William Wilberforce: the great emancipator
In March 2007, on the two-hundredth anniversary of the British parliament's decision to abolish the slave trade, there was a flurry of contention in the letters pages of several newspapers and blogs. The points at issue were whether the British had really been the first in the world to take such action and whether the parliamentarian William Wilberforce deserved as much credit as he was then getting in the news media. Those taking umbrage were members of the political Left, who were determined to insist their side always led the way in the progress and liberation of the downtrodden. They claimed the first to abolish slavery were actually the Jacobins of the French Revolution in 1794, thirteen years before the British. The last thing they wanted to concede was that one of the greatest single blows ever struck in the history of human freedom had been initiated and enacted by a conservative, middle-class Englishman heading a political movement of evangelical Christians.
One of the threads that William Hague weaves though his compelling new biography of Wilberforce is his narrative of developments in France that paralleled those in England .  The Convention in Paris did declare the universal emancipation of slaves in February 1794. This was precisely in the middle of the eleven-month period known as the Reign of Terror, when most of the revolutionaries had more urgent priorities. In practice, the declaration did nothing to affect the trade in slaves except abolish the bounty the French government had once paid for their carriage. As early as 1791, the Jacobins' violent overthrow of their government had provoked West Indian slaves to plan a revolt of their own. In France's colony of Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti), the 450,000 slaves rose up, slew their 40,000 white masters, and set ablaze 1000 plantations in the bloodiest slave revolt the world has ever seen. This was a godsend to slave owners and transporters everywhere else who could then argue against reform by pointing to the chaos and outrages attendant upon the French example.
In England at the time, Wilberforce and the English anti-slavery movement had just spent four years preparing the ground for a vote in the House of Commons which, had it passed, would have made it illegal for British ships to transport slaves. Wilberforce had persuaded key members of the House to his position, while speakers from the Evangelical movement fanned out across the country to convert public opinion to the cause. The movement's most popular orator, Thomas Clarkson, eventually clocked up 35,000 miles giving lectures around Britain , attracting huge crowds to churches, chapels, town halls, guild halls, and music halls. The movement generated 519 petitions to parliament bearing half a million signatures. Clarkson said 300,000 people had acted on his call to refuse to buy sugar produced with slave labor. In contrast, the defenders of the trade could only muster four petitions. In parliament in 1791, Wilberforce's motion was supported by powerful speeches from the leaders of the two dominant factions, Prime Minister William Pitt and Charles Fox. Nonetheless, at a time when political party discipline was unknown and members voted freely, the events in France and its Caribbean colony combined with the arguments of those who said abolition would damage vital economic interests, leaving 5,500 sailors and 160 ships unemployed, bolstered the case of those hostile to reform. “People here are all panic struck with the transactions in St. Domingo,” Wilberforce wrote, “and the apprehension or pretend apprehension of the like in Jamaica and other of our islands.” The vote was lost 163 to 88.
The laws of England did not permit slavery at home. The ownership and sale of human beings had been illegal in England since the early middle ages. In its colonies abroad, however, slavery had been approved since Elizabeth I had given Captain John Hawkins permission in 1562 to mount an expedition to carry goods, including slaves, from Africa to Hispaniola . By the 1700s, the growth of slavery in the Americas had led thousands of African slaves to be employed as servants in London , Edinburgh , and other urban centers. In the celebrated James Somerset case of 1772, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield confirmed that English law did not permit slavery and that all servants on English soil were free to go as they pleased. This judgment was made twenty-two years before the French Convention declared much the same thing.
Nonetheless slavery still thrived across the British Empire . The merchant fleets of Liverpool and Bristol dominated the transport of slaves across the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas . The sugar plantations of Britain 's Caribbean colonies were completely dependent on slave labor. In India , where the institution had existed since time immemorial, the population of slaves in the 1790s totalled some eight million. Moreover, Britain 's former colonies in North America housed almost 700,000 slaves, and British transportation to the southern states flourished.
