William Wilberforce

gigatos | December 27, 2021


William Wilberforce (born August 24, 1759, died July 29, 1833) was a British politician, philanthropist, and leader of the abolitionist movement, which aimed to abolish slavery.

He was born in Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire, where he began his political career in 1780; from 1784 to 1812 he was an independent Member of Parliament for the Yorkshire constituency. In 1785 he experienced a religious conversion and became an evangelical Anglican, which caused a change in his lifestyle and manifested itself in a passion for reform that did not leave him for the rest of his life. In 1787 he came into contact with Thomas Clarkson(Anglican) and a group of opponents of the slave trade, including Grenvill Sharp, Hannah More and Charles Middleton. They convinced Wilberforce of their program and he soon became a prominent figure in the English abolitionist movement. For twenty-six years he campaigned in the British Parliament against the slave trade, which in turn led to the passing of The Slave Trade Act (1807).

Wilberforce stressed the importance of religion, morality and education. He championed and promoted many noble causes through his many campaigns. Thus: he supported the Society for Suppression of Vice and the missionary work of the British in India, the establishment of a free colony in Sierra Leone, the founding of the Church Mission Society, and he supported the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Essentially a conservative, he advocated repressive legislation, which led to accusations that while campaigning against slavery abroad, he overlooked injustices at home.

In his later years, even after 1826, when he was no longer an MP due to poor health, he supported the campaign for the complete abolition of slavery. The latter campaign led to the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which abolished slavery throughout almost the entire British Empire. Wilberforce died three days after learning that the passage of the Act through parliament was not in doubt. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, close to his friend William Pitt.

William Wilberforce was born on 24 August 1759 at a house in High Street, Hull, East Riding of Yorkshire, as the only son of wealthy merchant Robert Wilberfoce (1728-1768) and his wife Elizabeth Bird (1730-1798). He was baptized on 29 September 1759 at Seaton Ross in the East Riding. His grandfather, William (1690-1776), made his fortune in the maritime trade with the Baltics, and was twice elected Mayor of Hull.

Wilberforce was a small, sickly and delicate child with poor eyesight. In 1767 he began attending a grammar school, then run by the young and dynamic headmaster Joseph Milner, who later became his lifelong friend. Until 1768, when his father died, William enjoyed the friendly atmosphere of the school. Then, as his mother struggled to provide for the family, nine-year-old William went to live with wealthy relatives in London. His uncle and aunt there owned a house on St. James Place and a second house in Wimbledon, which was then a sub-london town. For two years he attended an “ordinary” boarding school in Puenty, and went to Wimbledon for vacations, where he came to know and like his relatives more closely. Influenced by his aunt Hannah – sister of wealthy merchant John Thornton and supporter of Methodist preacher George Whitefield – Wilberforce became interested in evangelical Christianity.

Wilberforce”s mother and grandfather, staunch Anglicans, alarmed by their nonconformist influence and inclination toward evangelicalism, brought their twelve-year-old son back to Hull in 1771. Wilberforce was distraught at being separated from his uncle and aunt. Since the family refused to allow him to return to the school in Hull, the headmaster of which was then a Methodist, he continued his education at the nearby school at Pockington from 1771 to 1776. The strict Methodist rules of the time adversely affected Wilberforce”s social life, but when his religious fervor eased, he enjoyed going to the theater, attending balls, and playing cards.

In October 1776, at the age of seventeen, Wilberforce entered St John”s College at Cambridge University. After the deaths of his grandfather and uncle in 1776 and 1777 respectively, he became wealthy and independent, so he did not need to continue to devote himself to serious study. Instead, he immersed himself in student social life and led a hedonistic lifestyle: he played cards, gambled, and went on drinking binges that lasted until dawn – although he found the excesses of some of his classmates distasteful. Witty, generous, and an excellent conversationalist, Wilberforce was a very popular figure. He made many friends, including the harder-working future Prime Minister William Pitt. Despite his lifestyle and lack of interest in studying, he passed all his exams. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1781 and a Master of Arts degree in 1788.

While still at university, Wilberforce began to consider embarking on a political career. During the winter of 1779-1780 he and Pitt often watched the proceedings of the House of Commons from the gallery. Pitt had already chosen a political career and encouraged Wilberforce in it; he wanted them to run for Parliament together. In September 1780, at the age of twenty-one, while still a student, Wilberforce was elected Member of Parliament for the constituency of Kingstone upon Hull. To secure the necessary number of votes, as was the custom at the time, he spent over £8,000. Free from financial worries, Wilberforce sat as an independent MP and chose to be a ”no party man”. He was often criticized for his inconsistency; he supported Tory and Wig governments according to his conscience, worked closely with the governing party, but voted on individual motions according to their merits. Wilberforce took regular part in the work of parliament, though as a regular at gentlemen”s clubs such as Goostree”s and Boodle”s on Pall Mall, London, he also maintained lively social contacts. Madame de Staël, a writer and lady who belonged to this elegant world, called him “the wittiest man in England”. Georgiana Cavendish recalled the Prince of Wales” opinion of Wilberforce, the Prince is said to have said that he would go to the end of the world to hear him sing. Wilberforce used his magnificent voice to great effect in political speeches. Memoirist James Boswell witnessed Wilberforce”s eloquence in the House of Commons. He remarked: I perceived what seemed scarcely a shrimp on a plate; but as I listened further, he grew, and grew, until the shrimp became a whale, (but as I listened, he grew, and grew, until the shrimp became a whale.”).During the frequent changes of government between 1781 and 1784, Wilberforce supported his friend Pitt in parliamentary debates. In the fall of 1783, Pitt, Wilberforce, and Edward James Eliot (who later became Pitt”s brother-in-law) traveled through France during their six-week vacation. After a rough start in Rheims-where their presence aroused the suspicions of the police (they were suspected of being English spies)-they visited Paris, met Benjamin Franklin, General Lafayette, Marie Antoinette, and Louis XVI, and found admittance to the royal French court at the Palace of Fontainebleau.

