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Benjamin Banneker-Abolitionist, Inventor, and Intellectual by Elizabeth Cohan-Lawson » I For Color



Benjamin Banneker-Abolitionist, Inventor, and Intellectual by Elizabeth Cohan-Lawson


*{As in most of the cases for many great African Americans and their accomplishments, "Silvio Bedini, a curator at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, wrote a number of significant books and 
articles about Banneker over a period of 35 years before he died. Bedini often reported that many 
claims about Banneker’s accomplishments were overstated, could not be confirmed, or were refuted by 
historical evidence."}

They Who Write History Control History and thus Control the World.”


Ellicott’s letter to the commissioners on engraving the plan of the city,
in which no reference is made to Banneker


Philadelphia, Feby 23, 1792


On my arrival at this City, I found that no preparation was made for an engraving of the plan of the City of Washington. Upon this representation being made to the President and Secretary of State, I was directed to furnish one for an engraver, which with the aid of my Brother, was completed last Monday and handed to the President.

In this business we met with difficulties of a very serious nature. Major L’Enfant refused us the use of the originalWhat his motives were, God knows. – The plan which we have furnished, I believe will be found to answer the ground better than the large one in the Major’s hands.– I have engaged two good artists (both americans) to execute the engraving, and who will begin the work as soon as the president comes to a determination respecting some small alterations, In several conversations which I have had with the President and Secretary of State on the subject of the City of Washington, I have constantly mentioned the necessity of system in the execution of the business without which, there can be neither economy, certainty, nor decision. The Major has both a lively fancy and decision, but unfortunately no system, which render the other qualifications much less valuable, or in some cases useless. I suspect that measures are now taken, which will either reduce the Major to the necessity of submitting to the legal arrangements, or deserting the City….

I am gentlemen with great respect your Hbl. Sevt.

Andrew Ellicott

to Thomas Johnson, Daniel Carroll and

David Stuart, Esqs.


How did the myth of Banneker helping Ellicott remember the plan take hold? I believe it is because the first name of the brother who helped Ellicott is Benjamin, and so Benjamin Banneker was mistaken for Benjamin Ellicott. I think it is nonsense to assume that when L’Enfant refused access to the “original” plan that meant that Ellicott had to rely on memory to reconstruct the plan. L’Enfant had the “large” plan. Ellicott probably had access to small renditions or drafts of the plan which, of course, he and his brother had helped create by their surveys of the city.

Recall also that Ellicott engraved the plan of Washington for Secretary of State Jefferson. As the letter below indicates, Jefferson faulted Ellicott for his “puffing” of Banneker. Despite Ellicott’s regard for Banneker, Jefferson had scant respect for him. In 1809 he wrote to Joel Barlow about a Bishop Gregoire who wrote a book on the intelligence of blacks. Here is the relevant paragraph:

His (Gregoire’s) 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 and friend, and never missed an opportunity of puffing him. I have a long letter from Banneker, which shows him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed. As to Bishop Gregoire, I wrote him, as you have done, a very soft answer. It was impossible for doubt to have been more tenderly or hesitatingly expressed than that was in the Notes of Virginia, and nothing was or is farther from my intentions, than to enlist myself as the champion of a fixed opinion, where I have only expressed a doubt. St. Domingo will, in time, throw light on the question

Here is a what Jefferson wrote to Gregoire:

Washington, February 25, 1809.

Sir,–I have received the favor of your letter of August 17th, and with it the volume you were so kind as to send me on the Literature of Negroes. Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to them by nature, and to find that in this respect they are on a par with ourselves. My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunities for the development of their genius were not favorable, and those of exercising it still less so. I expressed them therefore with great hesitation; but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others. On this subject they are gaining daily in the opinions of nations, and hopeful advances are making towards their reestablishment on an equal footing with the other colors of the human family. I pray you therefore to accept my thanks for the many instances you have enabled me to observe of respectable intelligence in that race of men, which cannot fail to have effect in hastening the day of their relief; and to be assured of the sentiments of high and just esteem and consideration which I tender to yourself with all sincerity.