William Wilberforce, a Truly Great Man

William Wilberforce, the spearhead and focal point of the English abolitionists, as well as one of my favorite historical personages, was born in Hull, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, on 24 August 1759.

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He was the only son of Robert Wilberforce, whose family had become wealthy thanks to maritime trade with Baltic countries, and his wife Elizabeth Bird. He was named after his grandfather, who was an important man in the community. In 1767 the young William began attending Hull Grammar School, and although he was only there a year, he became attached to the headmaster, Joseph Milner, who became a a dear friend when William was an adult.

Sadly, his father died in 1768, and nine-year-old William went to live with his uncle and aunt while his mother and grandfather recovered from their loss. They was considered normal for the time, and in no way indicates that William wasn’t deeply loved. He lived with his relatives for almost three years, and as his aunt Hannah was, like her brother John Thornton, was supporter of the leading Methodist preacher George Whitefield, he was introduced to evangelical Christianity for the first time. When they got wind of what was happening, his traditional Anglican mother and grandfather freaked out and brought the 12 year old William home immediately.

William started attending the nearby Pocklington School from 1771 to 1776, but seemed determined to maintain his Methodist leanings. He eschewed such worldly things as theatre-going, dances, and card playing. After a while, though, he the lure of enjoying himself tempted him back into the Anglican fold and he began to have a broad social life. He continued having fun when he went up to St John’s College, Cambridge in October 1776. He was independently wealthy, prone to generosity, and quick-witted, so he gained enormous popularity. One of his friends was the future Prime Minister William Pitt, who encouraged William to go into politics. Although William gave more time to play than to study, he was smart enough to pass his examinations and graduate in 1781.

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In September 1780, while still in university, 21 year old William was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Kingston upon Hull.  As was usual in politics at the time, he had to spend over £8,000 to secure the necessary votes. Wilberforce was an independent MP, determined to join neither the Tory nor the Whig party. Instead, he voted only according to his conscience, supporting bills only on their own merits rather from party allegiance.

Wilberforce attended Parliament regularly, but he also maintained a lively social life, becoming an habitué of gentlemen’s gambling clubs such as Goostree’s and Boodle’s in Pall Mall, London. The writer and socialite Madame de Staël described him as the “wittiest man in England,” and, according to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the Prince of Wales said that he would go anywhere to hear Wilberforce sing. Wilberforce used his speaking voice to great effect in political speeches; the diarist and author James Boswell witnessed Wilberforce’s eloquence in the House of Commons and noted, “I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table; but as I listened, he grew, and grew, until the shrimp became a whale.” During the frequent government changes of 1781–1784, Wilberforce supported his friend Pitt in parliamentary debates … Pitt became Prime Minister in December 1783, with Wilberforce a key supporter of his minority government … When Parliament was dissolved in the spring of 1784, Wilberforce decided to stand as a candidate for the county of Yorkshire in the 1784 general election. On 6 April, he was returned as MP for Yorkshire at the age of twenty-four.

In every way admirable, he would have been remembered as a mid-level MP with a rock-solid voting record, if he hadn’t undergone a major personal transformation in 1785. Always deeply religious, Wilberforce became an Evangelical Christian, “which resulted in major changes to his lifestyle and a lifelong concern for reform.” To do as Christ commanded, and love his neighbor as himself, became his overriding goal.

 

In 1787, Wilberforce became acquainted with anti-slave-trade activists Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, Hannah More and Charles Middleton, who asked him to command the vanguard of the abolitionist movement. Wilberforce had been staunchly anti-slavery even before he converted to Evangelical Christianity – he had met the Rev. James Ramsay at a dinner party in 1783 and had been revolted by Ramsay’s first-hand account of slavery – so Wilberforce was glad to aid the cause. Writing in a journal entry in 1787, Wilberforce recorded that “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of [moral values]”.

In fighting slavery, he found the epicenter of his moral crusade. He henceforth led the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade for the next twenty years, doggedly persevering in the face of any opposition. He spoke about it incessantly, constantly dragging the atrocities of slavery into the forefront of the public mind. By 1806 it had become an election issue, so that the general election “brought more abolitionist MPs into the House of Commons, including former military men who had personally experienced the horrors of slavery”.

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Wilberforce now openly collaborated most often with the Whigs, the party in which most of the abolitionists congregated. He supported the Grenville–Fox administration, which had a sugnificant number of abolitionists in their cabinet. While Wilberforce, Charles Fox, and key supporters lobbied for the abolition of the slave trade in the House of Commons, Lord Grenville and his allies attacked the issue in the House of Lords.

Determined to strike while the iron was hot, Wilberforce published A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Addressed to the Freeholders of Yorkshire in 1807, a 400 page masterpiece detailing the inhumanity of slavery.

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This book made a impression among the peerage, and Lord Grenville discerned it was the time to introduce an Abolition Bill in the House of Lords. Abolition Bills typically passed the Commons and then died in the House of Lords, so by tackling the Lords first he could get the biggest obstacle out of the way and now was the best possible time to convince the Lords that slavery, although profitable, was immoral. Grenville had guessed correctly; the bill passed the House of Lords by a significant margin.