In December 1783, Pitt became prime minister and Wilberforce became a key partisan of his minority government. Despite the close friendship they shared, there is no evidence that Pitt offered Wilberforce any ministerial position in his first government or in subsequent ones. This may have been because Wilberforce wanted to remain independent, but it may also have been because of Wilberforce”s frequent tardiness and disorganization and the fact that he had chronic eye problems that often prevented him from reading. When Parliament was dissolved in the spring of 1784, it was at the general election of that year that Wilberforce decided to run for the Yorkshire constituency. On April 6, at the age of twenty-four, he was again elected a Member of Parliament, this time from the Yorkshire constituency.

In October 1784, Wilberforce embarked on a tour of Europe that would change his life and future career. He traveled with his mother and sister in the company of Isaac Milner, the highly intelligent younger brother of the headmaster of his first school and an academic at Queens” College, Cambridge, the year Wilberforce began his studies. They became acquainted with the French Riviera, and spent time dining sumptuously, playing cards, and gambling. In February 1785, Wilberforce briefly returned to London to support Pitt”s parliamentary reform proposals. He met up with the other travelers again in Genoa, Italy, and from there they traveled to Switzerland. On their way back to England, Wilberforce and Milner, who accompanied him, read a book by Philip Doddridge, an eighteenth-century English clergyman, entitled The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul.

Wilberforce”s spiritual journey is believed to have begun around this time. He began to get up early in the morning to read his Bible and pray, and he began to write in his private journal. He experienced what is known as an evangelical conversion: he repented of his past sins and wanted to devote the rest of his life to serving God as an expiation for them. His conversion changed some of his habits, but not his nature: outwardly he remained a cheerful man, he spoke with respect and interest to his interlocutors and tried to win them over to his new faith. Deep inside, he experienced tormenting conflicts, was mercilessly self-critical, judging harshly his own spirituality, use of time, vanity, self-control and relationships with others.

At the time, religious enthusiasm was widely regarded as a breach of the norms of good company and was socially stigmatized. Evangelical Protestants among the upper classes, such as Sir Richard Hill, a Methodist MP from Shropshire, and Selina Hastings, Duchess of Huntingdon, were subject to scorn and disregard. Because of his conversion, Wilberforce began to question his presence in public life. He sought advice from John Newton, a leading evangelical clergyman in the Church of England and pastor of St. Mary Woolnoth Church in the City of London. Both Newton and his friend Pitt advised Wilberforce to stay in politics. Wilberforce not only stayed in politics, but decided to pursue it with increased diligence and conscientiousness, (“with increased diligence and conscientiousness”). From then on, his political views were animated by his faith and his desire to spread Christianity and Christian ethics, both in public and private life. His views were often deeply conservative, opposing radical changes to the God-given political and social order, focusing his attention on such matters as observance of the holy day and the eradication of evil through education and moral reform. Because of his conservatism, he was not trusted among supporters of social progress, but also among many Tories, who regarded evangelicals as radicals seeking to overthrow church and state.

In 1786, to be close to parliament, Wilberforce rented a house in Old Palace Yard in Westminster. As a parliamentarian, he attempted to carry out the Registration Bill, which proposed some minor changes to parliamentary election procedures. Wilberforce also submitted a bill to facilitate the use of the bodies of rapists, arsonists, and thieves after their execution for dissection purposes. The same bill also included a proposal to reduce sentences for women convicted of infidelity: a crime that at the time included the murder of a husband. Both bills passed the House of Commons, but were rejected in the House of Lords.

It is generally assumed that the British campaign to abolish the slave trade began in the 1780s with the establishment of anti-slavery committees by Quakers and after they presented the first slave trade petition to Parliament in 1783. That same year, William Wilberforce, while dining with his old friend Gerard Edwards, met the Reverend James Ramsay, a ship”s surgeon and medical supervisor at the plantation on the island of Saint Kitts where he had become pastor. Ramsay was appalled by the conditions the slaves were forced to endure, both during transport and on the plantations. When he returned to England in 1781 after fifteen years and accepted a benefice in the town of Teston, he became acquainted with a group of people who would later be known as the Testonians, (among them were Charles Middleton, Lady Middleton, Thomas Clarkson, and Hannah More. They were interested in spreading Christianity and moral repair in Britain and abroad, at the same time they were troubled in their Christian consciences by Ramsay”s accounts of the immoral lifestyle of slave owners, the cruel treatment of slaves, and the lack of religious instruction on the plantations. With their help and encouragement, Ramsay spent three years writing an essay entitled An essay on the treatment and conversion of African slaves in the British sugar cane plantations. This essay expressed opinions in the highest degree critical of slavery in the West Indies. The book, which was published in 1784, would soon have a significant impact on increasing public awareness and interest in slavery issues. It also drew the ire of West Indian planters, who attacked Ramsay and his ideas in a series of tracts celebrating slavery in the years following the book”s publication.

