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    HIST 1151 American History to 1877 MORE Primary Source Readings: Unit 3 Founding a Nation

    HIST 1151 American History to 1877 MORE Primary Source Readings: Unit 3 Founding a Nation


    A collection of primary source readings for American History to 1877.

    Petitions Concerning the Ohio Territory

    This is a second set of primary sources by Jennifer Nardone to use in addition to, or instead of, the primary source set by Christianna Hurford.

    The primary source readings in this course align with CSCC's version of The American Yawp, Volume 1, which is derived from the The American Yawp open textbook by Stanford University Press.  While the original The American Yawp is accompanied by its own primary source reader called The American Yawp Reader, the selection of primary sources you will find in this course differ somewhat in that some of the text excerpts are from the same sources but might feature a different selection from the text. Some of the primary sources in this course are in addition to those found in The American Yawp Reader. 

    Microsoft Word and PDF downloads of these readings are available.

    To take this course for credit, register at Columbus State Community College.

    This work, except where otherwise indicated, by Jennifer Nardone at Columbus State Community College is licensed CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0.

    A plat map of a portion of Ohio from 1798
    Plat of that tract of country in the territory northwest of the Ohio appropriated for military services and described in the Act of Congress intitled "An act regulating the grants of land appropriated for military services and for the Society of United Brethren for propagating the gospel among the heathen"

    Petitions Regarding the Ohio Territory, 1786-87




    The Articles of Confederation remained the governing document of the United States in the years immediately following the end of the Revolutionary War in 1781. The Articles quickly proved ineffective for any of the major responsibilities of a federal government: raising taxes, drafting and enforcing law, organizing a peacetime military, etc. Organizing the Ohio Territory was one of the few accomplishments of the Articles of Confederation government, although it also raised many important questions about how, if, and when the country would expand west. In 1787, the Confederation government passed the Northwest Ordinance, dissolved the federal government, and called a Constitutional Convention with the purpose of creating a more powerful, centralized federal government.


    Ohio Territory constituted the heart of the Northwest Territories and was home to several powerful Indian Nations as well as dozens of mixed-race communities dating back to New France (this should be in your notes). New Englanders started emigrating in large numbers to the Ohio Territory during and after the Revolutionary War, often squatting on land claimed by Native Americans. The new settlers immediately demanded the newly formed United States government grant them land deeds and protection. Violent clashes between Native Americans (and other Ohioans) and the new emigrants escalated while the Confederation Congress debated the future of the territory. Political leaders believed the economic health of the new country depended on expansion. Many believed individual land ownership promoted civic virtue and increased the productiveness of the country.


    The Confederation government struggled to pay its war debts and had no mechanism to tax states or individuals, leaving the new country in a precarious position. Many political leaders, like Thomas Jefferson who authored the Northwest Ordinance, saw land sales in Ohio as a potential source of revenue. Land companies lobbied Congress vigorously, hoping to profit by purchasing real estate and reselling it to settlers. The government, they insisted, should allow private groups to take control of settlement in Ohio. Jefferson, George Washington, and many other political leaders who established the laws governing westward expansion were also deeply invested in the land companies. As conflicts between Indians, white Americans, and federal agents escalated during 1785, leading a group of white settlers to petition Congress for help.  


    In 1787, half a year before the Constitutional Convention, a collection of Native American leaders gathered on the banks of the Detroit River to offer a unified message to the Congress of the United States. Despite this proposal, American surveyors, settlers, and others continued to cross the Ohio River[1].



    Primary Source

    Petition of the Inhabitants West of the Ohio River, 1785[2]


    To the Honorable the President of the Honorable Congress of the United States of America:


    The petition, of us the subscribers now residing on the western side of the Ohio, humbly show our grateful acknowledgments to those patriots of our country who under Divine Providence so wisely directed and steered the helm of government: in that great and unparalleled conflict for liberty bringing to a happy period the troubles of the states laying the foundation (by the most Salutary means) of the most glorious form of government any people on Earth could ever yet boast of.


    Notwithstanding when the joyful sound of peace had reached our ears; we had scarce enough left us to support the crying distresses of our families occasioned wholly by being exposed to the ravages of a cruel and savage enemy; on an open frontier where the most of us had the misfortune to reside through the whole continuance of the war where the only recourse was to sit confined in forts for the preservation of our lives, by which we were reduced almost to the lowest ebb of poverty, the greatest part of us having no property in lands, our stocks reduced almost to nothing, our case seemed desperate.


