Copy of a Letter from Benjamin Banneker, to the Secretary of State, with his Answer

An Electronic Edition ยท Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

Original Source: Copy of a letter from Benjamin Banneker to the secretary of state, with his answer.Printed and sold by Daniel Lawrence, no. 33. North Fourth-Street, near Race. Philadelphia 1792

Copyright 2003. This text is freely available provided the text is distributed with the header information provided

Full Colophon Information




I AM fully sensible of the greatness of that freedom, which
I take with you on the present occasion ; 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 prevalent in the world against those of my complexion. 1.

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 looked upon with an eye of
contempt ; and that we have long been considered rather as brutish than human,
and scarcely capable of mental endowments.2.

Sir, I hope I may safely 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 well disposed towards us ; and that you are willing and ready to lend your
aid and assistance to our relief, from those many distresses, and numerous
calamities, to which we are reduced. 3.

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 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, but that he hath also, without partiality, afforded us all
the same sensations and endowed us all with the same faculties ; and that
however variable we may be in society or religion, however diversified in
situation or color, 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
persuaded, I hope you cannot but acknowledge, that it is the indispensible duty
of those, who maintain for themselves the rights of human nature, and who
possess 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 may unjustly labor under ; and this, I apprehend, a full conviction of the
truth and obligation of these principles should lead all to. 4.

Sir, I have long
been convinced, that if your love for yourselves, and for those inestimable
laws, which preserved to you the rights of human nature, was founded on
sincerity, you could not but be solicitous, that every individual, of whatever
rank or distinction, might with you equally enjoy the blessings thereof ;
neither could you rest satisfied short of the most active effusion 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 thraldom, 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 unequalled liberty with which you
are favored ; and which, I hope, you will willingly allow you have mercifully
received, from the immediate hand of that Being, from whom proceedeth every
good and perfect Gift. 5.

Sir, suffer me to recal 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
peculiar blessing of Heaven.6.

This, Sir, was a time when you cleary 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 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 ; that they are
endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these
are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Here 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 violation 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 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

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 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 soul in their souls’ stead ;” thus shall your hearts be enlarged
with kindness and benevolence towards them; and thus shall 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 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 succeeding year, I was unexpectedly
and unavoidably led thereto.8.

This calculation is the production of my arduous study, in
this my advanced stage of life ; for having long had unbounded desires to
become acquainted with the secrets of nature, I have had to gratify my
curiosity herein, through my own assiduous application to Astronomical Study,
in which I need not recount to you the many difficulties and disadvantages,
which I have had to encounter. 9.

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 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.10.

And now, Sir, I shall conclude, and subscribe myself, with
the most profound respect, Your most obedient humble servant, 11.


To Mr. BENJAMIN BANNEKER. Philadelphia, August 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 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. 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 and mind, to what it ought to be, as far as the imbecility of their
present existence, and other circumstances, which cannot be neglected, will
admit. 12.

I have taken the liberty of sending your Almanac to
Monsieur de Condozett, 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 color had a right for their justification, against the doubts
which have been entertained of them.13.

I am with great esteem, Sir, Your most obedient Humble


Full Colophon Information

Genre: Prose
Subjects: race, slavery
Period: 1750-1800
Location: Chesapeake
Format: Letter

This text was first published in 1792 in Philadelphia.

The text of the present edition was prepared from and proofed against Copy of a letter from Benjamin Banneker to the secretary of state, with his answer (Printed and sold by Daniel Lawrence, no. 33. North Fourth-Street, near Race. Philadelphia 1792). All preliminaries have been omitted except those for which the authors are responsible. Line and paragraph numbers contained in the source text have been retained. In cases where the source text displays no numbers, numbers are automatically generated. In the header, personal names have been regularized according to the Library of Congress authority files as "Last Name, First Name" for the REG attribute and "First Name Last Name" for the element value. Names have not been regularized in the body of the text.