William Wilberforce: When Leadership Mattered

Baxter EnnisBy Baxter Ennis25 Minutes

William Wilberforce: The man who dedicated his life working to end the slave trade in England.

By the late 1700s more than 11,000,000 African men, women, and children had been captured or bought to be sold as slaves primarily in the West Indies and to the American colonies. The loathsome practice of selling human beings into bondage was booming!

Great Britain, the great maritime nation and superpower of that time, was hugely involved in this extremely profitable slave trade.  And, disappointing as it is to us today, the slave trade in that time was considered acceptable by most people.

But in 1789, a strong voice arose in the Parliament of Great Britain speaking out against the cruel and immoral slave trade.  That voice was William Wilberforce, a young member of the Parliament.  In that year he presented his first bill to abolish the slave trade—and was soundly defeated.

William Wilberforce was only 30 years old when he took on this great work. A very diminutive man who stood only a little over 5 feet tall, he was an extremely witty person, a great orator, an engaging conversationalist, and a very talented singer.For nearly the next 20 years following that defeat, abolishing the British slave trade would be the primary focus and effort of his life.  It would be an extremely formidable task, but he was determined to challenge the status quo.

He had turned many heads when he was elected to represent the district of Hull in the House of Commons at the age of 21, defeating Lord Manner and David Hartley. He garnered exactly as many votes as the two combined.

After serving in Parliament for four years, he took a trip with his mother, sister, and a few family members across the English Channel to France.  He also invited a childhood friend, Isaac Milner, to come along for intelligent conversation.

Milner held the extremely prestigious chair of Lucasian Professor at Cambridge University.  To confirm the esteemed level of this professorship, it can be noted that it was once held by Sir Isaac Newton and in modern times by Stephen Hawking.

At some point during the lengthy visit, he noticed a cousin’s book on a table and picked it up.  The book was The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Philip Doddridge.

He and Milner would read and discuss the book on the arduous 1,200-mile coach trip back, including 18 snowy days trekking over the French Alps and then the coast, and finally crossing the Channel to England.  This book would propel him to embrace evangelical Anglicanism over a period of the next year and a half, dramatically changing his outlook and the direction of his life.

As his life turned more and more to God and matters of humanity, he strongly considered dropping out of politics and resigning his seat in Parliament.  He discreetly sought the advice and spiritual counsel of John Newton.

As a youth he had often heard John Newton preach when he visited his aunt and uncle.  Newton was a former slave ship captain who came to recognize the shame of his sin, had repented, and had turned to a life of service, preaching and writing hymns. One of his best known hymns is “Amazing Grace.” Newton was in fact the only religious acquaintance that Wilberforce had.

Now, as a well-known member of Parliament, Wilberforce had to use clandestine methods to arrange a meeting with Newton.  Had he been seen consorting with him, he could have been ostracized by family, friends, and political acquaintances. Spending time in the presence of Newton would get him labeled a “Methodist.”  In today’s vernacular it would be the same as being called a “Bible thumper” or “holy roller.”

Newton advised him to stay in Parliament despite the fact that others had suggested he drop out.

Wilberforce wrote to his dear friend William Pitt, who was the Prime Minister, about his spiritual awakening.  He told him about the great change that had taken place in his life.  He said that the change might have effects on his public conduct: “I told [Pitt] that although I should ever feel the greatest regard and affection for him, and had every reason to believe that I should in general be able to support his measures, I could no longer act as a party man.”[1]

The close relationship between Pitt and Wilberforce had been formed while they were both students at Cambridge when Pitt’s father, William Pitt the Elder, was the Prime Minister of England.

The two enjoyed meeting often at the gallery in the House of Commons when visiting London.  The friends spent countless hours watching and listening as lively debates raged below them.  It was likely during this period that Wilberforce caught the political bug and decided to run for Parliament. Their friendship would be pivotal for both of them in the years to come.

Both men were extraordinarily gifted speakers, brilliant, charming, and witty.  One significant difference between the two was that Pitt knew the nuances of politics: he had been around it his whole life, having been schooled and groomed by his father in the art of politics. His political savvy would play a pivotal role in Wilberforce’s later success in getting the slave trade abolished.

Wilberforce’s campaign to stop the slave trade was birthed in the first few months of 1787 when he began meeting with a group of abolitionists to discuss the issue and to exchange and update information with each other. In March of that year he first publicly announced to the group that he had decided to take up the cause of fighting for the abolition of the slave trade.

We can begin to understand the passion and determination that relentlessly drove Wilberforce to fight overwhelming odds to end this barbaric practice of buying and selling humans when we read the following account from Alexander Falconbridge, a ship’s surgeon on a slave ship.

