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Painting "The Life of George Washington: The Farmer," by Junius Stearns

Chapter 03

Paradox of Liberty & the Founding of America

The paradox of the American Revolution―the fight for liberty in an era of widespread slavery―is embedded in the foundations of the United States. The tension between slavery and freedom—who belongs and who is excluded—resonates through the nation’s history and spurs the American people to wrestle constantly with building “a more perfect Union.” This paradox was embedded in national institutions that are still vital in the nation to this day.

Painting Elizabeth Freeman, by Susan Ridley Sedgwick, 1811

Section IIIBlack Voices of Freedom

Black people implicated the nation in its rhetoric of liberty as they fought for and demanded freedom.

Black and white portrait of Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker, Scientific Thinker

Black and white portrait of Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker was born free in Maryland in 1731, as the son of a formerly enslaved Black man and mixed-race mother. His Irish grandmother, a former indentured servant, was his first teacher. Banneker taught himself mathematics, science, and literature from borrowed books. He read about planets and stars and observed them from his fields at night. His strong interests in the natural world and technological innovation made him a skilled scientist.

Banneker was also known for his participation in conducting the land survey establishing the boundaries of the District of Columbia. He was successful at a time when African Americans faced harsh social restrictions, limited economic opportunities, and mounting hostility from white people.

Benjamin Banneker became the first African American to publish a scientific work. He used his knowledge to write almanacs—annual books that have information about weather, tides, and planting. In his almanacs, Banneker shared his abolitionist views.

Historic map of Washington, DC

Map of the Federal City, 1797

This Banneker's Almanack is a 48-page printed booklet printed in 1793. The almanac is a booklet comprised of 8 segments of folded paper, bound together by two stitches of cream-colored thread on the left-hand side that are knotted at the back. The top edge of the booklet is trimmed, but the side and bottom edges are not. The pages are unnumbered. Pages 37-40 are uncut along the top edge.

Banneker's Almanack contains a varied assortment of information. Primarily an annual calendar, each month is listed along with important dates, statistical information, phases of the moon, astronomical data, and tide tables. The Almanack also includes political and social commentary most notably on anti-slavery issues. Banneker included abstracts such as, “A Plan of a Peace-Office, for the United States”, “Extracts from the Debates in the Last Session of the British Parliament, Apr. 1792”, “Extract from Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia”, “Extract from Wilkinson’s Appeal to England on Behalf of the Abused Africans”, poetry, Census data, tables of interest at 5% and 7%, currency exchanges, roads and mileage from various starting points to nearby towns and cities, and information about Federal, State and Local courts.

Banneker’s Almanack and Ephemeris for the Year of Our Lord 1793

Talking about Race: Banneker Challenges Jefferson

This Banneker's Almanack is a 48-page printed booklet printed in 1793. The almanac is a booklet comprised of 8 segments of folded paper, bound together by two stitches of cream-colored thread on the left-hand side that are knotted at the back. The top edge of the booklet is trimmed, but the side and bottom edges are not. The pages are unnumbered. Pages 37-40 are uncut along the top edge.

Banneker's Almanack contains a varied assortment of information. Primarily an annual calendar, each month is listed along with important dates, statistical information, phases of the moon, astronomical data, and tide tables. The Almanack also includes political and social commentary most notably on anti-slavery issues. Banneker included abstracts such as, “A Plan of a Peace-Office, for the United States”, “Extracts from the Debates in the Last Session of the British Parliament, Apr. 1792”, “Extract from Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia”, “Extract from Wilkinson’s Appeal to England on Behalf of the Abused Africans”, poetry, Census data, tables of interest at 5% and 7%, currency exchanges, roads and mileage from various starting points to nearby towns and cities, and information about Federal, State and Local courts.

Banneker’s Almanack and Ephemeris for the Year of Our Lord 1793

Benjamin Banneker challenged existing assumptions about the inferior intelligence of African Americans. He boldly wrote to Thomas Jefferson to point out a chilling contradiction: the same person who declared that all men were created equal, enslaved people himself. Banneker asked Jefferson to correct his "narrow prejudices" against Africans. Jefferson answered by complimenting Banneker on his intellect—a quality Jefferson did not associate with African heritage. Banneker published their correspondence in one of his almanacs.