Wilberforce apparently did not immediately follow Ramsay”s lead; it was not until three years later, inspired by his new faith, that he turned his attention to humanitarian reform. In November 1786, he received a letter from Charls Middleton that again triggered his desire to take an interest in the slave trade. At Lady Middleton”s urging, Sir Charles suggested that Wilberforce raise the issue of banning the slave trade in Parliament. Wilberforce replied that he felt the great importance of the matter and felt that he would not be up to the task assigned to him, yet he could not outright refuse to take it up. “He felt the great importance of the subject, and thought himself unequal to the task allotted to him, but yet would not positively decline it.) He began by reading as thoroughly as possible on the subject of slavery, and in the winter of 1786-87 he met with the Testonians at Middleton”s house at Barham Court in Teston.

In early 1787, Thomas Clarkson – Wilberforce”s classmate from the same year at Cambridge and an abolitionist who had written a prize-winning essay on slavery while still at university – invited Wilberforce to the Old Palace Yard with a published copy of his student paper. It was then that they first met, and their collaboration would continue for nearly fifty years. Clarkson began to visit Wilberforce weekly, bringing authentic first-hand testimony about the slave trade that he had managed to obtain. The Quakers, who were already working on abolition, also saw the need to influence parliament, urging Clarkson to obtain Wilberforce”s commitment to raise the issue of abolition in the House of Commons.

Bennet Langton, a Linconlnshire landowner and a mutual friend of Wilberforce and Clarkson, was to arrange a formal meeting to present Wilberforce with a request to campaign in parliament. The party was held on 13 March 1787, with Charles Middleton, Sir Joshua Reynolds, William Windham, James Boswell and Isaac Hawkins Browne present. Towards evening Wilberforce agreed on general terms that he would present the question of banning the slave trade to parliament, “provided that no person more proper could be found”.

On May 12, 1787, later that spring, at a famous meeting under the great oak tree on Pitt”s Kent estate, the ever-wavering Wilberforce spoke with acting Prime Minister William Pitt and William Grenville the future Prime Minister. Under Wilberforce”s “oak tree” at Holwood, as it will be called from now on, Pitt rallied his friend by saying, Wilberforce, why are you not paying attention to the Slave Trade proposal? You have already gone to a great deal of trouble in collecting testimony, and you are fully authorized to take it up, which in doing so you will gain more confidence. Don”t waste your time, or someone else will take your place. (English. “Wilberforce, why don”t you give notice of a motion on the subject of the Slave Trade? You have already taken great pains to collect evidence, and are therefore fully entitled to the credit which doing so will ensure you. Do not lose time, or the ground will be occupied by another.”). Wilberforce”s reply is not recorded anywhere, but later, near the end of his life, he stated: I distinctly remember the very knoll on which I sat near Pitt and Grenville. “I distinctly remember the very knoll on which I was sitting near Pitt and Grenville”).

Wilberforce”s involvement in the abolitionist movement was motivated by a desire to test his Christian principles in action, as well as out of a need to serve God in public life. He and other evangelical Protestants were appalled by what they saw as immoral and unchristian commerce, as well as the greed and avarice of landlords and merchants. Wilberforce felt called by God when he wrote in a magazine in 1787: “God Almighty has set before me two great tasks, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners. “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners . Evangelical Protestants, who were otherwise associated with unpopular campaigns against vice and immorality, served to improve their standing in society by becoming visibly involved in the very popular anti-slavery movement.

Initial actions in parliament

On May 22, 1787, the first meeting of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade took place. The society was formed by people with similar views: British Quakers and Anglicans. For the first time they joined together in the same organization. The committee decided to campaign against the slave trade rather than against slavery itself. Many committee members believed that slavery would disappear as a natural consequence of the prohibition of the slave trade. Wilberforce, although informally involved with the committee, did not officially join until 1791.

The Society was very successful in creating public awareness and in gaining support for its goals; local branches of the Society were established throughout Britain. Clarkson traveled the country collecting information and testimonies from those directly caught up in and affected by slavery. During this time, the committee campaigned, inventing entirely new techniques for gaining supporters, such as lobbying, writing pamphlets, holding public meetings, attracting press attention, and organizing boycotts; there was even a campaign logo: an image of a kneeling slave with the caption Am I not a Man and a Brother? The logo was designed by renowned potter Josiah Wedgwood. The committee also tried to influence the slave-trading states of France, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United States by corresponding with activists in the abolitionist movement in those countries and organizing translations of pamphlets and books from the English language. Some of these books were also written by former slaves, such as Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano; their books were published in 1787 and 1789, respectively. They had a significant impact on opinions about slavery and the slave trade. Free Africans such as Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano, nicknamed “Sons of Africa,” (“Sons of Africa”) spoke at Society meetings, wrote rousing letters to newspapers, magazines, and prominent figures, and authored public letters of support to allies of the abolition campaign. In 1788 and the following years, hundreds of petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatures against the slave trade were submitted to Parliament. This campaign proved to be the world”s first grassroots campaign in which men and women from all walks of life and all walks of life voluntarily committed themselves to the cause of ending an injustice that affected others.

Wilberforce planned to introduce a motion giving notice to table a bill prohibiting the slave trade for the next session in 1789. In January 1788 he became ill, to which stress probably contributed. It is now thought that the illness was caused by ulcerative colitis. It was a few months after the onset of the disease when he was able to get down to work again. He recuperated in Bath and Cambridge. Because of regular attacks of gastrointestinal illness, he took opium to relieve the pain; he used it from then on for the rest of his life.