    But viewing as it appeared to us an advantage offering of vacant lands which with the alarming necessities we were under Joined with the future prospect of bettering our circumstances, invited us to enter on those Lands fully determined to comply with every requisition of the legislature…with hopes of future happiness we sat content in the enjoyment of our scanty morsel, thinking ourselves safe under the protection of government, when on the fifth of this instant we ware visited by a command of men sent by the Commandant at Fort McIntosh[3] with orders from Government…to dispossess us and to destroy our dwellings…by which order it now appears our conduct in settling here is considered by the legislature to be prejudicial to the common good, of which we had not the least conception till now. We are greatly distressed in our present circumstances, and humbly pray if you in your wisdom think proper to grant us liberty, to rest where we are and to grant us the preference to our actual settlements when the land is to be settled by order of government.



    Speech of the United Indian Nations, at their Confederate Council held near the mouth of the Detroit River between the 28th November and 18th December, 1786[4]


    Present The Five Nations, the Hurons, Delewares, Shawnese, Ottawas, Chippewas, Pottawatomies, Twichtwees, Cherokees, and the Wabash Confederated


    To the Congress of the United States of America


    Brethren of the United States of America:


    It is now more than three years since peace was made between the King of Great Britain and you, but we the Indians, were disappointed finding ourselves not included in that peace according to our expectations, for we thought that it’s conclusion would have promoted a friendship between the United States and Indians, & that we might enjoy that happiness that formerly subsisted between us and our elder brethren. We have received two very agreeable messages from the Thirteen United States. We also received a message from the King, whose war we were engaged in desiring us to remain quiet, which we accordingly complied with. During the time of this tranquility we were deliberating the best method we could to form a lasting reconciliation with the Thirteen United States. Pleased at the same time we thought that we were entering upon a reconciliation and friendship with a set of people born on the same continent with ourselves, certain that the quarrel between us was not of our own making. In the course of our Councils we imagined we hit upon an expedient that would promote a lasting Peace between us.



    We still are of the same opinion as to the means which may tend to reconcile us to each other. We are sorry to find although we had the best thoughts in our minds during the before mentioned period mischief has nevertheless happened between you and us. We are still anxious of putting our plan of accommodation into execution and we shall briefly inform you of the means that seem most probable to us of effecting a firm and lasting peace and reconciliation. The first step towards which should in our opinion be that all treaties carried on with the United States on our part, should be with the general voice of the whole Confederacy and carried on in the most open manner without any restraint on either side. And especially as landed matters are often the subject of our councils with you, a matter of the greatest importance & of general concern to us in this case we hold in indispensably necessary that any cession of our lands should be made in the most public manner & by the united voice of the confederacy. Holding all partial treaties as void and of no effect[5].


    We think it is owing to you that the tranquility which since the peace between us has not lasted and that essential good, has been followed by mischief and confusion having managed everything respecting your own way. You kindled your council fires where you thought proper, without consulting us, at which you held separate treaties, and have entirely neglected our plan of having a general conference with the different nations of the confederacy. Had this happened we have reason to believe everything would now have been settled between us in a most friendly manner. We did everything in our power at the Treaty of Fort Stanwix[6] to induce you to follow this Plan, as our real intentions were at that very time to promote peace and concord between us, and that we might look upon each other as friends, having given you no cause or provocation to be otherwise —



    Notwithstanding the mischief that has happened we are still sincere in our wishes to have peace and tranquility established between us, earnestly hoping to find the same inclinations in you.  We wish therefore you would take it into consideration and let us speak to you in the manner we proposed. Let us have a treaty with you early in the spring. Let us pursue reasonable steps. Let us meet halfway for our mutual convenience. We shall then bury in oblivion the misfortunes that have happened and meet each other on a footing of friendship.



    We say let us meet halfway and let us pursue such steps as become upright and honest men, we beg that you will prevent your surveyors and other people from coming upon our side of the Ohio River. We have told you before we wished to pursue just steps, and we are determined they shall appear just and reasonable in the eyes of the world. This is the determination of all the chiefs of our Confederacy now assembled here, notwithstanding the accidents that have happened in our villages, even when in council, where several imminent chiefs were killed when absolutely engaged in promoting a peace with you the Thirteen United States. Although then interrupted the chiefs here present still wish to meet you in the spring for the before mentioned good purpose, when we hope to speak to each other without either haughtiness or menace. 



