What Was Benjamin Banneker’s Letter to Thomas Jefferson?

Benjamin Banneker’s letter to Thomas Jefferson, written in 1791 when Jefferson was Secretary of State, argues that Jefferson should abandon his pro-slavery stance and support the abolition of slavery. Banneker, a free African-American astronomer, mathematician, scientist and writer, published his letter and Jefferson’s response in a 1793 almanac.

In his letter, Banneker argues against Jefferson’s hypocrisy, as a framer of the Declaration of Independence, in supporting and continuing the institution of slavery while also claiming that “all men are created equal.” Banneker’s polemic calling for the abolition of slavery gained him the support of abolitionist societies in Maryland and Pennsylvania, which in turn helped him publish a series of almanacs.

Almost entirely self-educated, Banneker is most noted for his series of almanacs, published from 1791 to 1797, which contained his astronomical calculations, editorial pieces, literature, and medical and tidal information. Banneker also collaborated with Major Andrew Ellicott, an American surveyor, to survey and map out the new national capital, Washington, D.C. The son of Robert, an African slave who purchased his freedom, and Mary Banneky, daughter of an Englishwoman and a freed African slave, Banneker grew up on his family’s farm, which he eventually inherited. Banneker was born Nov. 9, 1731 and died Oct. 9, 1806.