Benjamin Banneker Letter on Slavery Essay Example


In 1791, an African-American author, Benjamin Banneker, wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson regarding slavery and used a critical tone, formal address, and a guilt trip to appeal to Jefferson’s ego and logical nature as to convince him of the horrors of slavery.

Banneker’s critical and sarcastic tone in his letter both demonstrates his intelligence and audacity, which give him leverage over Jefferson so that he might listen to his message.  Banneker ridicules Jefferson by writing that his “tender feelings” (26) have impeded his judgment with regards to slavery. Banneker claims that Jefferson has seen the injustice revolving around slavery but has chosen to do nothing in fear of judgment from his peers, and he does so in a tone that challenges Jefferson: men in this era are traditionally seen as masculine, and thus do not let feelings show, let alone tender feelings. Additionally, in lines 32-41, Banneker asserts that Jefferson, a self-proclaimed Christian, is going against the will of God by allowing an abomination such as slavery, and he claims that Jefferson is a hypocrite by believing in a benevolent God, but also permitting violence in the form of slavery. By acknowledging this contrast in such a jeering manner, he mocks Jefferson, which forces him to reflect on his position on slavery. 

Furthermore, in line 43, Banneker provokes Jefferson by insisting that he is already aware of a situation “too extensive” (43) to be repeated. He implies that while Jefferson knows everything that Banneker has told him —  and more — he is too weak to act on his moral compass. This critical and sarcastic tone appeals to Jefferson’s ego because he writes this tone with confidence, and he makes Jefferson out as a fool for not condemning slavery. While he may seem rugged and sharp to the other founding fathers and scholars, when Banneker appeals to his ego, he becomes soft and vulnerable — much like a pineapple without its exterior — as Jefferson is usually quick-witted and intelligent, but is not strong enough to take the unpopular opinion of opposing slavery when confronted. Moreover, the tone emphasizes his argument because it portrays Banneker’s strength in the same situation as Jefferson, and therefore Banneker acts as a model for Jefferson to imitate.

Banneker also makes the choice to address Jefferson as “sir” (1, 15, 18, 26, 31, 42). This decision is one of respect at the beginning of this passage but quickly progresses to taunting Jefferson. Banneker utilizes his African ancestry, where slaves were required to speak their white owners respectfully, but he uses it to his advantage; it becomes evident that Banneker is doing the more courageous action by standing up to authority, and therefore makes Jefferson feel insecure about being ‘superior.’ This attacks his ego as the ‘inferior’ man in this conversation is making the moral choice regarding opposing slavery, which compels Jefferson to reconsider the humanity of slavery.

Additionally, Banneker guilt trips Jefferson to, again, appeal to his ego and encourage him to change his stance on the morality of slavery. In lines 15-17, Banneker states that Jefferson has clearly seen the injustices of slavery —  he has observed the monstrosity of slavery already, but has done nothing in the present to change it. He then continues to cite the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s own words, and quotes, “all men are created equal” (22-23) to emphasize that Jefferson himself actually opposes slavery, and he knows it. These details manipulate Jefferson’s beliefs and words against him to convince him to act against slavery, and by outsmarting him, Banneker punctures his ego and urges him even further.

 

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