In Wilberforce”s absence, Pitt, who had long supported the cause of abolition, made the initial motion himself and ordered the Privy Council to investigate the slave trade, after which the House of Commons took up the matter further.

Following the publication of the Royal Privy Council report in 1789 and months of planning, Wilberforce again undertook a parliamentary campaign. On May 12, 1789, he delivered his first major speech on abolition in the House of Commons. In this speech he argued that the slave trade was morally reprehensible and its prohibition was a matter of natural justice. Using numerous testimonies gathered by Thomas Clarkson, he described in detail the appalling conditions under which slaves were transported and argued that banning the trade would also improve the living conditions of slaves in the West Indies. Wilberforce reported on twelve resolutions condemning the slave trade, but did not address the abolition of slavery itself; instead, he considered the potential for reproduction of the existing slave population if the trade were banned. As public opinion turned away from opponents of abolition, they sought to delay the vote by proposing that the House of Commons hear their own testimony. Wilberforce, though reluctantly, agreed to this proposal. He was later criticized for this and accused of having unwittingly helped prolong the slave trade. The hearings were not completed by the end of the parliamentary session and were therefore adjourned until the following year. Meanwhile, Wilberforce and Clarkson tried unsuccessfully to take advantage of the egalitarian atmosphere of the French Revolution and pressured France to ban the slave trade. Notwithstanding these efforts, the slave trade ended in France in 1794 as a result of the slave revolt at Santo Domingo; in 1802 Napoleon reinstated the slave trade, albeit briefly.

In January 1790, Wilberforce succeeded in speeding up the hearings by obtaining permission for a special committee to be formed to consider the vast amount of testimony on just this one issue; until then, it had been the committee of the whole house that considered all bills. Wilberforce”s house in Old Place Yard became the center of the abolitionists” campaign and the place where strategies for action were determined. Proponents on other issues also besieged his house. According to Hannah More, the waiting room of his house was filled from the early hours, like Noah”s Ark, full of beasts clean and unclean.

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In June 1790, when the committee had finally completed its questioning of witnesses, the committee”s actions were interrupted by the general election. In April 1791, in a very logical, rational speech lasting four hours, Wilberforce introduced the first bill to ban the slave trade. However, after two days of debate, the bill was easily defeated by a vote of 163 to 88. In reaction to the rise of radicalism after the French Revolution and the slave revolt in the French West Indies, the political climate tilted to the conservative side. Public hysteria at the time was so great that even Wilberforce himself was suspected by some of being a Jacobin agitator.

This was only the beginning of a protracted parliamentary campaign during which, despite frustration and hostility, Wilberforce”s commitment never wavered. He was supported in his work by a group of close friends in south London, whom the ridiculist Sydney Smith described as the Clapham Sect. This group included his friend and cousin Henry Thornton. Professing evangelical Christian beliefs, they were regarded as “Saints” in Parliament. They lived in huge adjoining houses in Clapham, at that time a small town south of London. In 1792 Wilberforce accepted an invitation from Herny Thornton to live in his house. In 1796, when Thornton married, Wilberforce moved into his home. “The Saints” were an informal community characterized by intimacy of relationships, as well as dedication to the practice of Christianity and opposition to slavery. Members of the group lived a casual family life, visiting each other in their homes and gardens and discussing religious, social, and political issues that interested them.

Proponents of slavery maintained that African slaves were not fully human and therefore slavery served them well. Wilberforce, the “Clapham Sect” group, and others wanted to show that Africans, particularly freed slaves, were capable of functioning outside the slavery system, that they were able to maintain a well-organized society, trade, and agriculture. In 1792, inspired in part by Granville Sharp”s utopian vision, they joined in establishing a free colony in Sierra Leone, which they settled with black settlers from the United Kingdom, Nova Scotia, and Jamaica, as well as Africans and whites. They formed the Sierra Leone Company, for which Wilberforce spared neither time nor money. The founders dreamed of an ideal society in which people would be equal regardless of race. Reality, however, was fraught with tension, crop failures, disease, war, and death; and some people surrendered their freedom to slave traders. At first the colony was a commercial venture, but in 1808 the British government assumed responsibility for it. The colony, though sometimes troubled, soon became a symbol of liberation from slavery; its people, community groups, and African tribal leaders worked together to prevent enslavement at its source. The British navy, which imposed a naval blockade of the region in an attempt to stop the slave trade from Sierra Leone, also helped.

On April 2, 1792, Wilberforce again submitted a bill calling for abolition. The bill sparked a memorable debate that included the greatest speakers in the House of Commons, William Pitt and Charles James Fox, as well as Wilberforce himself. Henry Dundas, then Home Secretary, proposed a compromise solution, the so-called “gradual abolition,” or gradual liberation over several years. The proposal passed by 230 votes to 85, but the compromise was nothing more than a clever ploy to postpone full liberation indefinitely.

War with France

On February 26, 1793, yet another vote took place on the bill abolishing the slave trade; the bill was rejected this time by a narrow majority of eight votes. The outbreak of war with France in the same month effectively blocked serious consideration of the abolition issue. Politicians devoted themselves to more important matters: the national crisis and the threat of invasion. That same year and in the following 1794, Wilberforce unsuccessfully presented bills in parliament to prohibit British ships from delivering slaves to foreign colonies. Wilberforce openly expressed his concern about the war and urged Pitt and his government to make greater efforts to defuse hostilities; on December 31, 1794, he put forward a motion appealing to the government to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict with France. This position led to a break in the long-standing friendship with Pitt, though not for long.

