In 1731, Benjamin Banneker was born in Maryland as a free African American. Banneker learned to read and write from a young age and would later assist in mapping out city plans for Washington, D.C in 1791. Later in that year, Banneker sent an almanac he had published to Thomas Jefferson along with the letter below.
Have students read Handout A: Benjamin Banneker’s Letter to Thomas Jefferson (August 19, 1791) and then read Handout B: Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to Benjamin Banneker (August 30, 1791). Afterwards, students should answer the comprehension questions.
- What founding principle does Banneker discuss in his letter? In what ways does he argue it is being violated?
- Why do you think Banneker discuss the American Revolution in this writing?
- Why do you think Banneker references religious principles multiple times in his letter?
- Even though he is critical of Jefferson, Banneker still demonstrated respect in his writing. List two sentences in which you think he showed this virtue.
- In your own words, summarize Jefferson’s response to Banneker.
- Do you think Jefferson adequately responded to Banneker’s letter? Why or why not?
Benjamin Banneker’s Letter to Thomas Jefferson & ‘UnSeen’ Portraiture | A Primary Source Close Read
Even the most influential and prestigious among us aren’t without their faults, and Thomas Jefferson was no exception. In this Primary Close Read video, Kirk Higgins, Mary Patterson, and Elizabeth Evans compare Benjamin Banneker's letter to Thomas Jefferson and Titus Kaphar's interpretation of Thomas Jefferson's legacy in his painting "Behind the Myth of Benevolence." Why are these pieces important to our understanding of Jefferson? What do they tell us about the present moment in American history?