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Banneker: Surveyor, Astronomer, Patriot by Charles Cerami

I was in the library, fresh from dropping off my newest slate of returns, when I took the chance to wander through the biography section. It’s rare that I ever go to the library with any specific intent on what I’m going to pick up (I believe the last time I did that was to pick up a copy of Cesar Milan’s Be A Pack Leader, which was excellent), and this time was no different. I was rummaging through the shelves, and nothing in particular was catching my eye. I was about to pack it in when my eyes finally fell on Banneker. I had no specific memory of the name, but it rang a bell. A cursory glance of the inside cover told me all I needed to know, “… he humiliated Jefferson…” SOLD!

Benjamin Banneker was born a free man in Maryland in the early 1730s. From an early age he was regarded as something of a whiz, and local people from all over town were asking him for his help with their accounts at the tender age of six. His family wasn’t well-off, but nor were they destitute. His parents ran a small but growing tobacco farm and instilled in him a healthy respect for work, and allowed him to pursue his intellectual pursuits so long as he still did his work on the farm. His mother was a freed indentured servant, and made sure that her children would be able to read.

Benjamin’s first love was the mystery of space and the stars. Until racial prejudices became more extreme, it was common for young Benjamin to do his farm work, sneak a quick nap, and then spend most of the night making observations about the stars and later, notes about movements and his personal theories about what was what.

As Benjamin grew older, his family came to depend on him more and more. By this point he was somewhat obviously a prodigy (he had hand-crafted a clock with wooden gears), and perhaps with an eye toward exposing their son to greater horizons, they sent him to Baltimore one summer to sell the family’s tobacco at market. This trip would bring both tragedy and salvation to young Benjamin.

The tragedy would occur in the form of being truly exposed to the wide world of racism. To help with the wagon and animals, Benjamin’s uncle came along with him on the trip. In an episode whose horror I can’t begin to imagine, they’re beset by slave catchers. Now, Benjamin is able to convince them that he’s free and that his papers are genuine — but his uncle isn’t so lucky. His uncle is beaten and taken away by the slave catchers, never to be seen by Benjamin or anyone in his family ever again. As if that wasn’t enough, upon bringing his tobacco to the Baltimore market, the merchant more or less says he’d be within his rights to throw Benjamin in irons for stealing such excellent tobacco. As a result, Benjamin is forced to sell the crop at a fraction of its value to avoid imprisonment. 

Understandably, for the rest of his life Banneker seemed riddled with fears that everything could be taken away from him at any time.

But, it was in Baltimore that Banneker made a connection whose impact would forever change his life… it was here he was introduced to the Ellicotts, a prosperous family of Quakers whose sons had an interest in everything scientific and mechanical. This family became something of a surrogate sponsor for Benjamin’s education, as they were constantly lending him their books, and their old equipment (such as old telescopes), and these things would allow him to achieve a depth of understanding that seems absolutely impossible for such a humble scientist in the early 19th century.

As Benjamin grew older, he seemed to embody the idea of the absent-minded professor. He toiled on his farm only as long as needed to assure his survival, and then spend the rest of his time reading books, following planetary movements, watching the Ellicotts build water mills, and writing what notes he could. 

His big break occurred when he was drafted by the Ellicotts to assist in the surveying of what would become Washington, D.C. The idea that a black man would be part of such an important undertaking certainly produced a lot of uncertainty, but Ellicott had complete faith in Banneker as his chief assistant. Banneker apparently had the most important job — the job of making sure that the lines struck the day before were continued exactly the next day. In order to do it, in once again required staying up late hours into the night to make sure that the measurements of the stars were where they should be and that the work could proceed apace the next day.

After the surveying of the Washington grid, Banneker decided to follow one of his lifelong dreams, again with the helping influence of his friends the Ellicotts. Banneker long desired to make his own almanac, complete with tide charts and other astronomical information. He had spent most of his life compiling the data, and with the Ellicotts willing to go to bat to secure some printers, Banneker decides to go ahead and write the damn thing. The Almanac becomes a surprise bestseller, in large part because of the uniqueness of the author. He almost instantly becomes something of an abolitionist hero, and Banneker is suddenly inundated with visitors and letters. It is also around this time that he starts hearing gunshots right outside his door in the middle of the night.

Perhaps it was something about Jefferson’s hypocrisy that made Banneker write a letter to him. Perhaps it was a new-found pride from the success of his Almanac. Perhaps it was simply a reaction to the constant racism he’d experienced that finally needed expression; whatever the case, he sent Jefferson a handwritten copy of his almanac with a note which said in part:

“…although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath 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.” 

Jefferson, with his standard two-face, welcomes the letter and forwards it to a friend in Paris while later writing about how much of Banneker’s “achievements” were probably just Ellicotts’.

I alluded earlier to Banneker’s uncanny knowledge of the cosmos. It’s absolutely impossible to know how much knowledge Banneker was able to accumulate, because shortly after his death his cabin was burned down, taking with it everything he’d written that hadn’t been on loan to Ellicott at the time. I, for one, find it absolutely incredible that he had correctly deduced that most stars likely had planets around them, and that there could even be life on those other planets. That is some serious out-of-the-box thinking for a humble astronomer farmer. I only wish we could have had a deeper look into the life’s work of a man who was so capable of rising above the conventional expectations to see what might be.