    We again request of you in the most earnest manner, to order your surveyors and others that mark out land to cease from crossing the Ohio until we shall have spoken to you because the mischief that has recently happened has originated in that quarter, we shall likewise prevent our people from going over until that time.



    It shall not be our fault if the plan which we have suggested to you should not be carried into execution. In that case the event will be very precarious, and if fresh ruptures ensue we hope to be able to excultrate[7] ourselves, and shall most assuredly with our limited force be obliged to defend those rights and privileges which have been transmitted to us….  And if we should be thereby reduced to misfortune, the world will pity us when they think of the amiable proposals we now make to prevent the unnecessary effusion of blood. These are our thoughts and firm resolves and we earnestly desire that you will transmit to us, as soon as possible, your answer, be it what it may.


    Done at our Confederate Council Fire at the Huron Village, near the mouth of the Detroit River December 18, 1786


    The Five Nations
    Joseph Brant
    The Wabash Confederation




    [2] Archer Butler Hulbert, ed., “Petition of Inhabitants West of the Ohio River (1875)” in Marietta College Historical Collections, Vol. 3 (Marietta, Ohio: Marietta Historical Commission, 1918), 103.

    [3] Fort McIntosh, located in western Pennsylvania, was built during the Revolutionary War and served as a central hub for expansion into Ohio after the War. In 1785, the Confederation Congress sent agents to Ohio to negotiate a treaty with several of Ohio's Indian nations: the Wyandot, the Lenape (Delaware), the Ottawa, and the Ojibwa (Chippewa). The treaty negotiations took place at Fort McIntosh. The destabilization and conflict caused by decades of displacement and conflict left most Indian communities fractured and without clear political leadership. During the treaty negotiations, most of the Indian representatives lacked authority to negotiate on behalf of the tribe. The Americans took advantage of the situation, plying the representatives with alcohol and general debauchery. In the end, the Indian representatives agreed to recognize they lived under the US government and could not form alliances with other powers. They also ceded millions of acres of land in southern and eastern Ohio and agreed to relocate

    to the western corner of modern-day Ohio with a border consisting roughly of the Cuyahoga River on the east. Most Indians living in Ohio did not recognize the treaty, especially the Shawnee, who lost all of their land in southwestern Ohio. The Treaty caused even more internal conflict among Indian Nation and led to increased chaos and violence for everyone living in Ohio.

    For those interested in military history: Fort McIntosh is home to the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, the oldest active duty regiment in the US, sometimes called the “Old Guard.”

    [4] Speech of the United Indian Nations at their Confederate Council; 12/18/1786; Letters from Major General Henry Knox, Secretary at War; Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774 - 1789; Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, ; National Archives Building, Washington, DC. [Online Version,, September 26, 2019]

    [5] Clearly referring to the recent negotiations with unauthorized representatives of the Ohio Tribes.

    [6] There were actually two treaties signed at Fort Stanwix, located in present-day Rome, New York. The petition refers to the second Treaty of Fort Stanwix between the United States and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) in 1784. It was crucial to opening Ohio for land speculators and companies. The Iroquois gained control of Ohio Country during the “Beaver Wars” of the late seventeenth century. The Iroquois signed the first Treaty of Fort Stanwix with Great Britain in 1768, following the Seven Years War, securing Ohio for Native Americans (a sort of addendum to the Proclamation of 1763). With the second treaty in 1784, the Iroquois gave almost all of the land they claimed in Ohio to the US, which the government desperately needed to raise revenue to pay off the war debt. In exchange, the US promised the Iroquois sovereignty and protection. Many Iroquois rejected the Treaty as did every Indian Nation living in Ohio. This petition addressed the immediate impact of the Treaty.

    [7] Adapt.

    Image: Putman, Rufus. Plat of that tract of country in the territory northwest of the Ohio appropriated for military services and described in the Act of Congress intitled "An act regulating the grants of land appropriated for military services and for the Society of United Brethren for propagating the gospel among the heathen". [Philadelphia: s.n. ?, 1798] Map.

    Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV and XVIII

    Silhouette of Thomas Jefferson, full length
    Full-length silhouette portrait shows president Thomas Jefferson facing right.

    Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV and XVIII

    Thomas Jefferson

    Thomas Jefferson remains a formidable figure in American politics and identity. Best known as the author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States, Jefferson was also a philosopher, architect, legal scholar, and enslaver. Although Jefferson championed the principles of liberty and democracy, he also owned over 600 slaves during his lifetime, including his own children. He fathered six children with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who was also half-sister to Jefferson’s deceased wife, Martha Wayles.

    Jefferson wrote his only full-length book, Notes on the State of Virginia, in response to a Frenchman who asked about the geography and society of Jefferson’s home state of Virginia. Jefferson descended from one of the most powerful families in Virginia. His great-grandfather served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, and his father owned one of the largest plantations in Virginia Colony. Notes on the State of Virginia was initially published anonymously in Europe and was not widely-available until an English translation was published in 1781, the year the Revolution ended and almost 20 years before Jefferson’s Presidency.

    In addition to an exhaustive account of the flora and fauna of Virginia, Jefferson offers his views on race and slavery in Virginia. The passage below capture Jefferson’s paradoxical feelings about enslavement in the new country founded on freedom and democracy.[1]


    Many of the laws which were in force during the monarchy being relative merely to that form of government, or inculcating principles inconsistent with republicanism, the first assembly which met after the establishment of the commonwealth appointed a committee to revise the whole code, to reduce it into proper form and volume, and report it to the assembly. This work has been executed by three gentlemen, and reported; but probably will not be taken up till a restoration of peace shall leave to the legislature leisure to go through such a work.[2]

    The plan of the revisal was this. The common law of England, by which is meant, that part of the English law which was anterior[3] to the date of the oldest statutes extant, is made the basis of the work. It was thought dangerous to attempt to reduce it to a text: it was therefore left to be collected from the usual monuments of it. Necessary alterations in that, and so much of the whole body of the British statutes, and of acts of assembly, as were thought proper to be retained, were digested into 126 new acts, in which simplicity of stile was aimed at, as far as was safe. The following are the most remarkable alterations proposed:

    To change the rules of descent, so as that the lands of any person dying intestate shall be divisible equally among all his children, or other representatives, in equal degree.

    To make slaves distributable among the next of kin, as other moveables.

    To have all public expenses, whether of the general treasury, or of a parish or county, (as for the maintenance of the poor, building bridges, court-houses, &c.) supplied by assessments on the citizens, in proportion to their property.

    To hire undertakers for keeping the public roads in repair, and indemnify individuals through whose lands new roads shall be opened.

    To define with precision the rules whereby aliens should become citizens, and citizens make themselves aliens.

    To establish religious freedom on the broadest bottom.

    To emancipate all slaves born after passing the act. The bill reported by the revisors does not itself contain this proposition; but an amendment containing it was prepared, to be offered to the legislature whenever the bill should be taken up, and further directing, that they should continue with their parents to a certain age, then be brought up, at the public expense, to tillage, arts or sciences, according to their geniuses, till the females should be eighteen, and the males twenty-one years of age, when they should be colonized to such place as the circumstances of the time should render most proper, sending them out with arms, implements of household and of the handicraft arts, feeds, pairs of the useful domestic animals, &c. to declare them a free and independent people, and extend to them our alliance and protection, till they shall have acquired strength; and to send vessels at the same time to other parts of the world for an equal number of white inhabitants; to induce whom to migrate hither, proper encouragements were to be proposed.[4]

    It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expense of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race. -- To these objections, which are political, may be added others, which are physical and moral.

    The first difference which strikes us is that of colour. Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan[5] for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race. They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour. This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold, than the whites.

    …They seem to require less sleep. A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.[6] Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour.

    Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid[7]; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. It would be unfair to follow them to Africa for this investigation. We will consider them here, on the same stage with the whites, and where the facts are not apocryphal[8] on which a judgment is to be formed. It will be right to make great allowances for the difference of condition, of education, of conversation, of the sphere in which they move. Many millions of them have been brought to, and born in America. Most of them indeed have been confined to tillage, to their own homes, and their own society: yet many have been so situated, that they might have availed themselves of the conversation of their masters; many have been brought up to the handicraft arts, and from that circumstance have always been associated with the whites. Some have been liberally educated, and all have lived in countries where the arts and sciences are cultivated to a considerable degree, and have had before their eyes samples of the best works from abroad.