William Hague's book is a meticulously researched, stylishly written, and nicely paced account of the man most prominent in the campaign to change all this and of the political environment in which it occurred. As a former leader of Britain's Conservative party who ran unsuccessfully against Tony Blair in the general election of 2001, Hague is fascinated by the political machinations of Wilberforce's era and is very good at explaining them to his readers. The book also benefits greatly from Hague's earlier biography of William Pitt the Younger, the close friend and collaborator of Wilberforce for most of his parliamentary career.
William Wilberforce was born in 1759 into a wealthy trading family in the Yorkshire port of Hull. He was educated at grammar schools and, apart from an encounter with Methodism from ages nine to twelve when he lived at Wimbledon with his uncle and aunt, little in his upbringing indicated any religious or social commitment. In his early teenage years, he spent his leisure time in what he later described as “utter idleness and dissipation” at gambling, theater-going, and socializing long into the night. By the time he was eighteen, the deaths of his father, grandfather, and uncle left him the sole male heir to the family fortune. He entered St. John's College at Cambridge University as a young man with enough money to live as a gentleman for the rest of his life. He was an undistinguished student, never attending lectures and doing the minimum work to pass his exams. He spent what Hague describes as “three whole years of card parties and late-night drinking.” He was best known for his wit, conversation, good humor, and love of society.
Bored with university life in the winter of 1779–80, he began paying regular visits to London to sit in the public gallery of the House of Commons. There he met and befriended a fellow Cambridge student, William Pitt, son of the recently deceased Prime Minister. The young men's backgrounds complemented one another. Pitt had plentiful connections, wide recognition, and a famous name, but no money; Wilberforce had exactly the opposite, and would for years to come provide Pitt with generous hospitality and good company.
These were dramatic times. The war against the American colonies was the biggest issue in parliament. Pitt the Elder had condemned the war and sought a peaceful settlement. His son admired the oratory of both Charles Fox and Edmund Burke as they argued the same cause. Though young Pitt and Wilberforce were not yet twenty-one years old, they determined to enter politics at the looming general election of 1781. While this might seem precocious today, it was not so remarkable at the time. In the House of Commons about to be elected, there would be no fewer than 100 members under the age of thirty.
The campaign to win the seat of Hull cost Wilberforce £9,000 (the equivalent of £1 million today). Most of this went to pay for the travel expenses, food, drink, and accommodation of the 1,126 electors who cast their ballots for him. (Hague observes the winner of a nearby seat with a similar electorate treated his prospective voters to no less than 1,187 barrels of ale, 3,756 gallons of rum and brandy, and 27,000 bottles of wine.)
Once in parliament, Wilberforce displayed tastes not dissimilar to his constituents. He took rooms in the St. James area, in the midst of London 's thriving clubland in an era that was one of the most licentious and decadent in the city's history. Wilberforce's social popularity quickly made him a member of all three of the most celebrated gentlemen's clubs as well as a string of others. He and Pitt were members of the group of Cambridge graduates who formed Goostree's club in Pall Mall , dining there every night when parliament was sitting and often gambling and drinking wine until dawn. As well as entertaining companions with his wit and verve, Wilberforce also became popular for singing at parties. The Prince of Wales told the Duchess of Devonshire that he would go anywhere to hear Wilberforce sing.
Alongside the gentlemen's clubs in Pall Mall was Mrs. Hazer's Establishment of Pleasure, which offered a floorshow of naked dancing and a “Tahitian love feast” involving twelve girls and twelve youths. One contemporary observer wrote that in London , brothels had become fashionable and acceptable. “Prostitution is so profitable a business, and conducted so openly, that hundreds of persons keep houses of ill-fame, for the reception of girls not more than twelve or thirteen years of age, without a blush upon their integrity.” Hague says it is not known whether Wilberforce yielded to such temptations, but years after his death his son Samuel told the Bishop of Oxford that “his father when young used to drink tea every evening in a brothel.”
In October 1783, when Pitt and Wilberforce were holidaying in France , Pitt was summonsed back to London by the King. By December that year, he had been appointed Prime Minister, at twenty-four by far the youngest man ever to hold the position. Although Wilberforce held the same political views and his parliamentary oratory had already impressed most members, Pitt did not ask his friend to join his cabinet. Nor did he make such an offer over the following two decades. While Pitt still valued him as a personal friend and political ally, he thought Wilberforce temperamentally unsuited to ministerial office—he was chronically late in keeping appointments, had recurring bouts of bad eyesight, and accumulated huge piles of unanswered mail.
