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Benjamin Banneker: Unschooled Wizard

One of the uncommon Americans of the eighteenth century is a man so neglected today that the Dictionary of American Biography, which lists the great and the not-so-great of the past, does not bother to include him. Yet he is a far worthier and more interesting figure than many of the second-rate politicians who clutter the pages of official biography. Many of the Founding Fathers knew and respected his work. Jefferson admired him and helped to make his reputation. Washington's Administration appointed him to a federal post. The name of this man, a fine scientist and mathematician, is Benjamin Banneker. He was a Negro.

Banneker's life is an American Story, and his origins fit the pattern. Though he himself was born free, his father had been a slave; his grandfather was an African prince and his grandmother an English maidservant.

Sometime around 1692 a white woman, Mollie Welsh (or Welch), bought a slave named Bannaky, a dignified and intelligent man of royal African descent and of "very agreeable presence." Mollie herself had been, in effect, a white slave. An English farm maid, she had been accused of stealing a pail of milk and sentenced to be shipped to America. Unable to pay her passage, she was indentured to a Maryland tobacco planter for seven years. When her time was up, she had managed to save enough money to buy a small plantation and two slaves, one of whom was Bannaky.

The blond Mollie--"a person of exceedingly fair complexion and moderate mental powers"--was attracted to her handsome slave, gave him his liberty and soon thereafter married him. They had four children, one of whom, Mary, also married an African slave after giving him his freedom and her family's surname, then Anglicized to Banneker (also spelled Bannaker). Benjamin was a child of this union.

Grandmother's favorite. Benjamin Banneker was raised on his parents' 120-acre farm (bought for 17,000 pounds of tobacco) at Ellicott's Mill, near Baltimore. He was the favorite grandchild of Mollie, who, moved by the boy's intelligence and eagerness for books, taught him all she knew, mostly stories from the Bible and religious exercises. She encouraged Benjamin to attend a small neighboring school, where he learned to read and write. That was the extent of his formal schooling. Despite "his obvious mental gifts, further education was out of the question for him, even though he was a freeman. There was, in fact, little difference in the treatment accorded colored people, regardless of status. Moreau de St. Mery, a Frenchman who toured the United States in the administration of President Washington, was shocked by the widespread misery and unhappiness of the Negro population. "Free men of color," he wrote in his American Journey, "are no better treated than the slaves, except for the fact that no one is allowed to beat them."

Benjamin Banneker had better luck than most. He was not only comparatively well-to-do, but he was also fortunate in his near neighbors. From his father he inherited 72 acres, which he operated as a prosperous farm, growing fruit and raising cattle and bees. But his greatest blessing was the Ellicotts. This was a family of cultured Quakers whose characters were free of the vulgarity of race prejudice and whose minds were open to the liberal and scientific ideas of the day. The brothers Ellicott--Andrew, Benjamin and George, the first two of whom later became the surveyors of the District of Columbia and helped to lay out the city of Washington--befriended their neighbor Banneker in every possible way.

The Ellicotts liked the way Banneker ran his farm and they liked his quiet dignity, his gentle manners and his air of philosophical serenity. But what impressed them most was his intellectual curiosity and scientific bent. Untaught, and possessing virtually no books, Banneker showed himself to be an accurate observer of natural phenomena and a brilliant mathematician. Heaven only knows what he would have turned out to be had he been trained. The Ellicotts, who settled near Banneker's farm when the latter was in his forties', did what they could to encourage his scientific interests. They lent him a few precious books--Mayer's Tables, Ferguson's Astronomy, Leadbetter's Lunar Tables--which Banneker absorbed hungrily and with such success that he surprised the Ellicotts by finding flaws and suggesting accurate corrections in some of the astronomical charts.

Local fame. His mathematical reputation soon spread through the countryside and farmers came to him with brain-teasing puzzles as well as practical problems. Banneker himself liked to compose difficult puzzles for his friends. Here is one he wrote in rhyme and submitted to George Ellicott; it has a flavor which age does not stale:

A Cooper and Vintner sat down for a talk.
Both being so groggy that neither could walk,
Says Cooper to Vintner, "I'm the first of my trade.
There's no kind of vessel, but what I have made . . . "

'Then," says the Vintner, "you're the man for me.
Make me a vessel, if we can agree.
The top and the bottom diameter define.
To bear that proportion as fifteen to nine.

Thirty-five inches are just what I crave.
No more and no less, in the depth will I have;
Just thirty-nine gallons this vessel must hold
Then I will reward you with silver or gold--.