Abolition in the public mind was linked to the French Revolution and to groups of British radicals, the result was a decline in public support for the cause. In 1795, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade stopped holding meetings, and Clarkson retired to treat poor health in the Lake District. However, despite the decline in interest in abolition in the 1790s, Wilberforce continued to present abolition bills.

Wilberforce showed little interest in women. It was not until he was nearly forty that his friend Thomas Babinton recommended Barbara Anna Spooner (1777-1847), who was twenty years old. Wilberforce met Barbara two days later, on April 15, 1797, and completely lost his head over her; after a wild affair that lasted eight days, he proposed to her. Despite the urging of friends to slow down a bit, the couple were married in Bath on May 30, 1797. They were very devoted to each other, and Barbara was very caring and supportive of him as her spouse”s health deteriorated over time. However, his wife showed little interest in William”s political activities. In less than ten years, Mr. and Mrs. Wilberforce produced six children: William (b. 1798), Barbara (b. 1799), Elizabeth (b. 1801), Robert Isaac Wilberforce (b. 1802), Samuel Wilberforce (b. 1805), and Henry William Wilberforce (he loved to stay home and play with his children.

The early years of the nineteenth century were a period of renewed public interest in abolition issues. In 1804, Clarkson resumed his work in this direction, and the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, working to prohibit the slave trade, began holding meetings as before. New and influential members such as Zachary Macaulay, Henry Brougham, and James Stephen joined the Society. In June 1804, Wilberforce”s bill to ban the slave trade passed all stages of the legislative process in the House of Commons. However, because the parliamentary session was nearing its end and it was too late to go through the legislative process in the House of Lords, the bill was reintroduced the following year in 1805. This time the bill did not pass. Even the usually positive-minded Pitt did not support it. Again, abolition was hampered by Wilberforce”s overly trusting, even gullible, character. The campaign was weighed down by Wilberforce”s admiring attitude toward the people in power. He was incapable of believing that people in high places would not do what he believed to be absolutely right, and he was incapable of opposing them when they acted contrary to that rightness.

The final stage of the campaign

After Pitt”s death in January 1806, Wilberforce began to work more closely with the Wig party. He supported Grenville Fox”s government, which had a sizable group of abolitionists in its membership; Wilberforce and Charles Fox campaigned in the House of Commons, and William Grenville supported the cause in the House of Lords.

The radical switch in tactics, which entailed the introduction of a bill prohibiting British citizens from supporting or participating in the slave trade to French colonies, was suggested by foreign trade lawyer James Stephen. This was a shrewd move, as most British ships were flying the American flag at the time, supplying slaves to foreign colonies with which Britain was at war. The bill was introduced and passed by the cabinet, and Wilberforce and other abolitionists, in order not to draw attention to the implications of the bill, did not speak on the matter. This approach was successful and the new Foreign Slave Trade Bill (May 23, 1806 received Royal Assent). Over the previous two decades, Wilberforce and Clarkson had collected an enormous amount of testimony arguing against the slave trade. Wilberforce used these in writing A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which exhaustively restated the case for abolition. After Fox”s death in September 1806, a general election was held in the fall. Slavery became an election issue. There were more abolitionists in the House of Commons than before, among them were soldiers who had themselves experienced the horrors of slavery and slave revolts. In the election Wilberforce was re-elected MP for the Yorkshire constituency; afterwards he had time to complete and publish his “letters”, which were in fact a 400-page book; it formed the basis of the final phase of the campaign to ban the slave trade.

Wanting to face a bigger challenge first, the Prime Minister, Lord Grenville, decided to run the Abolition Bill first in the House of Lords and then in the House of Commons. In the House of Lords, the bill passed with a large majority. Sensing the breakthrough that had long been expected, Charles Grey moved that the second reading in the House of Commons be held on February 23, 1807; the bill passed by a vote of 283 to 16. Wilberforce wept with happiness as he offered his congratulations. Delighted supporters of the bill suggested using the majority to vote down a ban on slavery itself, but Wilberforce made it clear that total liberation was not his immediate goal: They had for the present no other task before them than that of blocking the carriage by British ships of human beings as slaves for sale, ( “They had for the present no object immediately before them, but that of putting a stop directly to the carrying of men in British ships to be sold as slaves.”). On March 25, 1807, The Slave Trade Act was granted Royal Assent.

Political and social reforms

When it came to contesting the existing political and social order, Wilberforce was extremely conservative. He was a proponent of social change through the promotion of Christian values, improved morals, education, and religious instruction; he feared and opposed radical solutions and revolution. Radical, writer and columnist William Cobbett was among those who attacked Wilberforce, calling it hypocritical to campaign for better working conditions for slaves while overlooking the terrible living conditions of British workers: You have done nothing to improve the lives of workers in this country. “Never have you done one single act, in favor of the laborers of this country”), Cobbett wrote. Critics noted that in 1795, Wilberforce supported the suspension of habeas corpus laws and also voted for the so-called “Gagging Bills,” gag laws that banned gatherings of more than 50 people and allowed for the arrest of public speakers and the imposition of severe penalties on those who criticized the Constitution. Wilberforce opposed granting workers the right to organize into labor unions. In 1799, he spoke in favor of the so-called Combination Act, which suppressed trade union activity in the United Kingdom. Wilberforce called trade unions “a general disease in our society. He also opposed the inquiry into the so-called Peterloo Massacre of 1819, in which eleven protesters who were demanding reform were killed at a political rally. Concerned about the actions of “bad men who wished to produce anarchy and confusion,” Wilberforce praised the government”s Six Acts, which further restricted freedom of assembly and speech – the so-called seditious writings. Wilberforce”s actions prompted essayist William Hazlitt to condemn him as someone who preaches vital Christian values to uneducated savages and tolerates their flagrant abuse in civilized countries. “who preaches vital Christianity to untutored savages, and tolerates its worst abuses in civilized states.”).

