Benjamin Banneker, First Black American Intellectual: Part 2, Benjamin’s Abolitionist Almanac

Herein shall we continue the story of Benjamin Banneker, surveyor, farmer, astronomer, polymath, and noted abolitionist. Be sure to read Part One, the history of Banneker’s family and his acquisition of mathematical knowledge.

Benjamin Banneker was nearly sixty when he hit upon the idea of publishing an almanac of natural information. As a farmer, he had kept copious notes, documenting the practices of bees and noting the 17-year cycle of cicadas. Unmarried, he worked his land mostly alone, though he still chatted with his neighbor, George Ellicott. One day, Ellicott brought over a telescope. It turned Banneker’s last two decades into a whirlwind of calculation, publication, and provocation. It would make him famous again for a brief time. He would also poke the hornet’s nest.

“Do you have an answer, Ben?” the schoolmaster’s voice barked out. Startled, Ben looked up and scanned the class, faces turned to stare and giggle. “What is 23 by 7?” Without any calculation, Ben replied, “14 in the tens place and 21 which is 161.” Still, he had not been paying attention. The master picked up the book that had absorbed his young pupil, Newton’s Principia. “I’m sorry, sir,” Ben said. “I forgot to ask if I could…” The master squinted but tried to suppress a grin. “Practicing your Latin?” “Yes, sir. Perhaps you could explain this part … ‘precession of the equinoxes…'”

Alone with a Telescope

In 1788, Benjamin at 57 had continued to eke out a small harvest of apples and wheat, even as the Ellicott Mills and other larger farms had grown around him. His minor celebrity status as a clock maker had died down a bit, although the clock still kept time and the occasional passerby poked his head in to gawk. The Revolution had come and gone. The War had come and gone, too.

Twenty years ago, when the first rifles had fired in Lexington and Concord, Banneker had been hopeful. There was talk of liberty and equality which seemed to mean everyone. Banneker’s mother and grandmother had fought hard for their own liberty, for their husband’s and their children’s freedom. It must have seemed an arbitrary thing, to be chained to a plow after being kidnapped from your country or because a magistrate said you were a thief. But since the war had ended and the first Articles of Confederation were signed, his hoped had faded. It irked him especially that the men who had led the fight had spoke so much of equality for all mankind, but had done nothing about those in shackles when the fight was over, had in fact kept their own human property.

Banneker retreated to focus his daily occupations on what was inside his books. When George Ellicott brought over both a telescope and Ferguson’s Astronomy, had found a new passion in the night sky. It helped him think about heaven. Between Ferguson and the Bible, he had all he needed.

Measuring the Heavens

Nowadays, the word “almanac” conjures up reference books with “sports feats” and world records, not the dates of the first frost. With Internet data now at our fingertips, it’s hard to imagine how important such a guide would have been in the eighteenth century. But, back then, it was the closest thing farmers had to a weather forecast.

The almanac would include the phases of the moon, the dates for the equinoxes and solstices, and tidal information. The movements of the planets, which likely took Banneker the most time to create, might have had less impact on the planting season than the moon and sun. But he sent off his first ephemeris–the list of all the planets, dates, and positions– by the middle of 1790. The first two publishers rejected him, but the third was an abolitionist. Intrigued, that publisher forwarded the data to Andrew Ellicott, who also published an almanac and happened to be George’s cousin. However, one month turned into another, and by the time Andrew had verified Benjamin’s calculations, it was too late to publish a 1791 almanac.

Banneker was disappointed, but immediately began running calculations for the year 1792. He planned to reference two eclipses, the Chesapeake tides, and all the months for the ephemeris. Almanacs were well-thumbed documents, so he would also need additional material–postal prices perhaps and handy proverbs. He was well aware of the famous Poor Richard’s version, where Ben Franklin had thrown in dozens of country sayings and now was credited with them as author. He could do the same. Cures for cankers, remedies for corns, and a few stories would fill it out.

Up All Night in Alexandria

While Banneker was renewing his attempts at publication, Andrew Ellicott had just received a new offer. Work was beginning on the design for capital of the new United States, and Ellicott had been tapped for the survey team. He asked Banneker to join him. Since the older man was already gathering observations at night, he would be perfect to collect the evening star data that would verify Andrew’s time pieces. Those time calculations were vital to establish latitude and positioning.