In the autumn of 1785, when he was twenty-six years old, Wilberforce underwent a classic conversion to Christian evangelicalism. Hague compares it to some of the famous conversions of the era, such as those of Charles and John Wesley and John Newton, who each experienced a mental and spiritual experience of enormous power often at a particular moment in time they could identify. Wilberforce's conversion could not be pinned down so precisely and contained no supernatural visions or voices but, over a comparatively short period of two or three months, he underwent a process of self-examination, doubt, agony, and awakening.
By December 1785 he emerged a different person, acutely conscious of his former dissipated life and determined to atone for it. While he kept most of this to himself, he had a long and earnest discussion with Pitt who tried to persuade him not to withdraw into religious isolation, and he visited John Newton, who had become rector of St. Mary Wollnoth in the City of London . In the recent film on Wilberforce's career, Amazing Grace , named after one of Newton 's many hymns, there is a powerful scene where the actor Albert Finney portrays the former slave ship captain still doing penance for his sins, dressed in hair shirt and mopping the floors of his church while he answers Wilberforce's doubts. Like most scenes in this remarkably good film, this one is accurate. Hague reports that at this meeting Newton calmed Wilberforce and strengthened his resolve, urging him to combine his new religious beliefs with his existing political career.
The evangelical version of Christianity which converted Wilberforce was a product of the recent religious revival in England . Evangelicalism and Methodism had a common origin in seventeenth-century Puritanism coupled with despair at the falling religious and moral standards of the Church of England in the eighteenth century. At the time, Anglican congregations were in sharp decline and the church had failed to establish itself in the new industrial towns of the north. Methodism broke away to form an independent movement that appealed most to the lower orders. Evangelicals remained within the established church and attracted the educated and business-oriented classes. A defining belief of Evangelicalism was the role of Providence . God's hand could be detected in all events, great and small. Wilberforce came to believe that Providence had given him his fortune and his seat in parliament for a purpose and had made him accountable for how he used them. Evangelicals also believed Christian principles should be applied to all areas of life. Worldly indulgences were to be avoided and leisure was an opportunity not for entertainment but personal renewal. Hence drunkenness, card playing, public dancing, horse racing, sexual immorality, and failure to observe the Sabbath were all targets for their criticism. Although their religious observance remained within the Church, the Evangelicals formed independent societies and raised independent funds to pursue their campaigns for social amelioration.
When he seriously took up political activism in 1787, Wilberforce wrote in his diary: “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” The second of these projects is often overlooked today, but it was central to Wilberforce's conversion and his quest for personal salvation. He was convinced the British nation in the late 1700s was in serious moral decline and equally confident that the remedy was not piecemeal reform but the transformation of the moral climate of the times. His solution was to attempt to mobilize the country's moral and social leaders in a nationwide struggle against vice. He began by persuading both Prime Minister Pitt and the Archbishop of Canterbury to urge George III to issue a royal proclamation denouncing impiety and licentiousness. The King acquiesced and commanded his judges, mayors, sheriffs, and other officials to prosecute all persons guilty of a range of offenses:
excessive drinking, Blasphemy, profane swearing and Cursing lewdness, Profanation of the Lord's Day, or other dissolute, immoral or disorderly Practices; and that they take Care also effectually to suppress all publick Gaming Houses and other loose and disorderly Houses, and also all unlicenced Publick Shews, Interludes and Places of Entertainment.
Throughout the second half of 1787, Wilberforce directed his energies to organizing the Society for Giving Effect to His Majesty's Proclamation against Vice and Immorality. When the names of its founding members were published, they included four members of parliament (including the Prime Minister), ten peers, six dukes, a marquess, seventeen bishops, and the Archbishops of both Canterbury and York . Hague says that the public at large at the time greeted both proclamation and society with customary indifference. Some evangelicals, including Hannah More, were skeptical of a society that focused all its energies on the vices of the common people rather than those of the nobility. Sydney Smith accused its successor, the Society for the Suppression of Vice, of aiming at “suppressing the vices of persons whose income does not exceed £500 per annum.”