Give me your promise, my honest old friend."
"I'll make it tomorrow, that you may depend!"
So the next day the Cooper his work to discharge.
Soon made the new vessel, but made it too large;

He took out some staves, which made it too small.
And then cursed the vessel, the Vintner and all.
He beat on his breast, "By the Powers!"--he swore,
He never would work at his trade any month.

Now my worthy friend, find out, if you can.
The vessel's dimensions and comfort the man!"

(Solution: the vessel must-be 24.75 inches in the greater diameter and 14.8476 inches in the lesser diameter.)

Banneker's intellectual gifts were matched by his manual skill. With infinite patience and with the use of only a pocket knife, he constructed a wooden clock of unusual precision. It ran for years and was one of the marvels of the neighborhood.

A change seemed to come over him in his late fifties. He was still a bachelor and did his own cooking and farm chores, but more and more he was seen lying on the ground for hours, especially at night, gazing at the sky. Neighbors, who also saw him take drink, shook their heads and said what a pity, such a fine man was going to the dogs in his old age. Actually, however, it was not laziness but astronomy that accounted for his being supine so much of the time. He had developed a passion for the heavenly bodies and devoted himself to observing the stars. In 1789 he accurately calculated the solar eclipse.

Early in 1791 a great honor came to Banneker. The President of the United States, through his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, appointed him to the commission to survey the District of Columbia. This was done at the behest of Major Andrew Elliott, who, with Major L'Enfant, was a member of the commission. Jefferson was delighted at the choice of Banneker because he had long been unhappy about the moral aspects of slavery. Banneker's appointment, he told a friend, would prove to the world that the lack of higher talents observed in Negroes was "merely the effect of their degraded condition, and not proceeding from any difference in the structure of the parts on which intellect depends." In other words, Banneker was to be a living demonstration that Negroes were inherently capable of the same intellectual exertions as white people. As the first Negro scientist to occupy a professional federal post, Banneker's appointment was thus probably one of the earliest blows struck at the moral foundations of slavery in the United States.

In the news. On March 12, 1791, the Georgetown Weekly Ledger announced the arrival of Ellicott and L'Enfant, accompanied by "Benjamin Banneker, an Ethiopian . . . surveyor and astronomer." A Negro scientist was news, and Banneker was acutely sensitive to his position. He was aware that not only he but the whole colored race in America was on trial, and he felt that he must be more circumspect and modest than fever. As it turned out, he was treated with great consideration. People stared at the medium-sized black surveyor who wore a broadbrimmed beaver hat and talked like a gentleman, but they soon got accustomed to him. His own colleagues, the commissioners and surveyor, treated him with marked respect and courtesy. They invited him to eat at the same table with them, but he firmly declined. They compromised by eating in the same room, at different tables. Everybody agreed with Jefferson's description of him as a "very worthy and respectable member of society"--a comment which, in an age when gentlemen ruled, was no small compliment. Banneker did sit in on conferences with his colleagues and joined them in potations, but not liberally. "I feared to trust myself even with wine," he later told some of his friends-- smilingly, "lest it should steal away the little sense I have."

Though self-effacing and tactful, Banneker felt deeply the humiliations suffered by Negroes. In the intervals of his leisure in Georgetown he had, at the instigation of Ellicott, composed an almanac for the year 1792 and sent a copy of it to Thomas Jefferson, known friend of science and of liberty. Accompanying the almanac was a letter which reveals the stored-up bitterness in Banneker's soul. To the author of the Declaration of Independence who had written that all men are created equal, the Negro scientist wrote bitterly:

We are a race of beings who have long laboured under the abuse and censure of the world. . . . We have long been considered rather as brutish than human, and scarcely capable of mental endowments.

Sir, I hope . . . 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. . . .

Now, Sir . . . I apprehend that your sentiments are concurrent with mine, which are that our universal Father hath given being to us all. . . .

But, Sir, how pitiable it is to reflect that, although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of mankind . . . 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.

The letter must have made Jefferson the slave-owner squirm, but Jefferson the democrat was impressed. He sent the almanac to his friend Condorcet, the secretary of the Academy of Sciences in Paris, to prove that color was no bar to brains ("I am happy to inform you that we have now in the United States a Negro . . . who is a very respectable mathematician"), and to Banneker he wrote a letter in which he repeated his conviction that Negroes were not inherently inferior beings.

"Nobody," the Secretary of State insisted, "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 colors of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America. I can add with truth, that nobody wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both I of their body and mind to what it ought to be." The letter was signed, "With great esteem. Sir, your most obedient humble servant."