Wilberforce”s views on religion and women were also conservative, if not backwards. He disapproved of women activists active in the abolitionist movement, such as Elizabeth Heyrick, who organized opponents of slavery in the 1820s: Women organizing meetings, publishing, going from house to house, stirring up public opinion with petitions – all these seem to me conduct unbecoming a woman”s character, at least as Scripture presents it. “or ladies to meet, to publish, to go from house to house stirring up petitions – these appear to me proceedings unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture.”). Initially, Wilberforce strongly opposed Catholic equality, or the Catholic Emancipation Act, which allowed Catholics to become members of parliament, hold public office, and serve in the army. He changed his opinion, however, and from 1813 advocated a law of a similar nature.

Wilberforce advocated legislative changes to improve working conditions for chimney sweeps and textile workers, was committed to prison reform, and supported campaigns to reduce the use of the death penalty and harsh punishments imposed under the Game Laws. Wilberforce recognized the importance of education in alleviating poverty. When Hannah More and her sister founded Sunday schools for the poor in Somerset and Mendip, he provided moral and financial support when they faced opposition from landowners and the Anglican clergy. From the late 1880s Wilberforce campaigned for limited parliamentary reforms, such as the abolition of constituencies in so-called rotten towns and the reapportionment of seats in the House of Commons, taking into account the population growth of the new industrial centers; although from 1832 onwards he was concerned that reform measures were going too far here. With the help of others, Wilberforce established the world”s first animal welfare organization: The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, now the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Wilberforce opposed dueling; he called it a disgrace of a Christian society. He was outraged when his friend Pitt duelled in 1798, especially since it happened on a Sunday.

Wilberforce spared neither money nor time for his fellow man, believing that the rich had a duty to share with those in need. Each year he distributed thousands of pounds, much of it to clergy to be divided among parishioners. In addition, he paid the debts of others, supported education and missionary work. In lean years, when food was scarce, he gave to charity more than his annual income. Wilberforce was exceptionally hospitable, unable to get rid of any of his servants; for this reason his house was full of old and incompetent servants maintained by charity. Although he often did not have time to write letters, lagging in correspondence for months at a time, he responded to numerous requests for advice or assistance in obtaining a university chair, promotion in the army, a benefice, or a request for help in stopping an execution.

Evangelical Christianity

As a supporter of the evangelical wing of the Church of England, Wilberforce believed that revitalization of the church and Christian obedience would lead to a harmonious and moral society. Wilberforce sought to raise the profile of religion in public and private life and to make piety fashionable among the middle and upper classes of society. In this spirit, in April, 1797, Wilberforce published a book with the somewhat lengthy title A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of This Country Contrasted With Real Christianity, on which he had been working since 1793. The book set forth the dogmas and truths of faith contained in the New Testament and called for a revival of Christianity. The author”s goal was as much to expose the shortcomings of nominal, declared Christianity as it was to expound the foundations of real and true Christianity. The book was his own personal testimony and presented the views that inspired him to action. The fundamental message of the book speaks of the corruption of human nature. Wilberforce was convinced that religion and morality in England at the time were in decline. The book proved to be a bestseller and, more importantly, influenced a change in thinking and behavior. Within six months, 7,500 copies were sold; it was translated into several languages.

Wilberforce developed and supported missionary work in Britain and abroad. He was a founding member of the Church Missionary Society (now called the Church Mission Society), as well as many other evangelical and charitable organizations. Wilberforce was dismayed at the lack of Christian evangelicalism in India, so when the opportunity arose and the British East India Company was amending its charter in 1793, he proposed the addition of a clause in which the Company was to undertake to maintain teachers and chaplains, concerned with the religious improvement, (“religious improvement”), of Indians. Over the objections of the Company”s directors, who feared that their commercial interests would suffer from such a commitment, the plan failed. In 1813, when the Company”s charter was up for renewal again, Wilberforce tried again: he sent petitions, sent letters, held meetings, and used his influence to bring about the changes he wanted. Speaking in favor of the Charter Act 1813, he criticized British India for its hypocrisy and racial prejudice, but at the same time condemned certain aspects of Hinduism, such as the caste system, infanticide, polygamy, and the Sati custom. Comparing the customs of Hindus with those of Christians, he said: our religion is sublime, salutary; theirs is mean, licentious and cruel.

