George W. Williams.

History of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880. Vol 1 Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens online

. (page 45 of 57)
Online LibraryGeorge W. WilliamsHistory of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880. Vol 1 Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens → online text (page 45 of 57)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


And of any shape, Sir, - just what you will, -
And of any size, Sir, - from a ton to a gill!'
'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 to-morrow, 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 more!
Now my worthy friend, find out, if you can,
The vessel's dimensions and comfort the man!

"BENJAMIN BANNEKER."


The greater diameter of Banneker's tub must be 24.746 inches; the less
diameter, 14.8476 inches.

He was described by a gentleman who had often met him at Ellicott's
Mills as "of black complexion, medium stature, of uncommonly soft and
gentlemanly manners and of pleasing colloquial powers."

Fortunately Mr. George Ellicott was a gentleman of exquisite literary
taste and critical judgment. He discovered in Banneker the elements of
a cultivated gentleman and profound scholar. He threw open his library
to this remarkable Negro, loaded him with books and astronomical
instruments, and gave him the emphatic assurance of sympathy and
encouragement. He occasionally made Banneker a visit, when he would
urge upon him the importance of making astronomical calculations for
almanacs. Finally, in the spring of 1789, Banneker submitted to Mr.
Ellicott his first projection of an eclipse. It was found to contain a
slight error; and, having kindly pointed it out, Mr. Ellicott received
the following reply from Banneker: -

LETTER OF BENJAMIN BANNEKER TO GEORGE ELLICOTT.

"Sir, - I received your letter at the hand of Bell but found
nothing strange to me In the Letter Concerning the number of
Eclipses, the according to authors the Edge of the penumber
only touches the Suns Limb in that Eclips, that I left out
of the Number - which happens April 14th day, at 37 minutes
past 7 o'clock in the morning, and is the first we shall
have; but since you wrote to me, I drew in the Equations of
the Node which will cause a small Solar Defet, but as I did
not intend to publish, I was not so very peticular as I
should have been, but was more intent upon the true method
of projecting; a Solar Eclips - It is an easy matter for us
when a Diagram is laid down before us, to draw one in
resemblance of it, but it is a hard matter for young Tyroes
in Astronomy, when only the Elements for the projection is
laid down before him to draw his diagram with any degree of
Certainty.

"Says the Learned LEADBETTER, the projection, I shall here
describe, is that mentioned by Mr. Flamsted. When the sun is
in Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio or, Sagitary, the Axes
of the Globe must lie to the right hand of the Axes of the
Ecliptic, but when the sun is in Capricorn, Aquarius,
Pisces, Aries, Taurus, or Gemini, then to the left.

"Says the wise author FERGUSON, when the sun is in
Capercorn, Aquarius, Pisces, Aries, Taurus, and Gemeni, the
Northern half of the Earths Axes lies to the right hand of
the Axes of the Ecliptic and to the left hand, whilst the
Sun is on the other six signs.

"Now Mr. Ellicott, two such learned gentlemen as the above
mentioned, one in direct opposition to the other, stagnates
young beginners, but I hope the stagnation will not be of
long duration, for this I observe that Leadbetter counts the
time on the path of Vertex 1, 2, 3 &c. from the right to the
left hand or from the consequent to the antecedent, - But
Ferguson on the path of Vertex counts the time 1, 2, 3 &c.
from the left to the right hand, according to the order of
numbers, so that that is regular, shall compensate for
irregularity. Now sir if I can overcome this difficulty I
doubt not being able to calculate a Common Almanac - Sir no
more

"But remain your faithful friend,
"B. BANNEKER.

"Mr. GEORGE ELLICOTT, _Oct. 13th, 1789._"

His mother, an active, intelligent, slight-built Mulatto, with long
black hair, had exercised a tender but positive influence over him.
His character, so far as is known, was without blemish, with the
single exception of an occasional use of ardent spirits. He found
himself conforming too frequently to the universal habit of the times,
social drinking. Liquors and wines were upon the tables and sideboards
of the best families, and wherever Banneker went it confronted him. He
felt his weakness in this regard, and resolved to abstain from the use
of strong drink. Some time after returning from a visit to Washington,
in company with the commissioners who laid out the District of
Columbia, he related to his friends that during the entire absence
from home he had abstained from the use of liquors; adding, "I feared
to trust myself even with wine, lest it should steal away the little
sense I have." On a leaf of one of his almanacs, appears the following
in his own handwriting: -

"Evil communications corrupt good manners, I hope to live to
hear, that good communication corrects 'bad manners.'"