The men Negroes on being brought aboard the ship, are immediately fastened together, two by two, by handcuffs on their wrists and irons riveted on their legs. . . . They are frequently stowed so close, as to admit no other position than lying on their sides. Nor will the height between decks, unless directly under the grating, permit the indulgence of an erect posture. . . .

They are far more violently affected by seasickness than Europeans.  It frequently terminates in death, especially among the women.  But the exclusion of fresh air is among the most intolerable. . . . The fresh air being thus excluded, the Negroes’ rooms soon grow intolerable hot.  The confined air, rendered noxious by the effluvia exhaled from their bodies and being repeatedly breathed, soon produces fevers and diarrhea which generally carries off great numbers of them. . . .

Some wet and blowing weather having occasioned the port-holes to be shut and the grating to be covered, (diarrheas) and fevers among the Negroes ensued. . . . The deck, that is the floor of their rooms, was so covered with the blood and mucus which had proceeded from them in consequence of the diarrhea that it resembled a slaughterhouse.  It is not in the power of the human imagination to picture a situation more dreadful or disgusting.[2]

In May of 1787 at the urging of his good friend, William Pitt, now the Prime Minister, Wilberforce resolved to take up the cause to fight in the House of Commons for the abolition of the slave trade.

He gave notice in the House of Commons in late December that he intended to put forth the issue of abolishing the slave trade early in the next session.  His plan was to present the bill in February, but he became very seriously ill with ulcerative colitis. His condition was so serious that several doctors thought that he would not live.

By the following spring, March 1789, he was healthy enough to return to the House of Commons.  On May 12 he gave a passionate speech lasting three hours calling for the abolition of the slave trade.

His speech was powerful and had great effect on the House.  Edmund Burke stated that the speech “equaled anything he had heard in modern times, and was not, perhaps, to be surpassed in the remains of Grecian eloquence.”[3]

However, despite eloquent speeches and strong support by some key allies for the abolition of the slave trade, the House of Commons voted to have a committee study the matter more thoroughly and to hear more in the next parliamentary session.

The next year Wilberforce succeeded in getting Parliament to form a select committee that would continue the process of gathering information both pro and con about the slave trade.  But it would be the spring of 1791 before the debate resumed on the abolition of the slave trade.

Despite another valiant effort, the bill failed again.  The vote was 88 for and 163 against.

In 1791 just days before his death, John Wesley, noted cleric and theologian, wrote a letter to Wilberforce giving strong encouragement and urging him to keep up his fight.  Here is an excerpt from that letter.

Dear Sir,

Unless the divine power has raised you up to be as Athanasius contra mundum [“Athanasius against the world”], I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature.  Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils.

But if God be for you, who can be against you?  Are all of them stronger than God?  O be not weary of well doing.  Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish before it.[4]

Wilberforce was a man of great religious conviction, which strengthened him in the face of overwhelming opposition. Author, Eric Metaxas notes,

Wilberforce prayed and read the Scriptures every day, and he prayed with many others over these issues and concerns. . . .

He also memorized lots of Scripture. In fact, he memorized all of Psalm 119 and would recite it on his daily 2 ½ mile walk to Parliament.[5]

The next year, April 2, 1792, Wilberforce again presented his bill to abolish the slave trade.  Again he made an impassioned speech as did the Prime Minister, his friend, William Pitt.

Henry Dundas came up with a counter proposal that the slave trade not be abolished at once, but gradually.  He proposed, and on April 27 the House of Commons agreed, that the slave trade would be abolished by January 1, 1796.

At first Wilberforce was greatly disappointed in the vote.  However, as time went on he realized that a significant victory had been achieved, for it was the first time ever that the House had agreed to abolish the slave trade.

However, this victory was not to last.  In February 1793 France and Britain went to war, and by late February the House refused to confirm the previous vote to gradually abolish slavery.  The House was in no mood to debate the abolition issue while a savage war raged.

A period of great tumult and unrest ensued in Britain.  The king was mobbed enroute to Parliament.  Many commoners called for seizing the properties of the rich and redistributing wealth.  Much anger was vented towards the rich, aristocratic landowners.

During this period Wilberforce supported bills that would greatly enhance the power of the government such as not allowing seditious assemblies.  He, however, only supported these bills for a temporary period, feeling that they were necessary because of the threat being posed by revolutionary France.  The fear was that revolution might be imported into Britain.

Wilberforce gave an impassioned, decisive speech to a gathering of thousands of his constituents and won them over to his and the government’s side supporting the Treason and Sedition bills.  His strong support helped his friend Prime Minister Pitt win this battle.

It wasn’t long before Wilberforce was ready to once again try getting his abolition bill passed.

Meanwhile, the French had incited blacks in the English West Indies; Grenada, Dominica, and St. Vincent to rebel against English authority.  Some anti-abolitionists believed this type of rebellion was indicative of what Wilberforce and his abolitionist supporters intended.