Four Stars

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I grabbed this book the same day I picked up Banneker as it was actually a featured bookend at the edge of the young adult section. I was actually shocked at how faithfully the book followed the movie (previously reviewed). It did have the welcome addition of fleshing out the character of Harry Wotten, but otherwise was more or less exactly as depicted in the movie.

It’s an easy read, and an entertaining one at that. Four Stars, same as the movie which it spawned

Hamilton by Ron Chernow

As a starter, if you could only read one book about Alexander Hamilton, this is the one you want to pick up.

Having covered a good cross-section of Hamilton’s life in the previous review, I’ll only add a couple salient points here.

The book does an exquisite job of establishing the team of Washington and Hamilton as a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. During the Revolution, Washington routinely trusts Hamilton to get jobs done, going so far as to allow Hamilton to issue orders on his own initiative as if they came from the hand of Washington himself. As the French become more involved in the war, Hamilton acts as the prime translator between Washington and the French, also being sure to communicate the spirit of the meaning of the words and not just the rote translation. There is such a multitude of uses that Washington trusts to Hamilton, and no other, that when Hamilton decides to leave, Washington goes almost to the point of saying the war might be lost without him. But Hamilton is young, eager to prove himself, and desiring a chance to prove himself in battle, not work a desk for the war. Washington reluctantly releases him from his service, and they begin a largely benign estrangement which lasted a few years.

One thing that the Revolution taught to both men was the complete inadequacy of the Articles of Confederation. Wars take a lot of logistical support, and so much of Washington and Hamilton’s time was spent begging for supplies and money that they became, in my words, hateful of the government as it stood. Wars are tough enough, but then combine those difficulties with a government incapable of providing more troops, furnishing supplies, or paying their soldiers, and it becomes no wonder they might harbor negative feelings about the sovereign.

One thing that constantly astounds me reading books on Hamilton is how prolific he was. He was, for example, running a thriving law practice, and organizing the Federalists in New York when he wrote his share of The Federalist Papers. As the Secretary of the Treasury, he managed to organize his department from scratch into a functioning whole seemingly overnight (interesting side note: Washington had an aid as President, Jefferson had four secretaries at the State Department, Hamilton had over 200 employees). In addition, Chernow describes Hamilton as, essentially, Washington’s Prime Minister, because Hamilton certainly had the President’s ear, but seemed to have his hands involved in absolutely everything. 

One thing I want to add here is that Hamilton’s time at the Treasury seems to be above reproach. He’s definitely a polarizing figure, and the Republicans in Congress got it in their heads that he was stealing from the Treasury. They ran several investigations against him (at one point trying to get him dismissed by making him do a full audit in a tiny deadline, which he managed to do with no trouble), and never once found him guilty of any wrong-doing. In fact, his time in public service only served to bankrupt him, because he felt that continuing to work while working in public service would only lead to compromising conflicts of interest. He even went so far as to sacrifice his own pension to avoid having a conflict regarding the Revolutionary War debt speculators.

Also, and I know I beat this poor horse to death, but Jefferson is a piece of shit. Again, this book laid out loads of hypocrisy by Jefferson — as Governor of Virginia during the war, he abandoned office and ran from the British, yet calls Hamilton a coward. Jefferson owns slaves, yet calls Hamilton lazy! He hates everything Washington is doing in foreign policy, but he won’t resign his job at State, and pays State funds to a publisher to talk trash on Washington… There’s plenty more, and a lot of them seem completely petty, but I’d like to move on to a few closing points.

When Jefferson becomes President, he still hates the Bank and the Treasury, and appoints his friend Albert Gallatin as Treasurer and tells him to look into things and see how corrupt Hamilton made it. Gallatin was no friend to the Bank, nor Hamilton, but his final report should remove any doubt about the corruption charges:

” [this is the most amazing department in government]… Hamilton did such a perfect job organizing the Treasury that it will be a sinecure ever after for whoever holds it.” 

This book was easily a five star masterpiece. Eminently readable, with a great cross-section of stories about many different Founders, it does wonders to make the wide cast of characters seem knowable on a personal level. We still might not be able to understand why a genius like Hamilton would allow himself to be blackmailed and destroyed by a whore, but no one knows anyone well enough to understand every impulse that goes through their head. In the end, it’s a great biography that shows a man all too human.

One final anecdote that made me do a genuine laugh out loud.

Hamilton, in his final years, is designing his dream home. As he so often does, he goes into exact details of minutia, from number of bricks for the walkway and number of trees for the yard. In his customary thoroughness, he writes to a botany professor for advice:

“… I admit, I am as unfit on this topic as Jefferson is to helm the nation.”

Thanks for reading, next up we’ll have The Guns of August and Clarence Darrow.


Posted March 21, 2012 by fatmoron in Uncategorized

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