Nonetheless, the long-term effects of Wilberforce's efforts were profound. By 1793 he has written a tract that became both a national and international bestseller. A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System called for a religious revival to reform community morals, especially sexual license, crime, drunkenness, and family neglect. It defined for the evangelical movement its key objectives and urged the middle classes to set a social example in church-going, marriage, and education. The book went through five editions within six months. In Wilberforce's lifetime, it reached fifteen editions in Britain and twenty-five in the United States , while being translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and German. Within a century it reached fifty editions.
In the long run, several of his biographers have credited Wilberforce with defining the moral earnestness that shaped the Victorian age. Hague agrees that the Proclamation Society set going a national movement that eventually produced a marked lull in disorderly conduct and brutal amusements and, along with Methodism, was an important cause of the advance in working-class respectability during the first two decades of the nineteenth century. All this was part of the moral climate in which the popular movement against the slave trade thrived.
Of all the countries in Europe where a campaign against slavery might be successful, England was the most likely. Many believed the tradition of “the freeborn Englishman” defined their country. This was a political and a folk tradition that extended back at least to the English Civil War but probably much further. It meant that no one in England could be born into slavery, bondage, or vassalage. All were born with inalienable rights to freedom. In Britain 's version of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, this produced a secular humanitarian movement that emphasized the unity of human kind. All human beings, whatever their skin color, were equal, both at law and before God. Several Scottish intellectuals openly condemned slavery, especially Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments , plus George Wallace and Adam Ferguson. In England , William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England made a firm break with Roman law on the subject. Hence, instead of the Enlightenment in Britain opposing the church, as it did in France , the two complemented one another.
The expansion of the British Empire in the eighteenth century also produced a naval tradition that looked down upon Europe's original imperial powers, Spain and Portugal . Ever since the Spanish Armada, English Protestant sailors had been nourished on a diet of anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic stories. Tales of the atrocities of the Spanish Inquisition and the brutal treatment of both African slaves and the indigenous peoples of the Americas entrenched the sentiment. The direct experience of a number of naval officers, many of whom spent the early years of their careers in the American and West Indian colonies, left them with a sense that slavery was repugnant. This was especially true of those who witnessed or heard tales of slave ship captains who, faced with an outbreak of disease in their cramped holds, would routinely throw dozens of infected slaves overboard.
One of these naval officers, James Ramsay, who had spent twenty-two years in the West Indies , did more than anyone else to entice Wilberforce into the anti-slavery cause. In 1784, Ramsay published two powerful pamphlets, An Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies and An Inquiry into the Effects of Putting a Stop to the African Slave Trade . They provided a great deal of the factual ammunition about the trade on which the future campaign would depend. By this time, Ramsay was back in England where the politician and former naval captain Charles Middleton and his evangelical activist wife, Margaret, had made him the vicar at Teston in Kent . In late 1786, the Middletons persuaded Wilberforce to come down to visit them and meet Ramsay. They had decided that, as a friend of Pitt but outside the cabinet, coupled with his reputation as an orator and his recent conversion to evangelicalism, he was the best man in parliament to lead a campaign to abolish the slave trade.
The same year, Thomas Clarkson, a recent Cambridge graduate and would-be clergyman, gave a philosophical essay he had written against slavery to Ramsay's publisher. He too was invited to stay with the Middletons, which he did for a month in the summer of 1786. Early the following year he took his publication to Wilberforce at his Westminster town house, and began a series of regular visits to discuss abolition. On 13 March 1787 Clarkson arranged a small dinner for Wilberforce at the house of Bennet Langdon, a wealthy landowner, whose other guests were Charles Middleton, Isaac Hawkins Brown MP , Sir Joshua Reynolds, James Boswell, and William Windham MP . They asked Wilberforce to spearhead the campaign. Wilberforce took his first step towards committing himself by agreeing to bring the matter before parliament. Two months later, in May 1787 on a visit to Pitt's country house at Holwood in Kent , he discussed the proposal with both Pitt and William Grenville. Pitt saw it as both a personal and a political opportunity:
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 may be occupied by another.