He had a just appreciation of his own strength. He hated vice of every
kind; and, while he did not connect himself to any church, he was
deeply attached to the _Society of Friends._ He was frequently seen in
their meeting-house. He usually occupied the rear bench, where he
would sit with uncovered head, leaning upon his staff, wrapt in
profound meditation. The following letter addressed to Mr. J. Saurin
Norris shows that his character was upright: -

"In the year 1800, I commenced my engagements in the store
of Ellicott's Mills, where my first acquaintance with
Benjamin Banneker began. He often came to the store to
purchase articles for his own use; and, after hearing him
converse, I was always anxious to wait upon him. After
making his purchases, he usually went to the part of the
store where George Ellicott was in the habit of sitting to
converse with him about the affairs of our Government and
other matters. He was very precise in conversation and
exhibited deep reflection. His deportment whenever I saw
him, appeared to be perfectly upright and correct, and he
seemed to be acquainted with every thing of importance that
was passing in the country.

"I recollect to have seen his Almanacs in my father's house,
and believe they were the only ones used in the neighborhood
at the time. He was a large man inclined to be fleshy, and
was far advanced in years, when I first saw him, I remember
being once at his house, but do not recollect any thing
about the comforts of his establishment, nor of the old
clock, about which you enquired. He was fond of, and well
qualified, to work out abstruse questions in arithmetic. I
remember, he brought to the store, one which he had composed
himself, and presented to George Ellicott for solution. I
had a copy which I have since lost; but the character and
deportment of the man being so wholly different from any
thing I had ever seen from one of his color, his question
made so deep an impression on my mind I have ever since
retained a perfect recollection of it, except two lines,
which do not alter the sense. I remember that George
Ellicott, was engaged in making out the answer, and cannot
now say that he succeeded, but have no doubt he did. I have
thus, briefly given you my recollections of Benjamin
Banneker. I was young when he died, and doubtless many
incidents respecting him, have, from the time which has
since elapsed, passed from my recollection:

"CHARLES W. DORSEY, _of Elkridge_."

After the death of his mother, Banneker dwelt alone until the day of
his death, having never married, his manners were gentle and engaging,
his benevolence proverbial. His home became a place of great interest
to visitors, whom he always received cordially, and treated hospitably
all who called.

"We found the venerable star-gazer," says the author of the
Memoir of Susanna Mason, "under a wide spreading pear tree,
leaden with delicious fruit; he came forward to meet us, and
bade us welcome to his lowly dwelling. It was built of logs,
one story in height, and was surrounded by an orchard. In
one corner of the room, was suspended a clock of his own
construction, _which_ was a true hearald of departing hours.
He was careful in the little affairs of life as well as in
the great matters. He kept record of all his business
transactions, literary and domestic. The following extracts
from his Account Book exhibit his love for detail.

"'Sold on the 2nd of April, 1795, to Buttler, Edwards &
Kiddy, the right of an Almanac, for the year 1796, for the
sum of 80 dollars, equal to £30.

"'On the 30th of April, 1795, lent John Ford five dollars.
£1 17s. 6d.

"'12th of December, 1797, bought a pound of candles at 1s.
8d.

"'Sold to John Collins 2 qts. of dried peaches 6d. "1 qt.
mead 4d.

"'On the 26th of March, came Joshua Sanks with 3 or 4
bushels of turnips to feed the cows.

"'13th of April, 1803, planted beans and sowed cabbage
seed.'

"He took down from a shelf a little book, wherein he
registered the names of those, by whose visits he felt
particularly honored, and recorded my mother's name upon the
list; he then, diffidently, but very respectfully, requested
her acceptance of one of his Almanacs in manuscript."

Within a few days after this visit Mrs. Mason addressed him in a
poetical letter, which found its way into the papers of the section,
and was generally read. The subjoined portions are sufficient to
exhibit the character of the effusion. The admonitory lines at the end
doubtless refer to his early addiction to strong drink.

"_An Address to_ BENJAMIN BANNEKER, _an African Astronomer,
who presented the Author with a Manuscript Almanac in_
1796."

