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Throwback Thursday: Rhetorical Analysis – Banneker Letter

Throwback Thursday, where, essentially I post old writing samples, essays and short stories that I dig up from my pile of hoarded papers and school assignments or from the depths of my computer. So everyone can see how my writing has changed/improved over the years.


There are certain arguments that seen impossible to make, because the answer seems so clear it is hard to imagine an argument at all; such is the argument of slavery. While today, slavery is very obviously illegal, in 1791, when Benjamin Banneker – a slave’s son – wrote to Thomas Jefferson on the issue, slavery was a point of political contention, not moral. In his letter, Banneker introduces the modern, moral argument to slavery, asking Jefferson to do his part in ending the extensive suffering and cruelty slaves face. Banneker also draws a parallel between Jefferson’s beliefs enumerated by the Declaration of Independence and the plight of slaves, showing the logical progression in that, if it is the new nation’s right to liberty, then surely it is the slave’s right as well.

Modernly, slavery in inarguably wrong, though such has not always seen to be true. One of slavery’s early opponents was Benjamin Banneker, who in 1791 wrote to Thomas Jefferson, imploring him to “wean [the nation] from those narrow prejudices [of slavery]” (line 46-47). In his comparison of the slaves to Job (line 48-50), Banneker makes the argument against slavery wholly moral by introducing a religious precedent for his position, indicating that the nation should not “counteract [God’s] mercies” (line 36) with “fraud and violence so numerous…groaning captivity and cruel oppression” (37-39). While the moral argument is strong, Banneker needs Jefferson’s political sway to have anything accomplished. By indicting Jefferson himself, claiming he has been “found guilty of that most criminal act [slavery] which you professedly detested” (line 39-41), showing that politics can sway a man to slavery and indicating so can it be used to sway a man from slavery and urging Jefferson to stick with his original morals.

Other than a moral argument, Banneker presents Jefferson with a logical one. If the American people can claim freedom from the “tyranny of the British Crown” (line 2), than surely slaves should claim freedom as well. He used Jefferson’s own words against him, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed…with certain inalienable rights…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (line 21-25). Jefferson himself enumerated the right of all to freedom, of the “valuation of liberty and the free possession of those blessings to which you were entitled by nature” (line 29-30). Which then begs the questions of why a nation founded on liberty, would withhold “impartial distribution of those rights and privileges” (line 33-34) from all its inhabitants. It stands to reason then, that if Americans had a right to freedom, so did American slaves. Banneker draws the parallel between the plight of the slaves, and that of the American Revolution in such a way that that Jefferson, and by extension American politicians, would have no other conclusion to draw. Banneker even ends his letters, “thus shall {Jefferson] need neither the direction of myself or others, in what manner to proceed herein” (line 51-53), so confident in his argument he is, he doesn’t feel the need to spell out that he wants Jefferson to curb slavery as he works on building the new nation.

Slavery is a moral wrong in the modern day, but for the first century of America’s history, it was a political right. So contentious was the issue, it lead to the civil war, which many believe could have been avoided if the founders had curbed slavery from the start, though they feared the union would not survive such an early display of overt power. As the nation was in its infancy, the son of slaves wrote to Thomas Jefferson, a man who wrote of inalienable rights, and asked the same for his people, because if America was truly to be a land of the free, then how could so many continue to be oppressed?

 

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