William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce was the son of a wealthy Yorkshire trader. He entered politics in his twenties at the same time as his great friend William Pitt who would go one to become one of the longest serving and most famous British leaders. Soon after his entry into the House of Commons, by winning the huge seat of Yorkshire, he travelled with a friend around Europe who convinced him to convert to Evangelical Christianity. This conversion experience led to a new aspect on life and the rights of man. He began to wonder if he should devote his life to religion, he was convinced of the need to use his gifts in the practical application of his faith. He was soon persuaded. In 1787 there were a number of Christians, most notably Thomas Clarkson, who sought out Wilberforce to campaign in Parliament for the abolition of slavery. That year saw him to commit to politics and that cause that he will always be identified with. Thomas Clarkson would continue to work with Wilberforce for many years. It was an alliance where Wilberforce would act as General and fight in the commons where Clarkson would travel the country to gather information, drum up support and collect petitions. Pitt was soon to become Prime Minister at a young age and would rule for many years to come. He supported the proposal to end the slave trade proposed by Wilberforce, but there was always opposition from people who owed their wealth or the job to those who were involved in the African slave trade. There were many tactics employed to undermine Wilberforce’s bills, such as demanding more statistics and research that would take years to collate. Every year he put forward his Bill and although he sometimes got it through the Commons the Lords was a more formidable obstacle. There were vested interests from those who may have been abolitionists but were persuaded to delay the inevitable for their own financial or political advantage. By the mid 1790’s war with France was rapidly approaching and this was a large road –block for the cause. People were distracted from abolition, there was talk of siding with the French when Clarkson visited Paris and when the French abolished slavery. The cause became unpopular and was stalled. Yet he fought on trying every tactic and angle making the same brilliant arguments in the commons, convincing some, being thwarted by others. During the war in 1798 the Irish rose up in rebellion and threatened to provide a back door into England for the French. I response Pitt imposed Union on Ireland, giving the vote to some Irish Protestants and bringing many more MP’s into the commons. The unexpected benefit to Wilberforce was that the Irish would vote en-masse for abolition. He started to gain some success, but it was not until the Government fell on the issue of Catholic emancipation which King George III utterly rejected, that a new Whig Government came to power. This gave a chance for success. In 1806, a close colleague James Stephen came up with a masterplan. He had a detailed understanding of the Atlantic trade during the Napoleonic Wars, he realised that there was a need to suppress neutral shipping to prevent the French and Spanish colonies being supplied. This would have a secret benefit of affecting slave economies and stopping the supply of slaves effectively ending slavery. Almost unnoticed the Bill was passed and in a new abolitionist mood the politicians of the day swung behind Wilberforce and put the bill into law. When it was finally passed, the House of commons took the unprecedented step of rising as one and applauded and cheering a weeping Wilberforce who had dedicated the previous 20 years of his life to the ending of the foul business of slavery.

This was only the first step as Wilberforce failing in eyesight and health struggled on, the measures did not end the trade as traders found ways of getting around the law to maximise their heinous profits. Complete abolition became the order of the day and as Wilberforce declined others took up the torch and by 1833 slavery was finally abolished, with the rather sickening proviso that the owners be compensated. The day it was passed in the Commons, Wilberforce was ill at friends in London. This was fortunate as being elsewhere he would not have known the result. For the next day he died. Providence, in which he so strongly believed, let him know on his deathbed that his goal had been achieved.

Wilberforce was a very small man, but was one of the most eloquent and pleasant speakers the Commons had ever known. He would charm the people of Yorkshire every time he had to get elected. At times he was very popular with ordinary people and could be cheered in his travels. He had a significant wealth, which was denuded by his ridiculous generosity. He also kept servants well beyond their usefulness as he could not sack them, feeling they were his responsibility. There were those that criticised him vociferously as a hypocrite. There were desperate conditions for the working class in the northern industrial areas and post-war recession led to demonstrations that were brutally repressed most notably at Peterloo Manchester in 1819. Wilberforce stood for the maintenance of order and supported the Government in some of its repressive policies. This incensed some left wing social commentators as double standards. He also stood for the morals of the country and tried top people swearing, he failed. He tried to introduce Christianity to India with little success. But he did great work in limiting the hours children worked in factories, encouraging education, penal reform and other worthy causes.

For a time he lived in Clapham with family and friends who were like minded in their zeal to improve the country, especially the lot of the less fortunate. In this he was certainly successful, in fact you could argue that him and his friends manged to change the moral compass of England from the rapacious, godless self-interest of the 18th Century to the reforming, progressive and inclusive times of the mid and late 19th century. He stood against the great wrongs of society, inspired by faith and love he strained every sinew and rejected all personal gain in pursuit of a better world. He truly was an inspiration and one of the greatest Englishmen.

Conway-Laird (2016)


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