    The Indians, with no advantages of this kind, will often carve figures on their pipes not destitute of design and merit. They will crayon out an animal, a plant, or a country, so as to prove the existence of a germ in their minds which only wants cultivation. They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture.

    …That disposition to theft with which they have been branded, must be ascribed to their situation, and not to any depravity of the moral sense. The man, in whose favour no laws of property exist, probably feels himself less bound to respect those made in favour of others. When arguing for ourselves, we lay it down as a fundamental, that laws, to be just, must give a reciprocation of right: that, without this, they are mere arbitrary rules of conduct, founded in force, and not in conscience: and it is a problem which I give to the master to solve, whether the religious precepts against the violation of property were not framed for him as well as his slave? And whether the slave may not as justifiably take a little from one, who has taken all from him, as he may slay one who would slay him? That a change in the relations in which a man is placed should change his ideas of moral right and wrong, is neither new, nor peculiar to the colour of the blacks. Homer tells us it was so 2600 years ago[9].

    But the slaves of which Homer speaks were whites. Notwithstanding these considerations which must weaken their respect for the laws of property, we find among them numerous instances of the most rigid integrity, and as many as among their better instructed masters, of benevolence, gratitude, and unshaken fidelity. -- The opinion, that they are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination, must be hazarded with great diffidence. To justify a general conclusion, requires many observations, even where the subject may be submitted to the Anatomical knife, to Optical glasses, to analysis by fire, or by solvents. How much more then where it is a faculty, not a substance, we are examining; where it eludes the research of all the senses; where the conditions of its existence are various and variously combined; where the effects of those which are present or absent bid defiance to calculation; let me add too, as a circumstance of great tenderness, where our conclusion would degrade a whole race of men from the rank in the scale of beings which their Creator may perhaps have given them.

    To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as nature has formed them? This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.[10]

    Many of their advocates, while they wish to vindicate the liberty of human nature, are anxious also to preserve its dignity and beauty. Some of these, embarrassed by the question `What further is to be done with them?' join themselves in opposition with those who are actuated by sordid avarice only.[11] Among the Romans emancipation required but one effort. The slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.


    It is difficult to determine on the standard by which the manners of a nation may be tried, whether catholic[12], or particular. It is more difficult for a native to bring to that standard the manners of his own nation, familiarized to him by habit. There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally it is not sufficient. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.[13]

    The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances. And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae[14] of the other. For if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be any other in preference to that in which he is born to live and labour for another: in which he must lock up the faculties of his nature, contribute as far as depends on his individual endeavours to the evanishment of the human race, or entail his own miserable condition on the endless generations proceeding from him. With the morals of the people, their industry also is destroyed. For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labour.

    And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest. -- But it is impossible to be temperate and to pursue this subject through the various considerations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil. We must be contented to hope they will force their way into every one's mind. I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.


    [1] Thomas Jefferson, Notes of the State of Virginia, written 1781, published 1787. Full Source Here.

    [2] The “first assembly…after the establishment of a commonwealth” refers to the first state government in Virginia following the end of the Revolutionary War. The first order of business for the Virginia State Assembly was revising and strengthening the Slave Codes to reflect the shift from colony to state.

    [3] Closer.

    [4] As the Revolution came to a close, many states legislatures passed acts for the gradual end of slavery within the state. In 1780, the year before Jefferson wrote Notes, Pennsylvania passed an Act for Gradual Emancipation containing the parameters Jefferson mentions here as a path to ending slavery in the state over time. As he points out, Virginia considered, but did not pass, a similar Act for Gradual Emancipation.

    [5] There are diverging opinions about what exactly Jefferson meant by this word. Eminent historian, Winthrop Jordan, argued in his seminal work, White over Black (1968) that “oranootan” translated to a kind of “wild man” or “man of the woods.” Later historians, like Annette Gordon-Reed (Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, 1997) asserted “oranootan” is a corruption of “orangutan” (the closest primate to humans. Sort of. This is also a contested point). Either way, Jefferson’s intentions are clear: black men are hypersexual animals. White men are not.

    [6] He repeats his point, in case we missed it the first time.

    [7] Euclid was a Greek mathematician during the third century BCE who created geometry. “Euclidean Geometry” is geometry. Why did Jefferson use this analogy? 

    [8] A story that is not true, but repeated so often it is accepted as true. For example, after chopping down a cherry tree, George Washington said “I cannot tell a lie,” or “Christopher Columbus discovered America.”

