Put Yourself In The Shoes Of A Slave, Mr. Jefferson

Put Yourself In The Shoes Of A Slave, Mr. Jefferson – By Daniel W. Sheridan (Twitter: @DanielWSheridan)

On this day, August 19, 1791, Benjamin Banneker, the son of freed slaves, writes to Thomas Jefferson about the hypocrisy of the coexistence of the Declaration of Independence with slavery. Here's the story:

In early America, many slaves learned to read and write and showed intellectual capacity equal to any white person. But whites frowned upon Slaves learning the arts claiming, "What has the slave of any country to do with heroic virtues, liberal knowledge, or elegant accomplishments?" Even the most peaceful of white Americans, the Pennsylvania Quakers, had harsh and hypocritical laws authorizing the torture and starvation of slaves for minor offenses – if offenses they were!

One such great intellect was former slave, Benjamin Banneker. Banneker was a mathematician and an astronomer. He was born in Maryland, November 9, 1731, to parents who were former slaves. Banneker taught himself astronomy and mathematics and published an almanac. Because of these efforts, he became one of the first African Americans to be recognized for his contributions to science.

On this day, August 19, 1791, Banneker sent a copy of his almanac to Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. With the almanac, he included a respectful letter where he appeals to Jefferson to help correct the prevailing prejudice toward blacks. Banneker's tactic was masterful! Banneker asks Jefferson how he can claim to be a "friend of liberty" while at the same owning slaves. Banneker, to drive his point home, uses the language of the Declaration of Independence, which Jefferson wrote, to make his case. Let's examine the letter.

First: Banneker praises Jefferson with these words:

"There 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. Your abhorrence of this slavery was so excited, that you publickly held forth this true and invaluable doctrine, which is worthy to be recorded and remember'd 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 happyness.' 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 great valuation of liberty, and the free possession of those blessings to which you were entitled by nature…"

Second: Banneker rebukes Jefferson's hypocrisy in his application of the laws of nature:

"but Sir how pitiful 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 yourselves."

Banneker first praises Jefferson for his words which set forth the principles of liberty and justified the emancipation of the white colonists from tyrannical King George.  And then Benneker rebukes the slave-holding Jefferson and other revolutionary whites who were practicing the same tyranny over their "brethren," the African race.

Banneker continues. "that it is the indispensible 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…"

He then encourages Jefferson and his friends:

"to wean yourselves from these narrow prejudices which you have imbibed with respect to them (the black race), 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 thus shall you need neither the direction of myself or others in what manner to proceed herein."

Banneker's argument is simple. Mr. Jefferson, if you put yourself in the shoes of the slave, the actions you must take are SELF EVIDENT!  Blessed irony! 

The Founders weren't perfect. But the principles they espoused, even though hypocritically applied, would eventually bring freedom to all. Banneker never questioned Jefferson's principles of liberty,  but he questioned his practice. 

Frederick Douglass, though recognizing the hypocrisy, saw in the writings of the Founders the seeds of hope. "The arm of the Lord is not shortened," he proclaimed, "and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age."

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