Black History Month, day 10

Whenever research digs up a racist attitude by someone from history who was formerly admired, we rehash the “that was a different time” argument and ask, sometimes rhetorically, whether we can rightly judge people of the past by today’s ethical standards.

I agree that it is important to assess people of the past in the context of their own times, as much as possible. Context is an inseperable part of meaning. Referring to one’s co-worker as a “Negro” today would strongly suggest racism; in 1965, it was the anti-racist term of choice.

However, sometimes we wrongly assume that the context was more different than our own than it actually was. We say “She was a person of her time,” as if to say that she would have had to have been an extremely unusual person to have held views at all like our own. We might even hint that a person’s hypocrisies, so evident to us, were invisible to him.

We can’t claim that about Thomas Jefferson and slavery, because Benjamin Banneker wrote him a letter in 1791, when Jefferson was Secretary of State, lamenting “that [he] should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which [he] professedly detested in others, with respect to [himself].” Banneker, you may know, was an astronomer and surveyor who helped set the boundaries of Washington, D.C. He was best known in his own time for the almanacs he created and published. He wrote to Jefferson the same year he completed the first almanac, and enclosed a copy–as a gift? As proof of his ability? In the flowery style of the time, he expressed his hope that as regarded the conviction that black people were inferior, Jefferson was “far less inflexible in sentiments of this nature, than many others”–and then, naturally, he quoted the Declaration of Independence.

[Y]our abhorrence [of slavery] 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.

As we know, Jefferson was unmoved. He neither changed his views nor freed the people he had enslaved. And to a friend, he snidely described Banneker’s eloquent letter as proof that he had “a mind of very common stature indeed.” Sadly, it was Jefferson’s mind that was too limited to accept influence, even that of Banneker’s modest manner and logical argument.

Benjamin Banneker’s 1791 letter to Thomas Jefferson