    [9] Homer was a Greek writer/storyteller during the late eighth century BCE, credited with writing The Iliad and The Odyssey, two of the most influential works in western literature. Both poems wrestle with the nature of freedom and slavery in the context of Ancient Greek society.

    [10] The Enlightenment (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) emphasized hierarchy and scientific analysis of the world, including race. Many scientists, philosophers, and thinkers created systems of racial hierarchy allegedly based on scientific evidence and analysis. These racial hierarchies always defined white Europeans as the most advanced and civilized race, and African peoples as primitive. Jefferson himself was an Enlightenment thinker, so his call to study Indian and African people as “subjects of natural history” is on point.

    [11] Jefferson makes an interesting point here: many people who advocate the equality of man in a general sense do not want to live in an integrated society. They support “the liberty of human nature” as a concept, but don’t want to live in a society with true racial equality – a problem that continues today.

    [12] The original meaning of “catholic” (catholic with a lowercase “c”) referred to a universal belief. “The Catholic Church” was so called because it was the common church among Romans.

    [13] Remember Colonel Mason during the Constitutional Debates on Slavery: “They produce the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of Heaven on a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins by national calamities.” They knew exactly what would happen.

    [14] Love of one’s country; patriotism.


    Image: Marshal, John, Artist. Th Jefferson. , None. [Between 1800 and 1830] Photograph.

    Letter to Thomas Jefferson, 19 August 1791

    Image of a mural depicting Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor-Inventor-Astronomer
    "Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor-Inventor-Astronomer," mural by Maxime Seelbinder


    Letter to Thomas Jefferson, 19 August 1791

    Benjamin Banneker



    Benjamin Banneker was born in 1731 (seven years before the Revolution), in Baltimore County, Maryland to a free black woman and formerly enslaved man. Recent scholarship argues that Banneker’s mother might have been the daughter of a white indentured servant and enslaved black man. Either way, any trace of African blood made Banneker’s mother “African” under the law. The Banneker’s owned a small tobacco farm, which Benjamin inherited when his parents died. The affluent and well-connected Quaker Ellicott family lived nearby and operated several successful grist mills. Banneker worked on and off for the Ellicotts during the 1770s and 1780s. The patriarch of the family, George Ellicott gave Banneker books about math, scientific theory, and astronomy among other subjects. With the support of James Ellicott, George’s nephew. Banneker published his first almanac[1] in 1784, which he would publish every year until 1792, with the exception of two. Another Ellicott sent Banneker’s 1791 Almanac to Thomas Jefferson, who was looking for men to survey the land where Washington DC would be built, recording the boundaries of the new capitol city. Banneker read Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, and sent this letter along with a copy of his almanac to Jefferson shortly after completing the survey. In addition to astronomy, mathematics, surveying, Banneker also invented several mechanical objects, the most well-know being his wooden clock that chimed every hour. His design was the basis of Grandfather clocks. Banneker died in 1806, during Jefferson’s second term as President[2].





    Maryland. Baltimore County. Near Ellicotts Lower Mills
    August 19th: 1791



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


    I suppose it is a truth too well attested to you, 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 that we have long been considered rather as brutish than human, and Scarcely capable of mental endowments.


    Sir I hope I may Safely admit, in consequence of that report which hath 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 toward us, and that you are willing and ready to Lend your aid and assistance to our relief from those many distresses and numerous calamities to which we are reduced.


    Now Sir if this is founded in truth, I apprehend you will readily embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions which so generally prevails with respect to us, and that your Sentiments are concurrent with mine, which are that one universal Father hath given being to us all, and 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 endued us all with the same faculties, and that however variable we may be in Society or religion, however diversifyed in Situation or colour, we are all of the Same Family, and Stand in the Same relation to him.


    Sir, if these are Sentiments of which you are fully persuaded, I hope 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 power and influence to the relief of every part of the human race, from whatever burthen 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.


    Sir, I have long been convinced, that if your love for your Selves, and for those inesteemable laws which preserve to you the rights of human nature, was founded on Sincerity, you could not but be Solicitous, that every Individual of whatsoever rank or distinction, might with you equally enjoy the blessings thereof, neither could you rest Satisfyed, short of the most active diffusion of your exertions, in order to their promotion from any State of degradation, to which the unjustifyable cruelty and barbarism of men may have reduced them.