Moral reform

Wilberforce, not accepting what he saw as the degeneracy of British society, worked actively for moral reform. His opposition was expressed in words that illustrate his view of the state of morality at the time: “the torrent of profanity that every day makes more rapid advances”. He considered the issues of moral reform and the prohibition of the slave trade equally important. At the suggestion of Wilberforce and Bishop Porteus, the Archbishop of Canterbury asked King George III to issue a Proclamation for the Discouragement of Vice in 1787 to stem the tide of immorality. The proclamation called for the prosecution of persons who were drunk, profane, swearing, vulgar, disrespectful of the sanctity of Sunday, and others who were debauched, immoral, and led disorderly lives. The indifference with which, to a large extent, these actions were met led Wilberforce to found the Society for the Suppression of Vice, whose purpose was to increase the power of moral reform and to mobilize the support of public figures for such reforms. These and other societies, such as the Proclamation Society, in which Wilberforce played first fiddle, set themselves the task of garnering support for harsh treatment of “immoral” persons; they were accused of breaking the law and were prosecuted for running brothels, distributing pornographic material, and failing to observe the sanctity of Sunday. Some years later, the writer and clergyman Sydney Smith criticized Wilberforce for being more interested in suppressing the sins of the poor than those of the rich, and suggested that a more appropriate name for the society would be the Society for Suppressing the Vices of Persons Whose Annual Income Does Not Exceed £500. “He also suggested that the name Society for Suppressing the Vices of Persons whose Income does not exceed £500 per annum would be more appropriate.) In terms of membership and support, the societies were not very successful, but their activities led to the imprisonment of Thomas Williams, who printed Thomas Paine”s Age of Reason. Wilberforce”s attempts to pass laws against adultery and publishing newspapers on Sundays also failed. Nevertheless, his involvement and leadership on other issues that were less concerned with punishment were more successful in the long run. By the end of his life, British mores, manners, and social responsibility had grown, paving the way for changes in social conventions and behavior that fully developed in the Victorian era.

Abolition of slavery

Contrary to the hopes of abolitionists, slavery did not disappear with the ban on the slave trade in the British Empire – only a few countries followed the British example and introduced this ban; also, the living conditions of slaves did not improve. The trade continued also because some British ships did not obey the law. The Royal Navy patrolled the Atlantic Ocean, trying to intercept foreign-flagged ships carrying slaves. In order to enforce the ban in other countries as well, Wilberforce worked with members of the African Institution. His efforts eventually had some success: in 1808, the slave trade was banned in the United States. Wilberforce also tried to further influence the U.S. administration to act more decisively on the issue of banning the slave trade.

That same year Wilberforce moved with his family from Clapham to Kenisington Gore, a spacious mansion with a large garden closer to the parliament buildings. Wilberforce”s health had never been strong, but from 1812 it deteriorated further. For this reason he resigned his seat from Yorkshire and became an MP from the “rotten town” of Barmber in Sussex County. Having a seat from this constituency did not entail many responsibilities, so Wilberforce was able to devote more time to family life and matters that interested him. Beginning in 1816, Wilberforce introduced a series of bills that required mandatory registration of slaves and details of their country of origin, which allowed for the detection of illegal importation of slaves from abroad. Later that year, he began openly denouncing the existence of slavery itself, although he did not yet demand the immediate liberation of slaves because: “they had always thought the slaves incapable of freedom at the present moment, but hoped that a gradual change might take place as a natural result of abolition. “They had always thought the slaves incapable of liberty at present, but hoped that by degrees a change might take place as the natural result of the abolition.”).

In 1820, with failing health and deteriorating eyesight, Wilberforce made the decision to limit his public activities even further than before. Despite this, he was embroiled in unsuccessful attempts to mediate between King George IV and his wife Caroline Brunswick, who was seeking to assert her rights as queen. Nevertheless, Wilberforce did not distance himself from public activity so much as to abandon the cause of abolishing slavery, which was most important to him. He still hoped to lay a foundation for some future effort to free poor slaves. “He still hoped to lay a foundation for some future measures for the emancipation of the poor slaves – an emancipation that he believed should take place gradually in stages. Aware that younger men were needed to further the cause, in 1821 he asked a parliamentary colleague, Thomas Fowell Buxton, to take over leadership of the campaign in the House of Commons. In the ensuing years of the second decade of the nineteenth century, Wilberforce increasingly became little more than a token leader of the abolitionist movement, although he did appear at anti-slavery meetings, greeted visitors, and maintained a lively correspondence.

In 1823, the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery, later called the Anti-Slavery Society, was founded. The Anti-Slavery Society also published a 56-page appeal, authored by Wilberforce, to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies. In it, Wilberforce opined that total liberation was a moral and ethical duty and that slavery was a national crime. An end must be put to slavery by a Parliamentary Act progressively banning it. Members of Parliament did not immediately agree to Wilberforce”s proposal, and in March 1823 the opposition torpedoed his proposals. On May 15, 1823, Buxton introduced a motion in parliament proposing the gradual liberation of slaves. Further debates followed, on 16 March and 11 June 1824, in which Wilberforce made his last speeches in the House of Commons. In these debates, outmaneuvered by the government, the proponents of abolishing slavery failed to push their motion through.

During 1824 and 1825, Wilberforce”s health continued to deteriorate, compounded by daily troubles and new illnesses. His family”s concern for his health and life prompted him to resign his para title and his parliamentary seat. The burden of work fell on his associates. Thomas Clarkson travelled the country and supported activists in the movement, and was an ambassador for the abolitionist cause in other countries, while Buxton sought to replace Wilberforce in parliament. Organizing public meetings and writing petitions demanding the abolition of slavery gained support from more and more sections of society, who supported a one-time act of abolition rather than incremental action as Wilberforce and Clarkson wanted.

In 1826 Wilberforce moved from his huge house in Kensington Gore to Highwood Hill, a more modest estate in the Mill Hill countryside north of London. He was soon joined by his son William and his family. William attempted a career in education, and also tried to go into farming professionally, all of which failed, plus he suffered huge financial losses, which his father covered entirely out of his own pocket. With very little money left, Wilberforce was forced to rent a house and live with friends and family for the rest of his life. Despite these troubles and declining health, Wilberforce”s support for the cause of abolishing slavery did not diminish; he attended and even chaired antislavery meetings as before.