Banneker was asked to go to Alexandria, Virginia to help the survey team. He wasn’t keen on the idea. Free Blacks had been captured and enslaved when they strayed far from their northern homes. But he went to help out Andrew and the team. They were friendly and even asked him to share their meals, but he was deferential and careful, ate by himself. In time, they produced their map, but Banneker had gone home by then, happy to leave what he viewed as a danger zone.

Andrew Ellicott’s original map for Washington DC, Library of Congress

Benjamin yawned, still sleepy even though it was nearly nine in the morning. Years of early rising as a farmer kept him from staying in bed too long, even though he still charged the heavens until hours past midnight. He peered out at the orchard, wondering if any of the fruit was left to harvest, but those damn’d boys had stripped his trees nearly bare the last few weeks. He saw a cloud of dust out on the road–one of them coming back? No, it was a nephew or was it great-nephew now? There was Zeke’s voice, “Old Ben! Old Ben!” Yesterday’s post from town perhaps. But why was Zeke running? “You got a letter. It’s from Washington!”

Speaking Truth to Power

After he returned from helping with the survey of DC, Banneker was delighted to find that he had garnered a publisher for his 1792 almanac. Goddard and Angell agreed to publish it, in fact, boldly proclaimed in their preface that the guidebook was produced by “a free Negro.” There is a whiff of condescension and “freak-showism” in their description of how Banneker, who they say was born to all-African parents and grandparents, learned math when “liberally educated” whites did not. Perhaps they were hoping curiosity would spur reader interest; whatever the reason, the almanac sold very well.

Banneker’s notoriety then rose for a second reason. In August 1791, perhaps emboldened by his positive interaction with the survey team, Benjamin Banneker wrote a letter to Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson.

…. Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that altho 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 your Selves…

Excerpt from Banneker’s August 1791 letter to Thomas Jefferson.

The letter was cordial and respectful, punctuated with Banneker’s neat handwriting. But as he worked his way into the topic, the middle pulled no punches, asking Jefferson to account for his own hypocrisy in claiming that all were created equal while still keeping slaves. With the letter, Banneker enclosed a copy of his 1792 almanac.

Jefferson did respond, in a manner familiar to politician. He placated but suggested no real action. He flattered Banneker by saying “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 colours of men…” He praised the almanac and promised to send it to the Marquis de Condorcet, president of the French Society of Sciences. He warmly extolled Banneker’s virtue as a testament to his race. Yours obed. etc. etc. T. Jefferson.

Jefferson did send the almanac to France, but it is unclear whether it was ever received. Condorcet was in the middle of the French Revolution, shortly to be arrested during the Reign of Terror. Still, Banneker published the entire exchange, his original letter and the reply, in his 1793 almanac. Others took note and republished the interaction, and the Jefferson-Banneker correspondence gained a life of its own.

In 1809, long after Jefferson’s had left the presidency and even after Banneker had himself died, the Virginia wrote in less flattering terms about the whole thing. In a letter to a political colleague, whether annoyed at Banneker’s boldness or piqued that it had required notoriety, he scoffed at Banneker’s intellect.

…we know ourselves of Banneker. we know he had spherical trigonometry enough to make almanacs, but not without the suspicion of aid from Ellicott, who was his neighbor & friend, & never missed an opportunity of puffing him. I have a long letter from Banneker which shews him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed…

Jefferson’s 1809 comment on the Banneker interaction in a letter to Joel Barlow

The Abolitionist Almanac

In 1792, however, Banneker did not know or care what Jefferson thought of him. With a published almanac and a letter from a Great Man under his belt, he prepared his 1793 almanac. This time, instead of a miscellaneous collection of proverbs and stories, this one would have a theme: Peace and the End of Slavery.

The 1793 almanac is an extraordinary document, indeed, especially placed side by side with Poor Richard’s or even Banneker’s 1792 version. Instead of homilies and stories of the “Old Grey Mare,” in between the eclipses and the sidereal calculations, Banneker proposes the government add a new department of Peace. If there could be a Secretary of War, then there should be a Secretary of Peace.