    Sir I freely and Chearfully acknowledge, that I am of the African race, and in that colour which is natural to them of the deepest dye[3], 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[4], 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 received from the immediate hand of that Being, from whom proceedeth every good and perfect gift.


    Sir, Suffer me to recall to your mind that time in which the Arms and tyranny 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 time 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 in which you clearly saw into the injustice of a State of Slavery, and in which you had just apprehensions of the horrors of its condition, it was now Sir, that your abhorrence thereof was so excited, that you publickly held forth this true and invaluable doctrine, which is worthy to be recorded and remember’d in all Succeeding ages. “We hold these truths to be Self evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happyness.”[5]


    Here Sir, was a time in which your tender feelings for your selves had engaged you thus to declare, you were then impressed with proper ideas of the great valuation 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 altho you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of those rights and privileges which he had 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.


    Sir, I suppose that 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 these narrow prejudices which you have imbibed with respect to them, and as Job proposed to his friends “Put your Souls in their Souls stead,” thus shall your hearts be enlarged with kindness and benevolence toward them, and thus shall you need neither the direction of myself or others in what manner to proceed herein.


    And now, Sir, altho 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 make known to you, that it was not originally my design; but that having taken up my pen in order to direct to you as a present, a copy of an Almanack which I have calculated for the Succeeding year, I was unexpectedly and unavoidably led thereto.


    This calculation, Sir, is the production of my arduous Study in this my advanced Stage of life[6]; for having long had unbounded desires to become acquainted with the Secrets of nature, I have had to gratify my curiosity herein thro my own assiduous application to Astronomical Study, in which I need not to recount to you the many difficulties and disadvantages which I have had to encounter.


    And altho I had almost declined to make my calculation for the ensuing year, in consequence of that time which I had allotted therefor being taking up at the Federal Territory by the request of Mr. Andrew Ellicott, yet finding myself under Several engagements to printers of this state to whom I had communicated my design, on my return to my place of residence, I industriously apply’d myself thereto, which I hope I have accomplished with correctness and accuracy, a copy of which I have taken the liberty to direct to you, and which I humbly request you will favourably receive, and altho you may have the opportunity of perusing it after its publication, yet I chose 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 hand writing.—And now Sir, I shall conclude and Subscribe my Self with the most profound respect your most Obedient humble Servant,


    Benjamin Banneker


    NB - any communication to me may be had by a direction to Mr. Elias Ellicott merchant in Baltimore Town[7].




    Jefferson’s reply to Banneker’s letter:


    Philadelphia Aug. 30. 1791.


    I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th. instant[8] and for the Almanac it contained. no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that 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 of their existence both in Africa & America[9]. I can add with truth that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body & mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecillity of their present existence, and other circumstance which cannot be neglected, will admit. I have taken the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet, Secretary of the Academy of sciences at Paris, and member of the Philanthropic society because I considered it as a document to which your whole colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them. I am with great esteem, Sir, Your most obedt. humble servt. Th. Jefferson



    [1] A book published every year that contains events and information about the next year. Almanacs were very important in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because they included weather forecasts, waxing and waning of the moon, and what time the sun will rise and set. Remember there were no clocks, watches, or other way to tell exact time before the nineteenth century. Time will not be standardized until 1887, when the US institutes time zones (you have to come to History 1152 to hear more). Almanacs were especially important to farmers whose livelihood depended on the cycle of seasons.

    [2] Benjamin Banneker, Letter to Thomas Jefferson, 1791.  

    [3] Banneker’s father was captured in Guinea and brought to the American Colonies around the turn of the eighteenth century. It is unclear when Banneker’s father gained his freedom. So, what does he mean by “deepest dye?”

    [4] “That State of tyrannical thralldom” means what?

    [5] Banneker does not mince words here. Remember, Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, which contains the famous lines: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    [6] Banneker was 60 years old when he surveyed Washington DC and wrote this letter.

    [7] Latin for “note well,” similar to PS.

    [8] Meaning the letter arrived quickly.

    [9] What does he mean by “degraded condition…both Africa and America?”

    Image: Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. "Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor-Inventor-Astronomer," mural by Maxime Seelbinder, at the Recorder of Deeds building, built in . 515 D St., NW, Washington, D.C. United States Washington D.C, 2010. Photograph.