"Transmitted on the wings of Fame,
Thine _eclat_ sounding with thy name,
Well pleased, I heard, ere 'twas my lot
To see thee in thy humble cot.
That genius smiled upon thy birth,
And application called it forth;
That times and tides thou could'st presage,
And traverse the Celestial stage,
Where shining globes their circles run,
In swift rotation round the sun;
Could'st tell how planets in their way,
From order ne'er were known to stray.
Sun, moon and stars, when they will rise,
When sink below the upper skies,
When an eclipse shall veil their light,
And hide their splendor from our sight.
. . . . . . . . .
Some men whom private walks pursue,
Whom fame ne'er ushered into view,
May run their race, and few observe
To right or left, if they should swerve,
Their blemishes would not appear,
Beyond their lives a single year. -
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! -
Thou need'st to have a special care,
Thy conduct with thy talent square,
That no contaminating vice,
Obscure thy lustre in our eyes."


During the following year Banneker sent the following letter to his
good friend Mrs. Mason: -

"_August 26th, 1797_.

"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, but I am very much indisposed, and have been
ever since that time. I have a constant pain in my head, a
palpitation in my flesh, and I may say I am attended with a
complication of disorders, at this present writing, so that
I cannot with any pleasure or delight, gratify your
curiosity in that particular, at this present time, yet I
say my will is good to oblige you, if I had it in my power,
because you gave me good advice, and edifying language, in
that piece of poetry which you was pleased to present unto
me, and I can but love and thank you for the same; and if
ever it should be in my power to be serviceable to you, in
any measure, your reasonable requests, shall be armed with
the obedience of,

"Your sincere friend and well-wisher,
"BENJAMIN BANNEKER.

"MRS. SUSANNA MASON.

"N.B. The above is mean writing, done with trembling hands.
B.B."

With the use of Mayer's Tables, Ferguson's Astronomy, and Leadbeater's
Lunar Tables, Banneker had made wonderful progress in his astronomical
investigations. He prepared his first almanac for publication in 1792.
Mr. James McHenry became deeply interested in him, and, convinced of
his talent in this direction, wrote a letter to the firm of Goddard &
Angell, publishers of almanacs, in Baltimore. They became the sole
publishers of Banneker's almanacs till the time of his death. In an
editorial note in the first almanac, they say, -

"They feel gratified in the opportunity of presenting to the
public, through their press, what must be considered as an
extraordinary effort of genius; a complete and accurate
Ephemeris for the year 1792, calculated by a sable
descendant of Africa," etc.

And they further say, -

"That they flatter themselves that a philanthropic public,
in this enlightened era, will be induced to give their
patronage and support to this work, not only on account of
its intrinsic merits, (it having met the approbation of
several of the most distinguished astronomers of America,
particularly the celebrated Mr. Rittenhouse,) but from
similar motives to those which induced the editors to give
this calculation the preference, - the ardent desire of
drawing modest merit from obscurity, and controverting the
long-established illiberal prejudice against the blacks."

The title of his almanac is given below as a matter of historic
interest.

"Benjamin Banneker's Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, and
Maryland Almanac and Ephemeris, for the year of our Lord
1792, being Bissextile or leap year, and the sixteenth year
of American Independence, which commenced July 4, 1776;
containing the motions of the Sun and Moon, the true places
and aspects of the Planets, the rising and setting of the
Sun, and the rising, setting, and southing, place and age of
the Moon, &c. The Lunations, Conjunctions, Eclipses,
Judgment of the Weather, Festivals, and remarkable days."

He had evidently read Mr. Jefferson's Notes on Virginia; and touched
by the humane sentiment there exhibited, as well as saddened by the
doubt expressed respecting the intellect of the Negro, Banneker sent
him a copy of his first almanac, accompanied by a letter which pleaded
the cause of his race, and in itself, was a refutation of the charge
that the Negro had no intellectual outcome.

"MARYLAND, BALTIMORE COUNTY, August 19, 1791.

"SIR,

"I am fully sensible of the greatness of the freedom I take
with you on the present occasion; a liberty which seemed
scarcely allowable, when I reflected on that distinguished
and dignified station in which you stand, and the almost
general prejudice which is so prevalent in the world against
those of my complexion.

"It is a truth too well attested, to need a proof here, that
we are a race of beings, who have long laboured under the
abuse and censure of the world; that we have long been
looked upon with an eye of contempt; and considered rather
as brutish than human, and scarcely capable of mental
endowments.

"I hope I may safely admit, in consequence of the report
which has reached me, that you are a man far less inflexible
in sentiments of this nature, than many others, that you are
measurably friendly and well disposed towards us; and that
you are willing to lend your aid and assistance for our
relief from those many distresses, and numerous calamities,
to which we are reduced.

