William Wilberforce

Dafato Team | Oct 10, 2022

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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 resulted in a change in his lifestyle and manifested itself in a passion for reform that never left 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 consequently led to the passage of The Slave Trade Prohibition Act(English) in 1807.

Wilberforce emphasized the importance of religion, morality and education. He championed and promoted many noble causes with numerous campaigns. So: he supported the activities of 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 supported the activities of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Essentially a conservative, he advocated repressive legislation, which brought accusations against him 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 passage of the Slavery Abolition Act(English) in 1833, which abolished slavery throughout almost the entire British Empire. Wilberforce died three days after learning that the bill's passage through parliament was not in doubt. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, close to his friend William Pitt.

William Wilberforce was born on August 24, 1759, in a house on High Street in 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 September 29, 1759 at Seaton Ross in the East Riding. His grandfather, William (1690-1776), made his fortune in the Baltic sea trade, and was twice elected mayor of Hull.

Wilberforce was a petite, sickly and delicate child with poor eyesight. In 1767 he began attending a grammar school, then run by the young, dynamic headmaster Joseph Milner, who later became his lifelong friend. Until 1768, when his father died, William benefited from the school's friendly atmosphere. Then, as his mother struggled to support 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 suburb of London. For two years he attended an "ordinary" boarding school in Puenty, and went to Wimbledon for vacations, where he got 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 his nonconformist influences and inclination toward evangelicalism, brought their 12-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, its headmaster at the time being a Methodist, from 1771 to 1776 he continued his education at a nearby school in Pockington. The strict Methodist rules that prevailed at the time negatively 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: playing cards, gambling and frequenting drunken parties that lasted until dawn - although the excesses of some of his classmates seemed disgusting to him. Witty, generous and also an excellent conversationalist, Wilberforce was a very popular figure. He made many friends, including the busier-than-him future Prime Minister William Pitt. Despite his lifestyle and lack of interest in studying, he passed all his exams. He received a bachelor's degree in humanities in 1781, and a master's degree in humanities 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 path and encouraged Wilberforce to pursue 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 MP for the Kingstone upon Hull constituency. To secure the necessary number of votes, according to the custom of the time, he spent more than £8,000. Free from financial worries, Wilberforce sat as an independent MP and chose to be a non-partisan "no party man." He was often criticized for his inconsistency; according to his conscience, he supported once Tory and once Wig governments, worked closely with the ruling party, but voted on individual motions according to their merits. Wilberforce took regular part in parliamentary business, though as a regular at gentlemen's clubs such as Goostree's and Boodle's on London's Pall Mall, 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, with the prince reportedly saying he would travel 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 around 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 with 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 supporter 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 due to Wilberforce's desire to remain independent, but it could also have been due to 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 in the general election of that year that Wilberforce decided to run from the Yorkshire constituency. On April 6, at the age of twenty-four, he was re-elected to 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, an academic at Queens' College, Cambridge, the year Wilberforce began his studies. They became acquainted with the French Riviera and spent time enjoying sumptuous dinners, 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, from there they traveled to Switzerland. On the way back to England, Wilberforce and Milner, who accompanied him, read a book by Philip Doddridge, an 18th-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 getting up early in the morning to read the Bible and pray; he also began writing his private journal. He experienced what is described as an evangelical conversion: he repented of his past sins and, as an expiation for them, wanted to devote the rest of his life to working in service to God. Conversion changed some of his habits, but not his nature: outwardly, he remained a cheerful man, relating with respect and interest to his interlocutors, while trying to get them to accept his new faith. Deep inside, he experienced tormenting conflicts, was mercilessly self-critical, harshly judging his own spirituality, use of time, vanity, self-control and relations with others.

At the time, religious enthusiasm was widely regarded as a violation of the norms of good company and was socially stigmatized. Evangelical Protestants among the upper classes, such as Sir Richard Hill, MP for the Methodist faith in 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"). Since then, his political views have been animated by faith and a 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, and focusing his attention on such matters as observing the holy day and eradicating 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, in order to be close to parliament, Wilberforce rented a house at Old Palace Yard in Westminster. As a parliamentarian, he tried 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.