I apprehend you will embrace every opportunity, to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions, which so generally prevails with respect to us.

Benjamin Banneker to Thomas Jefferson, 1791

Image of letter written by Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson Writes to Benjamin Banneker

Jefferson Responds to Banneker

Image of letter written by Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson Writes to Benjamin Banneker

Despite Benjamin Banneker’s intellect and ability, Thomas Jefferson believed Black people were inferior and that Banneker was the exception to the rule.

Nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, & that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition.

Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Banneker, 1791

Photograph of Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley, Poet

Photograph of Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley

During the Revolution, Phillis Wheatley was a household name, famous for having published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773. Wheatley was about age seven when she arrived in America in 1761 after being kidnapped in Senegambia and sold into slavery. As an enslaved girl who had mastered classical English, Latin, and Greek, she was held up as a symbol of achievement by international antislavery advocates. Wheatley’s strength of character is reflected in her work and in her ability to navigate a society that both enslaved and celebrated her. Once free, she and her husband John Peters faced persistent poverty despite their talents.

A first edition of the book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, by Phillis Wheatley, while she was enslaved to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston. The book has a brown leather cover, the original morocco spine label, and a frontispiece featuring a portrait of Wheatley by Scipio Morehead. Along the top of the portrait are the words [PHILLIS WHEATLEY, NEGRO SERVANT TO MR. JOHN WHEATLEY OF BOSTON]. The book also has the armorial bookplate of Daniel P. Griswold, a small circular ticket from the Library of George W. Brinely, as well as a larger one from Henry Weston Sackett.

First Edition of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

A first edition of the book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, by Phillis Wheatley, while she was enslaved to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston. The book has a brown leather cover, the original morocco spine label, and a frontispiece featuring a portrait of Wheatley by Scipio Morehead. Along the top of the portrait are the words [PHILLIS WHEATLEY, NEGRO SERVANT TO MR. JOHN WHEATLEY OF BOSTON]. The book also has the armorial bookplate of Daniel P. Griswold, a small circular ticket from the Library of George W. Brinely, as well as a larger one from Henry Weston Sackett.

First Edition of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

Phillis Wheatley’s poems are deeply layered. At face value, they are straightforward reflections on virtue. Closer attention to the text reveals another layer of meaning where Wheatley expresses a critical view of society. Wheatley’s writing reflects a strategy of negotiating slavery. She allied herself with those who had power over her while cleverly expressing her deeper feelings.

Painting Elizabeth Freeman, by Susan Ridley Sedgwick, 1811

Elizabeth Freeman, by Susan Ridley Sedgwick, 1811

Photograph of Elizabeth "Mumm Bet" Freeman’s bracelet

Bracelet containing beads worn by Elizabeth Freeman in her only known portrait

Elizabeth Freeman, Demanding Justice

Painting Elizabeth Freeman, by Susan Ridley Sedgwick, 1811

Elizabeth Freeman, by Susan Ridley Sedgwick, 1811

Photograph of Elizabeth "Mumm Bet" Freeman’s bracelet

Bracelet containing beads worn by Elizabeth Freeman in her only known portrait

Elizabeth Freeman, known as Mum Bett, was born into slavery and was one of the first people to successfully sue for her freedom in the new nation. Freeman was a Revolutionary War widow enslaved by John Ashley, a powerful Massachusetts attorney, and his wife Annetje. When she overheard a discussion about the Massachusetts Constitution, Freeman seized on its guarantee of liberty to bring her lawsuit. She sued in court to end her enslavement and in her testimony, she boldly called attention to the fact that Annetje maimed her arm with a hot kitchen shovel. Other suits quickly followed and the state court’s rulings in those cases effectively ended slavery in Massachusetts. Her claim to freedom changed her life and the lives of so many others desiring the same.

If one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it.

Elizabeth Freeman, ca. 1800