October 8, 1809 – Thomas Jefferson Rejects Idea That Blacks are as Intelligent as Whites

In his famous book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), while Thomas Jefferson condemned slavery itself, he claimed that blacks were physically and intellectually inferior to whites.

He wrote:

Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior . . . and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous . . . But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait, of painting or sculpture.”

He was challenged in this view by a black polymath, Benjamin Bannaker, as we shall see below. But Jefferson stubbornly adhered to his initial judgments.

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1805

On this day in history, Thomas Jefferson wrote as much to Joel Barlow, a minister, writer, liberal thinker, and diplomat. Jefferson was acknowledging receipt of Barlow’s written copy of an oration delivered on July 4, 1809 in Washington, D.C. (accessible online here).

Jefferson said he saw the critique of Barlow’s speech by Henri Gregoire. Gregoire, the constitutional bishop of Blois, was a former French revolutionist who, according to Jefferson’s account, “must have been eagle-eyed in quest of offence, to have discovered ground for it among the rubbish massed together in the print he animadverts on.”

But Jefferson’s strongest objection to Gregoire had nothing to do with Barlow. Rather, it was borne of Gregoire’s critique of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia.

After Jefferson disparaged Gregoire on Barlow’s behalf, he revealed that his animus came from his own grudge against Gregoire for disagreeing with Jefferson on the matter of the intellect of African Americans:

He wrote to me also on the doubts I had expressed five or six and twenty years ago, in the Notes of Virginia, as to the grade of understanding of the negroes, and he sent me his book on the literature of the negroes. His credulity has made him gather up every story he could find of men of color, (without distinguishing whether black, or of what degree of mixture,) however slight the mention, or light the authority on which they are quoted. The whole do not amount, in point of evidence, to what we know ourselves of Banneker. We know he had spherical trigonometry enough to make almanacs, but not without the suspicion of aid from Ellicot, who was his neighbor & friend, & never missed an opportunity of puffing him. I have a long letter from Banneker which shews him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed.”

The matter of Benjamin Banneker is worth a full explanation. Benjamin Banneker, born to a free African-American woman and a former slave, was a self-taught mathematician, astronomer, surveyor, farmer, inventor, author, and political activist. With the encouragement of George Ellicott and Elias Ellicott, members of the Maryland Society for the Abolition of Slavery, he prepared an ephemeris for 1791. (An ephemeris gives the positions of astronomical objects in the sky at a given times.) The Ellicotts’ cousin Andrew Ellicott, a prominent surveyor, brought Banneker’s mathematical accomplishments to Jefferson’s notice.

But Banneker also contacted Jefferson himself. In 1791 Banneker wrote a letter to then Secretary of State Jefferson attacking the institution of slavery and calling Jefferson a hypocrite. (The ostensible purpose of the letter was to enclose the almanac Banneker wrote, which no one would publish but an abolitionist. You can read the full text of his letter here.)

Banneker argued:

…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.”

It is ironic that if Banneker were white, Jefferson would have sought him out as an intellectual soul mate. Many of Banneker’s interests mirrored those of Jefferson. Banneker even built a wooden clock by duplicating the gears of a borrowed pocket watch; Jefferson loved that kind of thing.

Jefferson responded to Banneker, claiming:

“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.”

[Unless, of course, it meant having to give up his own slaves.]

Banneker’s almanac was quite successful, and he continued to publish it each year until 1797.

But Jefferson never really gave up his ideas as expressed in Notes on the State of Virginia, as this letter revealed. To reinforce his views, he now justified them by claiming Banneker could not have accomplished what he did on his own, without help from white people.

2 Responses

  1. Interesting but appalling, so, cannot “like”

  2. A distinguished man receiving unsolicited correspondence of an antagonistic tone is expected to respond as if writing a peer?

    The entire literary thread presented here would border on harassment if measured by modern sensibilities, which is, unfortunately, how too many measure Jefferson today.

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