Initial decision

The British joined the slave trade gradually, starting in the 16th century. Until 1783, the trade was triangular, i.e.: British goods were sold in Africa, slaves were bought there, which were transported to the West Indies, and from there sugar, tobacco and cotton, which were the fruits of slave labor, were brought to Britain. Revenue from this trade accounted for about 80% of Britain's foreign trade income. British ships dominated the slave trade, supplying the French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and British colonies. During the peak years of this trade, forty thousand men, women and children were transported annually to the other side of the Atlantic in appalling conditions. It is estimated that some 11 million Africans were transported for slave labor, of whom some 1.4 million died on the journey.

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 petition on the slave trade in 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 on a plantation on the island of St. Kitts, where he had become a 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 there with a group of people who later became known as the Testonians, (among them were Charles Middleton, Lady Middleton, Thomas Clarkson, 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. The 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 in Ramsay's footsteps; only three years later, inspired by his new faith, he turned his attention to humanitarian reform. In November 1786, he received a letter from Charls Middleton, which again triggered his 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, nevertheless he could not outright refuse to take it up, (English. "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 met with the Testonians at Middleton's home at Barham Court in Teston.

In early 1787, Thomas Clarkson - Wilberforce's colleague from the same year at Cambridge and an abolitionist who had written an award-winning essay on slavery while still at university - invited Wilberforce to the Old Palace Yard palace with a published copy of his student paper. That's when they met for the first time, and their collaboration would still last nearly fifty years. Clarkson began visiting Wilberforce on a weekly basis, 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 get a commitment from Wilberforce to raise the abolition issue in the House of Commons.

Bennet Langton, a Linconlnshire landowner and a mutual acquaintance 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 March 13, 1787, with Charles Middleton, Sir Joshua Reynolds, William Windham, James Boswell and Isaac Hawkins Browne present. Toward 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 the famous meeting under the great oak tree on Pitt's estate in Kent, the ever-wavering Wilberforce spoke with acting Prime Minister William Pitt and William Grenville the future Prime Minister. Under Wilberforce's "oak tree" in Holwood, as it will be called from now on, Pitt mobilized 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 collecting testimony and you are fully authorized to take it up, which by doing so you will gain greater certainty. Don't waste your time, otherwise your place will be taken by someone else. (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 response is nowhere recorded, but later, near the end of his life, he stated: I distinctly remember the very knoll on which I sat near Pitt and Grenville. "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: Almighty God has set before me two great tasks, the stopping of the slave trade and the reformation of customs, (English. "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 linked to 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 a society called the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was held, with the goal of enforcing the ban on the slave trade. 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 banning the slave trade. Wilberforce, although informally involved in the committee's work, did not officially join until 1791.

The Society was very successful in awakening public awareness and garnering 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, drawing 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 well-known 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 these countries and organizing translations of pamphlets and books from English. 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, dubbed "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. The campaign turned out to be the world's first grassroots campaign in which men and women from different social groups and walks of life voluntarily committed themselves to the cause of ending an injustice that affected others.

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

In Wilberforce's absence, Pitt, who had long supported the abolition cause, 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 1789 report of the Privy Council 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 the 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 bring improvements in 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 reflecting on the ability of the existing slave population to reproduce 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, acceded to this proposal. He was later criticized for this and accused of having unwittingly contributed to the prolongation of the slave trade. The hearings did not end before the end of the parliamentary session and were therefore postponed until next year. In the meantime, Wilberforce and Clarkson tried unsuccessfully to take advantage of the egalitarian atmosphere of the French Revolution and pressured France to ban the slave trade. Regardless of these efforts, the slave trade ended in France in 1794 as a result of a slave revolt on Santo Domingo; in 1802 Napoleon reinstated the slave trade, albeit briefly.

In January 1790, Wilberforce succeeded in expediting the hearings by getting approval for the formation of a special committee to consider the huge volume of testimony on just this one issue; until then, it had been handled by a committee of the whole house, (committee of the whole), which 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 home 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 already finally finished hearing witnesses, the committee's activities were interrupted by the general election. In April 1791, in a very logical, rational speech lasting four hours, Wilberforce presented 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 faltered. He was supported in his work by a group of close friends in south London, whom the ridiculist Sydney Smith referred to as the Clapham clique, (Clapham Sect). The 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 the 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 led a casual family life, visiting each other in their homes and gardens and discussing religious, social, political issues of interest.

