Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806)

Biography

A portrait of Benjamin Banneker on the cover of his Farmers Almanac - circa 1795
A portrait of Benjamin Banneker on the cover of his Farmers Almanac - circa 1795. Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker was a self-educated scientist, astronomer, inventor, writer, and antislavery publicist. He built a striking clock entirely from wood, published a Farmers' Almanac, and actively campaigned against slavery. He was one of the first African Americans to gain distinction in science.

Family Background

On November 9 1731, Benjamin Banneker was born in Ellicott's Mills, Maryland. He was the descendent of slaves, however, Banneker was born a freeman.

At that time the law dictated that if your mother was a slave then you were a slave, and if she was a freewomen then you were a free person. Banneker's grandmother, Molly Walsh was a bi-racial English immigrant and indentured servant who married an African slave named Banna Ka, who had been brought to the Colonies by a slave trader. Molly had served seven years as an indentured servant before she acquired and worked on her own small farm. Molly Walsh purchased her future husband Banna Ka and another African to work on her farm. The name Banna Ka was later changed to Bannaky and then changed to Banneker. Benjamin's mother Mary Banneker was born free. Benjamin's father Rodger was a former slave who had bought his own freedom before marrying Mary.

Education and Skills

Benjamin Banneker was educated by Quakers, however, most of his education was self-taught. He quickly revealed to the world his inventive nature and first achieved national acclaim for his scientific work in the 1791 survey of the Federal Territory (now Washington, D.C.).

In 1753, he built one of the first watches made in America, a wooden pocket watch. Twenty years later, Banneker began making astronomical calculations that enabled him to successfully forecast a 1789 solar eclipse. His estimate made well in advance of the celestial event, contradicted predictions of better-known mathematicians and astronomers.

Banneker's mechanical and mathematical abilities impressed many, including Thomas Jefferson who encountered Banneker after George Elliot had recommended him for the surveying team that laid out Washington D.C.

Farmers' Almanacs

Banneker is best known for his six annual Farmers' Almanacs published between 1792 and 1797. In his free time, Banneker began compiling the Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Almanac and Ephemeris. The almanacs included information on medicines and medical treatment, and listed tides, astronomical information, and eclipses, all calculated by Banneker himself.

Letter to Thomas Jefferson

On August 19 1791, Banneker sent a copy of his first almanac to secretary of state Thomas Jefferson. In an enclosed letter, he questioned the slaveholder's sincerity as a "friend to liberty." He urged Jefferson to help get rid of "absurd and false ideas" that one race is superior to another. He wished Jefferson's sentiments to be the same as his, that "one Universal Father . . . afforded us all the same sensations and endowed us all with the same faculties." Jefferson responded with praise for Banneker's accomplishments.

Benjamin Banneker died on October 25, 1806.

< Introduction Benjamin Banneker's Biography

Benjamin Banneker's Letter to Thomas Jefferson
Maryland, Baltimore County, August 19 1791

Sir,
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.

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.

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. 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 indispensable 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.

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 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 favored ; and which, I hope, you will willingly allow you have mercifully 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 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 expose; 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.

Continue letter >

< Letter begins

This, Sir, was a time when 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 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 yourselves.

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.

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.

And although I had almost declined to make my calculation for the ensuing year, in consequence of that time which I had allotted therefore, 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.

And now, Sir, I shall conclude, and subscribe myself, with the most profound respect,

Your most obedient humble servant,

Benjamin Banneker

Continue > Thomas Jefferson's Response

< Introduction Benjamin Banneker's Biography

View full-size image of the actual handwritten letter.

Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Banneker
Philadelphia Aug. 30. 1791.

Sir,

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 colours of men, & that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & 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 & mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecillity of their present existence, and other circumstance which cannot be neglected, will admit. I have taken the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet, 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 colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them. I am with great esteem, Sir,

Your most obedt. humble servt.
Th. Jefferson

By definition an almanac is "a book containing a calendar of a given year, with a record of various astronomical phenomena, often with weather prognostications, seasonal suggestions for farmers, and other information - Britannica"

Many historians consider that the first printed almanac dates to 1457 and was printed by Gutenberg in Mentz, Germany.

Early Farmers' Almanacs

An Almanack for New England for 1639, was compiled by William Pierce and printed by Stephen Daye in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the year-old Harvard University Press. This was the first American almanac and Stephen Daye brought the first printing press to the English colonies.

Benjamin Franklin published the Poor Richard's Almanacs beginning in 1732 to 1758. Benjamin Franklin used the assumed name of Richard Saunders and wrote witty maxims (sayings) in his almanacs; for example:

  • Light purse, heavy heart
  • Hunger never saw bad bread.
  • Relation without friendship, friendship without power, power without will, will without effect, effect without profit, & profit without vertue, are not worth a farto.

One of the earliest dual-color illustrated almanacs (1749), Der Hoch-Deutsch Americanische Kalender was printed in Germantown, Pennsylvania, by Christoph Saur. Saur's publication was the first foreign-language almanac printed in the United States.

Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker is best known for his six annual Farmers' Almanacs published between 1792 and 1797. In his free time, Banneker began compiling the Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Almanac and Ephemeris. The almanacs included information on medicines and medical treatment, and listed tides, astronomical information, and eclipses, all calculated by Banneker himself.

Old Farmer's Almanac

The Old Farmer's Almanac (still in publication today) was originally published in 1792. Robert Thomas was the Old Farmer's Almanac's first editor and owner. Within three years circulation had raised from 3,000 to 9,000 and the cost of a Old Farmer's Almanac was about nine cents. On an interesting note, Robert Thomas only added the word "Old" to the title in 1832 and then promptly removed it. However in 1848, two years after his death, the new editor and owner put the word "Old" back.

Farmers' Almanac

Also still in publication, the Farmers' Almanac was founded by editor David Young and publisher Jacob Mann in 1818. David Young was editor until his death in 1852, when an astronomer named Samuel Hart Wright become his successor and calculated the astronomy and weather forecasts. Now, according to the Farmers' Almanac, the Almanac has become more guarded with its famous weather predicting formula and created "Caleb Weatherbee," a pseudonym that is given to all past, present, and future Almanac weather forecasters.

Farmers' Almanac - Further Research