Often regarded as the founding father of America, the former American president is credited for playing one of the most significant roles in abolishing slavery. However, new reports are changing the long-held perceptions of the American leader – who among many things, appears to have been a slave master and racist.
With five simple words in the Declaration of Independence—“all men are created equal”—Thomas Jefferson overruled Aristotle’s principles on humanity. Today, Jefferson’s words form the foundation of modern America and are often adopted in the fight against racism; but did Thomas Jefferson practice what he preached?
Until 1776, the world was governed by Aristotle’s famous declaration that “from the hour of their birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” Thomas Jefferson is credited for creating a new order with the Declaration of Independence. But a 1791 letter from Benjamin Banneker to Thomas Jefferson – fifteen years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, prove that Thomas Jefferson remained a slave owner with racial ideologies.
According to reports, a part of Jefferson’s input in the draft of the declaration of independence was omitted from the final copy. Critics argue that the aim of Jefferson and the other leaders in drafting the document was to call upon the enslaved to rise and fight to protect America’s independence.
Jefferson was a lifelong enslaver. He inherited enslaved black people; he fathered enslaved black children, and he relied on enslaved black people for his livelihood and comfort. He openly speculated that black people were inferior to white people and continually advocated for their removal from the country.
In 1791, Benjamin Banneker, a free black mathematician, scientist, astronomer, and surveyor, argued against this mind-set when he wrote to Jefferson, then secretary of state, urging him to correct his “narrow prejudices” and to “eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions, which so generally prevails with respect to us.”
Banneker also condemned Jefferson’s slaveholding in his letter and included a manuscript of his almanac, which would be printed the following year. Jefferson was unconvinced of the intelligence of African-Americans, and in his swift reply only noted that he welcomed “such proofs as you exhibit” of black people with “talents equal to those of the other colours of men.”
Critics believe that Thomas Jefferson remains a controversial figure who preached with his mouth what he did not believe in his heart. Benjamin Banneker’s letter is perhaps the most significant evidence that paints Thomas Jefferson in his true colours.
Take a look for yourself.
To: Thomas Jefferson from Benjamin Banneker, August 19th 1791 From: Benjamin Banneker Maryland. Baltimore County, Near Ellicott’s Lower Mills August 19th, 1791
Sir, I am fully sensible of the greatness of that freedom which I take with you on the present occasion; 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. I suppose it is a truth too well attested to you, to need proof here, that we are a race of beings who have long laboured under the abuse and censure of the world, that we have long been looked upon with an eye of contempt, and1 that we have long been considered rather as brutish than human, and Scarcely capable of mental endowments. 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 toward 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. Now Sir if this is founded in truth, I apprehend you will readily 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 endued us all with the same faculties, and that however variable we may be in Society or religion, however, diversified in situation or colour, 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 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 burthen or oppression they may unjustly labour under, and this I apprehend a full conviction of the truth and obligation of these principles should lead all to. Sir, I have long been convinced, that if your love for your Selves, 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 whatsoever rank or distinction, might with you equally enjoy 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 colour 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 unequalled liberty with which you are favoured and which I hope you will willingly allow you have received from the immediate hand of that Being, from whom proceeded every good and perfect gift. Sir, Suffer me to recall to your mind that time in which the Arms and tyranny of the British Crown were exerted with every great effort 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 tranquillity 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 of being 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 unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Here Sir was a time in which your tender feelings for your selves had engaged you thus to declare, you were then impressed with proper ideas of the high valuation 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 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 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 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 all others, to wean yourselves from these 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 toward them, and therefore 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 candour and generosity will plead with you in my behalf when I make known to you, that it was not originally my design; but that having taken up my pen 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. This calculation, Sir, 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 to recount to you the many difficulties and disadvantages which I have had to encounter. 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 taking 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 favourably receive, and although you may have the opportunity of perusing it after its publication, yet I chose 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 my Self with the most profound respect your most Obedient humble Servant, Benjamin Banneker