With this backdrop, some supporters of the abolition movement encouraged Wilberforce to delay presenting his abolition bill until a more favorable time.  Wilberforce disagreed.

On February 18, 1796, he introduced his abolition bill again.  The bill made it through the first and second readings, but on the third reading the bill was defeated 74-70.  Wilberforce was crushed.

It is interesting to note that the opposition had given free opera tickets to some of the supporters of the abolition bill, so some ten or twelve of the supporters were either at the opera or in the country for enjoyment, and missed this key vote.[6]

After the defeat Wilberforce was struck again by severe illness.  He had a high fever and excruciating intestinal troubles.  Though he was sick for several months he continued to work as much as he could. By May he was once again forced to campaign for reelection and won his seat on June 7.

In mid-July he wrote to his friend John Newton telling him he was considering retiring from public life.  Newton encouraged him to stay the course saying, “Though you have not, as yet, fully succeeded in your persevering endeavors to abolish the slave trade, the business is still in [process]; and since you took it in hand, the condition of the slaves in our islands, has undoubtedly been already [improved]). . . . These instances to which others . . . might . . . be added, are proofs that you have not labored in vain.”[7]

Once again, at the urging of his old friend and spiritual advisor, he decided to stay in Parliament and continue to fight for the abolition of the slave trade.

For the next eleven years Wilberforce continued to persist in trying to get the abolition bill passed.  From 1797 to 1799 his bill was defeated each year.  No progress was made on the bill between the years 1800 to 1803 because of a feared French invasion.

William Pitt, Wilberforce’s close friend and supporter, once again became Prime Minister in 1804 after being out of office for several years. He served until he died January 23, 1806, of complications resulting from severe gout.  He was only 47 years old.

Lord Grenville then became Prime Minister.  He was a solid supporter of the abolition bill and took steps to help Wilberforce secure passage.

A great irony is that Grenville and Charles James Fox, who at one time had been adversaries of Wilberforce, now became the two best allies in the drive to get the abolition bill passed.

Finally on the night of February 23, 1807 the tide turned for the “Abolition of the Slave Trade” bill.  As the bill was debated, more and more of the speeches were in support of the bill.  Excitement continued to build as members could sense the inevitability of the passage of the bill.

The climax of the night came when Solicitor General Sir Samuel Romilly closed his very moving speech by comparing Wilberforce and Napoleon and the reception each would receive upon arriving at home:

Napoleon would arrive in pomp and power, a man who knew the height of earthly ambition, yet one tormented by bloodshed and the oppressions of war.  Wilberforce would come home to “the bosom of his happy and delighted family,” able to lie down in peace because he had “preserved so many millions of his fellow creatures.”[8]

The House of Commons rose to its feet, turned to Wilberforce, and began to cheer.  They gave three rousing hurrahs while Wilberforce sat with his head bowed and wept.  Then at 4 a.m., the Commons voted to abolish the slave trade by an overwhelming majority, 283 to 16.[9]

The fight to abolish the slave trade was over!  It had taken nearly 20 years.  The fact that Wilberforce had successfully orchestrated the change of attitude in the country and the Parliament on the issue of the slave trade in so short a time was incredible!

Wilberforce would be a champion for many humanitarian causes during his political career: child labor laws, prison reform, education reform, issues of public health, prevention of cruelty to animals, and others.  But for nearly two decades he stood alone as the one man who challenged the status quo of the cruel, dehumanizing British slave trade.  William Wilberforce, exhibiting great leadership, resolve, and courage, fought in the House of Commons until his battle to end the slave trade was won.

William Wilberforce was there—When Leadership Mattered.

Bonus Notes

  • As a youth Wilberforce was a small, sickly, boy with poor eyesight.
  • Wilberforce was involved in many philanthropic and social causes.  At one point he was active in 69 separate initiatives.
  • He not only cared deeply for humans but also for animals.  He was the founder of the Royal Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
  • Sir James MacKintosh, a Scotsman, said this of Wilberforce: “If I were called upon to describe Wilberforce in one word, I would say he was the most ‘amusable’ man I ever met with in my life. Instead of having to think of what subjects will interest him it is perfectly impossible to hit one that does not.  I never saw any one who touched life at so many points.”[10]
  • In a 1783 trip to Paris, Wilberforce, his friend William Pitt, and Edward Eliot met some of the most prominent people of that time including Benjamin Franklin, General Lafayette, Marie Antoinette, and Louis XVI.
  • As he lay on his deathbed, three days before he died came the glorious news that Parliament had voted to outlaw slavery.
  • Wilberforce is buried in Westminster Abby near his good friend, William Pitt.

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