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. The 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 beset by difficulties, soon became a symbol of liberation from slavery; its people, social groups and African tribal leaders worked together to prevent enslavement at its very 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 biggest 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 a few years. The proposal passed by a ratio of 230 votes to 85. The compromise, however, was nothing more than a clever ploy, behind which was the intention to postpone full liberation indefinitely.

War with France

On February 26, 1793, another vote took place on a 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 handling of the abolition issue. Politicians devoted themselves to more important matters: the national crisis and the threat of invasion. In the same year and 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 do more to defuse hostilities; on December 31, 1794, he put forward a motion appealing to the government to seek a peaceful solution 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 wasn't until he was nearly forty that his friend Thomas Babinton recommended to him 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 for her; after a wild affair that lasted eight days, he proposed to her. Despite persuasions from friends to slow down a bit, the couple 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 a decade, 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 at home and play with his children.

The first years of the 19th 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, which worked for the prohibition of 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 banning the slave trade passed all stages of the legislative process in the House of Commons. However, due to the fact that 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, the abolition was hampered by Wilberforce's overly trusting and even credulous character. The campaign was weighed down by Wilberforce's admirable attitude toward people in power. He was incapable of believing that people in high positions would not do what he thought was absolutely right, and he was incapable of opposing them when they acted against 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 taking part in the slave trade to French colonies, was suggested by foreign trade lawyer James Stephen. This was a smart move, since most British ships at the time sailed under the American flag, 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 consequences 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 a huge number of testimonies arguing against the slave trade. Wilberforce used them in writing A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which comprehensively 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 was actually 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 a breakthrough that had been expected for a long time, 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 people as slaves for sale, (English. "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 Prohibition Act received 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, improvement of customs, 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, (English. "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 the habeas corpus law, and also voted for 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 activities in the United Kingdom. Wilberforce called labor unions a general disease in our society, ("a general disease in our society"). He also opposed the investigation into the so-called Peterloo Massacre of 1819, in which eleven protesters were killed at a political rally demanding reform. Concerned about the actions of bad men who wished to sow confusion and anarchy, ("bad men who wished to produce anarchy and confusion"), he praised the government's six laws, the so-called Six Acts, which further restricted freedom of assembly and freedom of speech - so-called subversive writings, ("seditious writings"). Wilberforce's actions prompted essayist William Hazlitt to condemn him as a person who preaches to uneducated savages about basic Christian values, and tolerates their flagrant abuses in civilized countries., (English. "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 backward-looking. 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 this seems to me to be conduct unbecoming of a woman's character, at least as it is portrayed in Scripture. "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 equal rights for Catholics, i.e. the Catholic Emancipation Act, which allowed them to become members of parliament, hold public office and serve in the army. However, he changed his opinion 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 established Sunday schools for the poor in Somerset and Mendip, he provided them with moral and financial support when they encountered opposition from landowners and the Anglican clergy. From the late 1880s onward, Wilberforce campaigned for limited parliamentary reforms, such as the abolition of electoral districts 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; albeit from 1832 onward, he was concerned that reform efforts 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 an embarrassment of a Christian society, (disgrace of a Christian society). He was outraged when his friend Pitt dueled in 1798, especially since it took place on a Sunday.

Wilberforce spared neither money nor time for his neighbors, believing that the rich had a duty to share with those in need. Every year he distributed thousands of pounds, much of it to the clergy to be divided among parishioners. In addition, he paid off the debts of others, supported education and missionary work. In lean years, when food was scarce, he gave away more than his annual income to charity. Wilberforce was extremely 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 didn't have time to write back letters, lagging in correspondence for months, he responded to numerous requests for advice or assistance in obtaining a university chair, a 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. Acting 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, which he had been working on since 1793. The book presented 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 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 turned out 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 activities 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 by 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 adding a clause in which the Company was to undertake to maintain teachers and chaplains concerned with the religious improvement, or "religious improvement," of Indians. Due to opposition from 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 being renewed yet again, Wilberforce tried again this time: he sent petitions, 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 lofty, salutary; theirs is mean, licentious and cruel, (theirs is mean, licentious and cruel").