In 1830 the so-called progressive Wigs won the election. Wilberforce greeted their victory with mixed feelings: he was concerned about the prospect of the Reform Bill being enacted. The bill proposed a new distribution of parliamentary seats, taking into account the growing importance of cities and industrial settlements, and also provided for the expansion of suffrage. As a result of this, as well as an intensive and growing agitation against slavery, there were more supporters of abolition in parliament. In the same year, 1832, a slave rebellion broke out in Jamaica. From this point on, His Majesty”s government ministers began to lean more heavily toward abolition as a way to avoid future rebellions. In 1833 Wilberforce”s health continued to deteriorate and he contracted influenza, from which he never fully recovered. In April 1833 he made his last anti-slavery speech at a meeting in Maidstone. A month after this, the Wig government tabled the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery. In this way, the government was expressing its respect for Wilberforce. On July 26, 1833, Wilberforce heard about the government”s decision that directly led to the introduction of the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery. The next day his health deteriorated considerably. He died on the morning of July 29 at his cousin”s house in Cadogan Place, London.

A month after his death, the House of Lords passed a bill abolishing slavery; the law was to take effect from August 1834. As compensation to plantation owners, it was voted that they would receive £20 million. Children under the age of six were granted complete freedom. A system of apprenticeship was also established, which stipulated that former slaves were to work for their former masters for four to six more years. The act affected British possessions in the West Indies, South Africa, Mauritius, Honduras, and Canada. Nearly 800,000 African slaves gained their freedom, most of them in the Caribbean.


Wilberforce had expressed his wish to be buried in Stoke Newington with his sister and daughter. This wish was not granted as the top leaders of both Houses of Parliament insisted that Wilberforce be honoured with a burial in Westminster Abbey. The family agreed and on August 3, 1833, Wilberforce was buried in the north transept of the Abbey, not far from his friend William Pitt. Members of Parliament and ordinary citizens were present at the funeral. The coffin was carried by the Duke of Gloucester, the Lord Chancellor Henry Brougham and the Speaker of the House of Commons Charles Manners-Sutton.While condolences were being paid and Wilberforce was being buried in his eternal resting place as a sign of respect, both houses of parliament suspended their proceedings.

Five years after Wilberforce”s death, his sons Robert and Samuel published a five-volume biography of their father, and in 1840 they published a collection of his letters. The biography written by Wilberforce”s sons stirred controversy. Its authors elevated their father”s importance at the expense of Thomas Clarkson, whose contributions they underestimated. Clarkson, agitated by this, returned from retirement to write a book criticizing the Wilberforce sons” version. To de-escalate the situation, Robert and Samuel apologized to Clarkson for disregarding his role, and in proofreading, removed sections of the book that he found objectionable. This did not change much, however; for more than a century, history books portrayed Wilberforce as the most important figure in the abolitionist movement. Over time, historians have noted that the relationship between Clarkson and Wilberforce was a warm one, which contributed greatly to their success and the abolition of slavery. This type of relationship has been called by historians an exemplary example of collaboration of the kind that history knows few: without Wilberforce”s parliamentary leadership, as well as the social mobilization and collection of evidence and testimony in support of abolition (which Clarkson did), the abolition of slavery would not have been possible.

Robert and Samuel wanted their father to be seen as a Christian hero, statesman, and saint at the same time, as a testimony that faith works miracles. Regardless of the religious context, however, he was recognized as a humanitarian reformer transforming political and social attitudes, a man emphasizing the value of responsibility and social activism. In the 1940s, Eric Williams, a politician and scholar, argued that abolition was motivated not so much by humanitarian considerations as economic ones, as the sugar industry in the West Indies was in decline. Williams”s views weighed on the way Wilberforce and the “Clapham Clique” were judged and contributed to an underestimation of him and his comrades in the abolitionist movement. However, as historians have recently noted, the sugar industry made large profits after the abolition of slavery. This has prompted some historians to revise their views of Wilberforce and evangelical Christians and to present them in a more positive light. Today, their role is no longer underestimated; rather, they are seen as forerunners of modern humanitarian campaigns.

Wilberforce”s life and work have been commemorated both in England and elsewhere. In 1840 a statue of Wilberforce was erected in Westminster Abbey by Samuel Joseph. It depicts a seated figure holding an inscription praising the persistent labor and other Christian virtues that characterized Wilberforce in his tireless efforts to abolish the slave trade and abolish slavery.

In 1834, a monument was funded by public donations in Hull, Wilberforce”s hometown: A 31-foot column in the Doric style; atop it stands a statue of Wilberforce. The statue is now located in the grounds of the college in Hull, near the Queen”s gardens, the Queen”s Garden. In 1903 the house where Wilberforce was born was bought by the city council. After restoration, Wilberforce”s house served as the first museum of slavery. In 1833 a school named after him was established in York for blind children – Wilberforce Memorial School.

Numerous churches of the Anglican Communion honor Wilberforce”s memory in their liturgical calendar. Founded in 1856, a university in Ohio in the United States bears his name – Wilberforce University. It was the first African American university and belongs to the group of so-called Historical Black Colleges and Universities.

In 2006, a film was made called Voice of Freedom, (Amazing Grace), directed by Michael Apted (starring Ioan Gruffudd). It tells the story of Wilberforce”s fight against the slave trade. The film was screened in 2007, on the bicentennial of Parliament”s passage of a ban on the transportation of slaves by British subjects.


  1. William Wilberforce
  2. William Wilberforce
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