Firebell in the Night

[Excerpted from The Riddle of Racism by S. Carl Hirsch (pp. 14–17)]

By the year 1791, Thomas Jefferson had become Secretary of State.  He worked in cramped, temporary quarters in Philadelphia.  That year his interest in science brought him a new and disquieting look at the black man.

The Virginian was now deep into endless problems which beset the young government.  One big project was the nation’s new capital now being planned in the wilderness area which was to become Washington, D.C.  Jefferson had employed as a surveyor of the site a free Negro named Benjamin Banneker, a Maryland farmer with some astounding talents.

The Secretary of State was attracted to Banneker as a man whose interests were much like his own.  An amateur inventor and scientist, Banneker had never had Jefferson’s educational opportunities.  And yet the black man had become an acknowledged master of higher mathematics and astronomy.

To the Secretary’s desk in August 1791 came a bulky package from Benjamin Banneker, the manuscript of an almanac he had written—a book of scientific and practical value, containing much vital information.  Amazed and delighted, Jefferson leafed through the calculations and the motions of heavenly bodies, tides, eclipses, the risings and settings of the sun, as well as weather predictions, the listing of tables, important public dates, and other useful facts.

Banneker’s Almanac was to become a standard reference work, sold through America and the world, published annually in large editions.  Jefferson was elated to receive an advance copy.  He was less pleased with the letter that came with the manuscript.

“I am of the African race,” the writher affirmed proudly.  Banneker went on to say what troubled him—Jefferson’s inconsistent record of public declarations and private deeds with regard to Negroes.

A quiet and modest man, Banneker addressed Jefferson with respect, and even admiration.  He had heard of Jefferson’s dislike of slavery.  But he urged hat the Virginian now throw off “that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions” which white men hold toward blacks.

This appeal went right to the core of the contradiction that pulled Jefferson in two opposing directions.  Banneker urged that the great American patriot look back to the years when the struggle against British rule brought Jefferson into open conflict with those who held others in the grip of tyranny and injustice.  “You were then impressed with the great violation of liberty,” recalled Banneker.

How then can you, Jefferson “be found guilty of that most criminal act which you professedly detested in others?”  Banneker asked.  How could you, the designer of the American freedom, violate your own principles “in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression?”

The hard accusation stared at Jefferson from the hand-written page.  Stunned and bewildered, the statesman spent the next ten days preparing a reply, the argument running on feverishly in his brain.

Could it be true that slavery was based on a false and unscientific view of the black race?  Was it possible that Negroes appeared backward only because of “the imbecility of their present existence” as slaves?  Could the black man rise to the level of the white man if given the opportunity?  One answer seemed obvious from the intricate scientific data in Banneker’s Almanac.

“Nobody wishes more that I do,” Jefferson wrote to Banneker, “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?”

Jefferson’s lame response satisfied no one—least of all himself.  The Virginian lived out his long life finding no relief from the tormenting problem of race that seared his mind.  Nearing eighty, Jefferson revealed to a friend, “This momentous question, like a firebell in the night*, awakened and filled me with terror.”

In spirit he rebelled against the slave system.  But the “suspicion of Negro inferiority” undermined all of his efforts in fighting slavery.  In the end he contented himself with a distant version that “nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”


*Jefferson’s “firebell” remark is in a letter to John Holmes, April 22, 1820.


* * *  The Correspondence Between Banneker & Jefferson  * * *

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