Honored scientist. Others were impressed by his almanac. In revolutionary Paris Condorcet spread his reputation as a brilliant "African astronomer" and in conservative Baltimore James McHenry found him a publisher. The support of the eminent McHenry, a signer of the Constitution and later Secretary of War in the cabinets of Washington and Adams, was invaluable. In a letter to the publishers Goddard and Angel McHenry spoke enthusiastically of Banneker's work and said that he considered "this Negro as a fresh proof that the powers of the mind are disconnected with the color of the skin, or, in other words, a striking contradiction to Mr. Plume's doctrine, that the Negroes are naturally inferior to the whites and unsusceptible of attainments in arts and sciences."

The first issue of "Banneker's almanack and ephemeris" came out in 1793. In an editorial note the publishers announced to a surprised world that they were gratified to bring out this "accurate Ephemeris" by "a sable descendant of Africa."

Encouraged by the success of his publication, Banneker, now back on his farm, decided to retire from active farming and to devote himself to his studies. To pay for his modest needs, he signed over his property to the Ellicotts for an annuity of 12 pounds sterling. He estimated his farm at 180 pounds and figured that, being in his early sixties, he had only about 15 years to live--a fairly correct estimate on both counts. Thus free from worry and work--except for doing his own cooking, dishwashing, laundering, honey gathering and fruit picking--he gave himself wholly to the pleasures of the mind and soul. Sometimes he would sit for hours under a chestnut tree, playing the flute or violin.

Each year he published his almanac, which soon became an American institution. It contained the usual astronomical calculations, meteorological tables, literary extracts, currency lists, scientific comment and similar odds and ends. But there were also items of unusual interest, reflecting the mind of the author. One issue discussed the locust-plague cycle, which Banneker estimated at 17 years, and another contained a dissertation on bees, which has been compared favorably with that by Pliny. Banneker's essays on nature and natural phenomena were based on sharp-eyed personal observation.

Of locusts, for example, he wrote: "I like to forgot to inform, that if their lives are short they are merry. They begin to sing or make a noise from first they come out of the earth till they die. The hindermost part rots off, and it does not appear to be any pain to them, for they still continue on singing till they die."

Of sound: "Standing at my door I heard the discharge of a gun, and in four or five seconds of time, after the discharge, the small shot 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."

Plan for peace. In his general outlook, Banneker was not bound by the usual conventions. He was not, for instance, a professing Christian, although he did attend occasional meeting of the Quakers, whom he admired. From them he may have imbibed the idea of a lasting peace, which he printed in one of his almanacs. His "A Plan of Peace-office for the United States" is one of the most interesting, if naive, proposals on record. It provided for a Secretary of Peace, "who shall be perfectly free from all the present absurd and vulgar European prejudices upon the subject of government; let him be a genuine republican and sincere Christian." The Secretary of Peace was to be given the power '"to establish and maintain free schools in every city, village and township"; to teach the right kind of principles; to inspire in the people "a veneration for human life"; to abolish capital punishment; and to do away with all armed forces, weapons and other military paraphernalia. "Were there no uniforms," Banneker commented, "'there would probably be no armies." The essay ended with an agonizing cry--"'Ah, Why should men forget that they are Brethren?"

The fame of the almanacs attracted many visitors to the log cabin surrounded by an orchard wherein dwelt this singular philosopher. With his thick white hair and charming conversation, he appeared venerable and inspiring. Visitors described him as a "brave-looking pleasant man . . . very noble in appearance. . . . A perfect gentleman . . . kind, generous, hospitable, humane, dignified and pleasing."

One impressed visitor, Mrs. Susanna Mason, gave vent to her admiration in a poem which she sent him:

. . . But thou, a man exalted high.
Conspicuous in the world's keen eye.
On record now, thy name's enrolled.
And future ages will be told--
There lived a man named Banneker
An African Astronomer!--

After a long interval the old man replied:

Dear Female Friend:

I have thought of you every day since I saw you last, and of my promise in respect of composing some verses for your amusement. . . . My will is good to oblige you . . . because you give me good advice, and edifying language, in that piece of poetry which you was pleased to present unto me.

On a Sabbath afternoon, in the autumn of 1806, the 75-year-old astronomer was sitting under a tree beside his cabin, when he suddenly collapsed and quietly passed away. Nothing has been done since to honor his name.

Saul K. Padover, biographer of Jefferson and editor of his writings, is an editorial writer for the New York newspaper PM.