"If this is founded in truth, I apprehend you will embrace
every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and
false ideas and opinions, which so generally prevail with
respect to us: and that your sentiments are concurrent with
mine, which are, that one universal Father hath given being
to us all; that He hath not only made us all of one flesh,
but that He hath also, without partiality, afforded us all
the same sensations, and endowed us all with the same
faculties; and that however variable we may be in society or
religion, however diversified in situation or in colour, we
are all of the same family, and stand in the same relation
to Him.

"If these are sentiments of which you are fully persuaded,
you cannot but acknowledge, that it is the indispensable
duty of those, who maintain for themselves the rights of
human nature, and who profess the obligations of
Christianity, to extend their powers and influence to the
relief of every part of the human race, from whatever burden
or oppression they may unjustly labour under: and this, I
apprehend, a full conviction of the truth and obligation of
these principles should lead all to.

"I have long been convinced, that if your love for
yourselves, and for those inestimable laws which preserved
to you the rights of human nature, was founded on sincerity
you could not but be solicitous, that every individual, of
whatever rank or distinction, might with you equally enjoy
the blessings thereof; neither could you rest satisfied
short of the most active effusion of your exertions, in
order to their promotion from any state of degradation, to
which the unjustifiable cruelty and barbarism of men may
have reduced them.

"I freely and cheerfully acknowledge, that I am of the
African race, and in that colour which is natural to them,
of the deepest dye; and it is under a sense of the most
profound gratitude to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe,
that I now confess to you, that I am not under that state of
tyrannical thraldom, and inhuman captivity, to which too
many of my brethren are doomed, but that I have abundantly
tasted of the fruition of those blessings, which proceed
from that free and unequalled liberty with which you are
favoured; and which I hope you will willingly allow you have
mercifully received, from the immediate hand of that Being
from whom proceedeth every good and perfect gift.

"Suffer me to recall to your mind that time, in which the
arms of the British crown were exerted, with every powerful
effort, in order to reduce you to a state of servitude: look
back, I entreat you, on the variety of dangers to which you
were exposed; reflect on that period in which every human
aid appeared unavailable, and in which even hope and
fortitude wore the aspect of inability to the conflict, and
you cannot but be led to a serious and grateful sense of
your miraculous and providential preservation; you cannot
but acknowledge, that the present freedom and tranquility
which you enjoy, you have mercifully received, and that it
is the peculiar blessing of heaven.

"This, Sir, was a time when you cleary saw into the
injustice of a state of Slavery, and in which you had just
apprehensions of the horrors of its condition. It was then
that your abhorrence thereof 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 inalienable 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, 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.

"Your knowledge of the situation of my brethren is too
extensive to need a recital here; neither shall I presume to
prescribe methods by which they may be relieved, otherwise
than by recommending to you and all others, to wean
yourselves from those narrow prejudices which you have
imbibed with respect to them, and as Job proposed to his
friends, 'put your soul in their soul's stead;' thus shall
your hearts be enlarged with kindness and benevolence
towards them; and thus shall you need neither the direction
of myself or others in what manner to proceed herein.

"And now, sir, although my sympathy and affection for my
brethren hath caused my enlargement thus far, I ardently
hope, that your candour and generosity will plead with you
in my behalf, when I state that it was not originally my
design; but having taken up my pen in order to present a
copy of an almanac which I have calculated for the
succeeding year, I was unexpectedly led thereto.

"This calculation is the production of my arduous study, in
my advanced stage of life: for having long had unbounded
desires to become acquainted with the secrets of nature, I
have had to gratify my curiosity herein through my own
assiduous application to astronomical study, in which I need
not recount to you the many difficulties and disadvantages
which I have had to encounter.

"And although I had almost declined to make my calculation
for the ensuing year, in consequence of the time which I had
allotted for it being taken up at the federal territory, by
the request of Mr. Andrew Ellicott, yet I industriously
applied myself thereto, and hope I have accomplished it with
correctness and accuracy. I have taken the liberty to direct
a copy to you, which I humbly request you will favourably
receive; and although you may have the opportunity of
perusing it after its publication, yet I desire to send it
to you in manuscript previous thereto, that thereby you
might not only have an earlier inspection, but that you
might also view it in my own handwriting.

"And now, sir, I shall conclude, and subscribe myself, with
the most profound respect,

"Your most obedient humble servant,
"BENJAMIN BANNEKER."


Mr. Jefferson, who was Secretary of State under President Washington,
sent the great Negro the following courteous reply: -



Online LibraryGeorge W. WilliamsHistory of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880. Vol 1 Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens → online text (page 45 of 57)