Moral reform

Wilberforce, disagreeing with 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 morals at the time: the torrent of profanity that every day makes more rapid advances. He considered the issues of moral reform as well as the prohibition of the slave trade to be 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 act as a dam against the tide of immorality. The proclamation directed that drunken, blasphemous, cursing, vulgar, non-observance of the sanctity of Sunday and others who were debauched, immoral and led disorderly lives be prosecuted. The indifference with which, to a large extent, these actions were met prompted Wilberforce to found the Society for the Suppression of Vice, whose goal was to increase the impact of moral reforms and mobilize the support of public figures for these reforms. These and other associations, such as the Proclamation Society, in which Wilberforce played first fiddle, set themselves the task of garnering support for the 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. A few years later, writer and clergyman Sydney Smith criticized Wilberforce for being more interested in exterminating the sins of the poor than those of the rich, and suggested that a more fitting name for the society would have been the Society for Suppressing the Vices of Persons Whose Annual Income Does Not Exceed £500. "suppressing the vices of persons whose income does not exceed £500 per annum"). As for the number of members and support of the societies, they were not very successful, while their activities led to the imprisonment of Thomas Williams, who printed Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason. Wilberforce's attempts to pass an anti-adultery law and publish newspapers on Sundays also backfired. Nonetheless, 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 handful of countries followed the British lead and imposed the ban; neither did the living conditions of slaves improve. The trade also continued because some British ships did not obey the law. The Royal Navy patrolled the Atlantic Ocean in an effort 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 met with some success: in 1808, the slave trade was banned in the United States. Wilberforce also tried to further influence the US administration so that it acted 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 located closer to the parliament buildings. Wilberforce's health had never been strong, but it had deteriorated further since 1812. 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 county 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 compulsory registration of slaves and providing details of their country of origin, so that illegal importation of slaves from abroad could be detected. Later that year, he began to openly condemn the existence of slavery itself, although he did not yet demand the immediate liberation of slaves because: "They had always thought the slaves unfit for freedom at the present time, but hoped that a gradual change could 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 his health failing and his eyesight deteriorating, Wilberforce decided to limit his public activities even more than before. Even so, he was embroiled in unsuccessful attempts to mediate between King George IV and his wife Caroline Brunswick, who sought 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 the poor slaves (English: "to lay a foundation for some future"). "to lay a foundation for some future measures for the emancipation of the poor slaves") - an emancipation that he believed should occur gradually in stages. Being aware that younger people 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 19th century, Wilberforce increasingly became only a token leader of the abolitionist movement, although he appeared at anti-slavery meetings, greeted guests 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. 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 expressed the opinion 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 bill phasing in its prohibition. 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. Subsequent debates followed, on March 16 and June 11, 1824, in which Wilberforce delivered his last speeches in the House of Commons. In these debates, outmaneuvered by the government, supporters of abolishing slavery failed to push their motion through.

In 1824 and 1825, Wilberforce's health continued to deteriorate, with daily troubles and new illnesses adding to the problem. His family's concern for his health and life prompted him to give up his para title and his parliamentary seat. The burden of work fell on his colleagues. Thomas Clarkson traveled the country and supported the movement's activists, and was an ambassador for the abolition cause in other countries, while Buxton sought to replace Wilberforce in parliament. Organizing public meetings and writing petitions demanding the abolition of slavery gained the support of more and more social groups, who supported a one-time act of abolition rather than gradual 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, but all this ended in failure, plus he suffered huge financial losses, which his father covered entirely out of his own pocket. With very meager resources left to him, 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 participated as before in anti-slavery meetings and even chaired them.