Sensing a breakthrough that had been long anticipated, Charles Grey moved for a second reading in the Commons on 23 February 1807. As tributes were made to Wilberforce, whose face streamed with tears, the bill was carried by 283 votes to 16 … The Slave Trade Act received royal assent on 25 March 1807.

Although other abolitionists wanted to quickly submit a bill to eradicate slavery all together, Wilberforce was afraid such a ‘radical’ bill would scare off those who supported the cessation of slave trade. After the slave trade was ended, Wilberforce turned his energies, in spite of worsening health, to improving the working conditions of the poor and eradicating slavery, root and branch.

In 1823 Wilberforce published his treatise, an Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies, which argued “that total emancipation was morally and ethically required, and that slavery was a national crime that must be ended by parliamentary legislation to gradually abolish slavery.” Regrettably, many MPs didn’t agree, and government opposition smothered Wilberforce’s cries for full abolition.

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Victory was coming, nevertheless. 

Although Wilberforce was so ill he was near death, he made one final anti-slavery speech in Kent a month before the Whig government introduced the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery in June of 1833. During the introduction of the bill, the Whigs and many Tories formally saluted Wilberforce, and credited him with awakening the conscious of a nation. On 26 July 1833, Wilberforce was informed that the government had made concessions “that guaranteed the passing of the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery.” Secure that his life’s dream was achieved, he died passed away peacefully on 29 July at his cousin’s house in London.

One can only assume a host of angels appeared as an honor guard to escort him across the River Jordan.  

The mortal world certainly honored him. He was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey on 3 August 1833, in the north transept with his dear friend William Pitt’s grave close nearby. His pallbearers included Parliamentary luminaries such as the Duke of Gloucester, the Lord Chancellor Henry Brougham, and the Speaker of the House of Commons Charles Manners-Sutton. Parliament also suspended business for the day, as a mark of respect for the fallen comrade.

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Just a few weeks after his death, the House of Lords passed the Slavery Abolition Act, which abolished slavery in most of the British Empire.

William Wilberforce had won.

It wasn’t only politically that Wilberforce demonstrated his moral fortitude. In all ways, he lived as his conscious demanded. He, to put it colloquially, walked the walk as well as talked the talk.

Wilberforce was generous with his time and money, believing that those with wealth had a duty to give a significant portion of their income to the needy. Yearly, he gave away thousands of pounds, much of it to clergymen to distribute in their parishes. He paid off the debts of others, supported education and missions, and in a year of food shortages, gave to charity more than his own yearly income. He was exceptionally hospitable, and could not bear to sack any of his servants. As a result, his home was full of old and incompetent servants kept on in charity. Although he was often months behind in his correspondence, Wilberforce responded to numerous requests for advice or for help in obtaining professorships, military promotions and livings for clergymen, or for the reprieve of death sentences.

He married in his late 30’s, having fallen madly in love with Barbara Ann Spooner. The happy couple wed after only a week of courtship, exchanging vows at the Church of St Swithin in Bath, on 30 May 1797. (That’s also were Jane Austen’s parents got married on 26 April 1764.) Wilberforce and his wife were devoted to each other, but Barbara was not involved with his political life, preferring to concentrate on parenting their six children, who all arrived less than ten years after the wedding. It should surprise no one to learn that Wilberforce was an excellent parent himself, “an indulgent and adoring father who revelled in his time at home and at play with his children.” Truly, he was the best of men.

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Yes, there are annoying things about Wilberforce, such as his urging the prosecution of those guilty of “excessive drinking, blasphemy, profane swearing and cursing, lewdness, profanation of the Lord’s Day, and other dissolute, immoral, or disorderly practices” and his never-ending attempt to levy punishments upon adulterers, fornicators, and people who read the newspaper on Sunday.  And I cannot disagree Sydney Smith that Wilberforce’s Society for the Suppression of Vice would have been better named the Society for “suppressing the vices of persons whose income does not exceed £500 per annum”. Wilberforce himself would be the first person to tell you he had flaws. Nonetheless, hypocrisy was not among his faults. He led by example, and he asked of no one what he did not demand in himself. It makes his excessive prudery easier to forgive, from a biographical standpoint.

Needless to say, he was a personal hero to the protagonist of my novel, Mansfield Parsonage.

Even though my heroine, Mary Crawford, was like many Enlightenment-loving Whigs in that she despised slavery without being tempted to become Methodist, she wouldn’t have looked askance upon Wilberforce’s own religious beliefs. His deep Evangelicalism did not lower him in the eyes of the less religiously-minded abolitionists. Mary, along with most Whigs, may have resisted many of his moral ‘improvements’ as immoderate and illiberal, but she respected him and his beliefs. It was also Wilberforce who inspired so many people, including my fictional Mary Crawford, to embrace social responsibility as well as donate to charity. 

He was just such a GOOD person.

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