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Banneker's peace plan could have changed history.

In 1792 in Philadelphia, two men talked about the drain of war on a nation and its people. They talked of their desire to build a world where young men could live without the threat of war. They talked about the Indian wars and the future of the new nation. They worried that the new government had established a Department of War but had made no provision for a Department of Peace.

The two men were Benjamin Rush, a medical doctor who signed the Declaration of Independence, and Benjamin Banneker, a surveyor, astronomer, mathematician and editor.

Both men, one a white American, the other an African-American, believed passionately that slavery was a great cancer on the body of the young nation. Both believed that war could be avoided by a conscientious study for peace.

From this deep concern evolved a document buried n American history, a plan for a Peace Office of the United States. Published by Banneker in 1793, Banneker's Almanac was the most widely read book of its time.

The idea of a Department of Peace concomitant with a Department of War was completely new. If adopted, it could change the course of history. Yet this plan has lain fallow for more than 200 years.

Freeborn in Maryland, Banneker was the first African-American scientist and astronomer and a key surveyor in developing what is now the District of Columbia. Banneker's mother, Mary, was a courageous woman who had inherited a farm from her mother, Molly Wash, an indentured woman sent to the colony of Maryland from Britain. The law required that at the end of seven years, bondmen and bondwomen be released.

Carrying her few belongings, including the Bible she'd brought from England, Molly Walsh left the fields after seven years of indenture and settled on a piece of land near a place now called Ellicott City, Md. She purchased two slaves to help her work the land, one of whom she subsequently married. His name was Bannaky. She bore him a son in 1731, Benjamin Banneker. He was precocious, tinkering with the basic principles of science as easily as other children play with toys.

Banneker became a master mathematician and surveyor. In 1790, when it seemed the plans for the Federal District (now the District of Columbia) were lost, some historians maintain, Banneker redrew the plans from memory. He thus became known as "the man who saved Washington."

A group of friends encouraged Banneker to issue an almanac. Many of his peers, seeing the rise of prejudice against people of color, felt the new nation needed a forum in which vital public questions could be read and debated. "The Plan for Peace" as contained in the almanac is preserved in the Rare Book Room at the New York Public Library. It states:

Among the many defects that have been pointed out in the federal constitution by its antifederal enemies, it is much to be lamented that no person has taken notice of its total silence upon the subject of an office of the utmost importance to the welfare of the United States, that is, an office for promoting and preserving perpetual peace in our country. It is to be hoped that no objection will be made to the establishment of such an office, while we are engaged in a war with the Indians, for as the War Office of the United States was established in time of peace, it is equally reasonable that a Peace Office should be established in time of war.

The plan of this office is as follows:

1.) Let a Secretary of Peace be appointed to preside in this office who shall be perfectly free from all the present absurd and vulgar European prejudices upon the subject of government; let him be a genuine republican and a sincere Christian, for the principles of republicanism and Christianity are no less friendly to universal and perpetual peace than they are to universal and equal liberty. ...

5.) To inspire a veneration for human life and a horror at the shedding of human blood, let all those laws be repealed that authorize juries, judges, sheriffs or hangmen to assume the resentments of individuals and to commit murder in cold blood in any case whatever. Until this reformation in our code or penal jurisprudence takes place, it will be in vain to attempt to introduce universal and perpetual peace in our country.

6.) To subdue that passion for war, which, education added to human depravity, [has] made universal a familiarity with the instruments of death as well as all military shows. ... For which reason militia laws should everywhere be repealed and military dresses and military titles should be laid aside. ...

Shirley Graham's book Your Most Humble Servant mentions many ordinary citizens who supported the plan and "important men who said, |A parcel of nonsense!'; and others, |Who is this Benjamin Banneker who presumes to present us with a plan?''' Rush was disturbed by the cynical comments he heard from men who should have been interested in the plan. Out of his own experiece as a soldier, he added a new section for the "Plan for Peace," which includes:

In order to more deeply affect

the minds of the Citizens of the

United States with the blessings

of peace by contrasting them with

the evils of war, let the following

inscriptions be painted upon the

sign that is placed over the door of

the War Office:

1. An office for butchering the

human species.

2. A widow- and orphan-making


3. A broken-bone-making office.

4. A wooden-leg-making office.

5. An office creating public and

private vices.

6. An office creating public debt.

It will take many men and women of great courage and tenacity to revive this "Plan for Peace" and make it part of our national life.

Rose Lucey, a longtime peace and justice advocate, lives in Oakland, Calif., where she is director of the Third Life Center.
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Title Annotation:Benjamin Banneker
Author:Lucey, Rose Marciano
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Biography
Date:Apr 2, 1993
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