In 1830, the so-called progressive Wigs won the election. Wilberforce welcomed their victory with mixed feelings: he was concerned about the prospect of enacting a reform bill, the so-called Reform Bill. The bill proposed a new distribution of parliamentary seats, taking into account the growth of cities and industrial settlements, in addition to providing for the expansion of voting rights. As a result of this, as well as the intense and growing agitation directed against slavery, there were more supporters of abolition in parliament. That same year, 1832, a slave rebellion broke out in Jamaica. From that 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 was attacked by influenza, from which he did not return to full health. In April 1833, he delivered his last anti-slavery speech at a meeting in Maidstone. A month after that, the Wig government submitted the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery, (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, which directly led to the introduction of the bill abolishing slavery. The next day his health deteriorated significantly. He died on the morning of July 29 at his cousin's home in Cadogan Place, London.

A month after his death, the House of Lords passed a bill abolishing slavery; the law was to take effect starting in August 1834. As compensation for plantation owners, it was voted that they would receive £20 million. Children under the age of six were granted complete freedom. A practical apprenticeship system was also established, which stipulated that former slaves were to work for their former masters for four to six more years. The act applied to 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 expressed his wish that he 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 honored with 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, Lord Chancellor Henry Brougham and House of Commons Speaker Charles Manners-Sutton. While offering condolences and burying Wilberforce to 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. In order to defuse the situation, Robert and Samuel apologized to Clarkson for disregarding his role, and in proofreading removed parts 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 in large part to their success and the abolition of slavery. This type of relationship has been called by historians an exemplary example of cooperation, the likes of which history knows few: without Wilberforce's parliamentary leadership, as well as without social mobilization and the gathering 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, a testimony to the fact that faith works miracles. Regardless of the religious context, however, he was recognized as a humanitarian reformer figure 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 the abolition was motivated not so much by humanitarian considerations as economic ones, as the sugar industry in the West Indies was in decline. Williams' views weighed heavily 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 was highly profitable after the abolition of slavery. This has prompted some historians to revise their views of Wilberforce and evangelical Christians and to portray them in a more positive light. Nowadays, 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 made by Samuel Joseph was erected in Westminster Abbey. It depicts a figure sitting and 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 founded in Hull, Wilberforce's hometown, by public donations: A 31-meter column in the Doric style; atop it stands a statue of Wilberforce. The monument is now located on the grounds of the Hull college, near the Queen's gardens - 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 slavery museum. 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 struggle against the slave trade. The film was screened in 2007, on the bicentennial of Parliament's enactment of a ban on the transportation of slaves by British subjects.


  1. William Wilberforce
  2. William Wilberforce
  3. między innymi eksportując ołów, bawełnę, narzędzia i sztućce; a w drodze powrotnej importował drewno, rudę żelaza, konopie, wino i tamtejsze wyroby; Hague 2007 ↓, s. 3
  4. Pollock 1977 ↓, s. 3.
  5. Tomkins 2007 ↓, s. 9.
  6. ^ Lead, cotton, tools and cutlery were among the more frequent exports from Hull to the Baltic countries, with timber, iron ore, yarns, hemp, wine and manufactured goods being imported to Britain on the return journey.(Hague 2007, p. 3)
  7. ^ According to Russell 1898, p. 77, on the grounds that it would exclude his sons from intimacy with private gentlemen, clergymen and mercantile families
  8. ^ The legislation specifically excluded the territories of the Honourable East India Company which were not then under direct Crown control.
  9. Décret du 26 août 1792.
  10. Le plomb, le coton, les outils et la coutellerie étaient les produits d'exportations principaux de Hull vers les pays baltes et lors du voyage de retour, les navires emportaient du bois, du minerai de fer, de la laine, du chanvre et du vin. Voir Hague 2007, p. 3.
  11. 1 2 William Wilberforce // Encyclopædia Britannica (англ.)
  12. 1 2 William Wilberforce // Энциклопедия Брокгауз (нем.) / Hrsg.: Bibliographisches Institut & F. A. Brockhaus, Wissen Media Verlag
  13. LIBRIS — 2018.
  14. Claire Jean Kim. Moral Extensionism or Racist Exploitation? The Use of Holocaust and Slavery Analogies in the Animal Liberation Movement // New Political Science. — 2011-09-01. — Т. 33, вып. 3. — С. 311–333. — ISSN 0739-3148. — doi:10.1080/07393148.2011.592021.

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