Next, the prayer for peace transforms to a plea for abolition. Banneker reprints William Pitt’s speech in Parliament that advocated for the British end to slavery and quotes a Greek philosopher about the horrors of war and need for peace. Then, there is a poem that advocates liberty, another speech on abolition, and a final poem asking to end the abuse of Africans. The last half includes tables of interest rates, road distances, and a list of Supreme Court justices. It is a handy reference guide infused with urgent requests for help in ending enslavement, persuasively framed in classical rhetoric.

Nearly every short recap on Benjamin Banneker’s life mentions his exchange with Jefferson. Very few of them mention that his widely distributed almanac was filled with abolitionist sentiments. The encyclopedia entries don’t mention what Rachel Webster’s biography and other longer works do–that even before he wrote to Washington, he was subject to constant harassment, death threats, and other disturbances.

27th Aug. 1797. Standing at the door, I heard a discharge of a gun, and in four or five seconds of time the small shots came rattling about me, one or two of which struck the house; which plainly demonstrates that the velocity of sound is greater than that of a cannon-bullet.

From Banneker’s own journal, quoted in an 1863 article about him

Lies, Damn Lies, and History

Time and ash have wiped away much of the details around Benjamin Banneker’s life. He died in 1806, age 74, possibly from too much alcohol. His final almanac was completed in 1797. He was said to have kept many journals, but the majority of those were lost in the mysterious fire that burned his cabin down during his funeral.

An 1863 article in Atlantic Monthly holds up Benjamin Banneker as a shining example of his race. Along with his accomplishment, the author mentions that Banneker had noted in his 1790 journal that “_______stole his horse, coat, and threatened to murder him.” It reprints another note from his journal about gunshots, marveling at his scientific mind. The author doesn’t seem to find it startling that a free man would be subject to constant harassment.

It’s hard also not to notice on Banneker’s wikipedia page–of which I made liberal use for these posts–there are more pictures of aristocratic white men than of Banneker himself. It is a variation on a theme. Half of what is written about him involves Thomas Jefferson. Much of the other half is contradicted elsewhere. Apparently, in the zeal to reclaim some African Americans in textbooks in the mid-1980s, an Oregon company produced mateiral which invented contributions. Some of those exaggerations are still floating around.

Benjamin Banneker did not create America’s first clock. He did not directly help L’Enfant survey Washington, nor did he step in when L’Enfant left the project. He was not necessarily respectful to Thomas Jefferson, and Jefferson was perhaps not as impressed with him as was suggested. Banneker was overlooked–is still overlooked–but his accomplishments are admirable enough. Exaggeration makes all of the facts suspect. Despite having his papers burned, despite the difficulty of getting published, despite the disdain showered on him by everyone from Jefferson to the neighbor boys, Benjamin Banneker’s brilliance still shows through the blurry glass of centuries past.

George Ellicott finished roping in the first load on his wagon. He had his Ferguson’s back, now that Ben’s death made it available. A few more books and a journal were tucked in the back, but the majority of Ben’s journals would have to wait. George wanted to take the good writing table, which Ben had promised to him, and that filled most of the space. He didn’t want to risk the clock by tying it on top, for fear it might topple off. He would get the clock and papers tomorrow, after the funeral was over. There would be plenty of time.

3 Replies to “Benjamin Banneker, First Black American Intellectual: Part 2, Benjamin’s Abolitionist Almanac”

  1. Makes me feel like keys were missing in my background; calculating the movements of tides and planets isn’t something about which I feel like I have the first clue. Looking through the course catalog of the nearby high school, it appeared classes were available to approach matters like this when a few of my sons were there. But the kids (headed for college) are “supposed” to take other things. Of course I missed out on how each astrological sign corresponds to parts of the human body, too. And it took me quite a while to catch on that men like Washington and Jefferson meant something else by “people” than they should’ve — caught up in esoterica and arrogance.

    1. Totally agree–understanding the planets was considered astrology…which I studied on my own and is fascinating. But tides? ecocycles? Would have been useful. Sixth grade astronomy maybe. And then learning that Founding Fathers were human beings who were sometimes petty, petulant, deceitful, and compromising. Still made contributions to history; I’m not ready to throw out everything Jefferson did either. I’ve read that Harriet Tubman could be unpleasantly stubborn. Maybe keep people’s achievements in perspective. Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful commentary!

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