henry Gannett, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1904.

 

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