The support of the Prime Minister finally convinced Wilberforce. He set out on a venture that would occupy much of the rest of his life. Later that month, Wilberforce and Clarkson were among a group of twelve Evangelicals who met in London to establish the Committee of the Society for the Purpose of Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
Today, of course, if a British Prime Minister endorsed an issue, and he had a parliamentary majority as large as Pitt enjoyed at the time, a motion like this would have been guaranteed to pass. In the late eighteenth century, however, political parties were not clearly defined, and the Prime Minister lacked the control over members that a party later provided. Pitt and Wilberforce had begun their careers as part of a Whig or liberal coalition, and it was only under pressure of the long, twenty-year war with France that they gradually became defined as Tories. At the time, a Prime Minister relied for support on a shifting mix of members, some of whom owed their positions to the King rather than to him, others who gave their prime loyalty to a factional leader, a borough-monger, or simply to their own opinion. To gain a majority for the abolition of the slave trade, Hague writes, Wilberforce had to win the votes of country gentlemen whose attendance was erratic, friends of the King who took their cue from Windsor Castle rather than Downing Street , and members of the House of Lords whose first instinct was to be suspicious of any change.
Moreover, the Enlightenment and Evangelical values that motivated the youthful Pitt and Wilberforce were not shared by older members of the political establishment. George III was no enthusiast for reform, and one of his sons, the Duke of Clarence, was an ardent supporter of the slave trade. The loss of the North American colonies had left Pitt's deputy and the controller of parliamentary business, Henry Dundas, a defender of colonial property rights and economic decision-making. Many in parliament joined the King in being wary of any change that might threaten England 's grip on its empire. Religious and philosophical sentiment was far from their first priorities. Indeed, Hague reminds his readers of the dictum of the great British historian Lewis Namier. The members of the House of Commons were unlikely to be won over by appeals to Christian morality or human compassion: they “no more dreamt of a seat in the House in order to benefit humanity than a child dreams of a birthday cake that others may eat it.”
This was why dramatic events such as the revolution in France could sway the large bloc of members who might otherwise have not taken a strong stand either way on the issue. Over the twenty years it subsequently took Wilberforce to get a motion successfully through both the Commons and Lords, the long war with France usually had a disproportionately negative influence on the vote. Even though the evangelical campaign was enormously successful in swaying public opinion in the late 1780s and early 1790s, thereby putting some democratic pressure on members of the House of Commons, by the late 1790s the situation was quite different. Defeated Austria had made peace with France and outbreaks of mutiny in the Royal Navy and riots in the army meant the slave trade shrank to a minor item on the nation's political agenda. The French Revolution generated public disapproval of all apparently progressive causes and sanctioned a clampdown by authority. Pitt himself, with Wilberforce's support, suspended habeas corpus and suppressed the burgeoning trade union movement.
It was not until 1804, when Napoleon declared himself hereditary emperor of France , that traditional British values clearly defined what was being fought against: the despotic power of a dictator. Moreover, this was a dictator who defended slavery and gave succour to the slave trade, and who sent troops to wage war against the rebellious slaves of Saint-Domingue. “Thus while abolition in the 1790s may have seemed to have something dangerously in common with Britain's enemies,” Hague writes, “abolition in 1804 was very happily combined in opposition to everything French.”
From then onwards, the now routinely submitted annual motion Wilberforce put to the parliament began to win clear majorities in the House of Commons. The House of Lords remained opposed until 1806 when one of Wilberforce's evangelical colleagues, James Stephen, argued for a bill to make it illegal to supply slaves to the foreign colonies of powers with which Britain was at war. Wilberforce and his supporters recognized that the war with France , which had always been the problem, had suddenly become the solution. Presented as a comparatively minor matter, this bill was guided through the House of Lords by Pitt's successor as Prime Minister and Wilberforce's long-time friend, William Grenville.
Meanwhile, in December 1806, President Thomas Jefferson called on both houses of Congress to ban the transport of slaves to the United States . This nullified arguments by British opponents that their own recent bill would deliver the surviving trade to American ships. The combined effect was to make complete abolition of the trade a matter of British national interest. In February 1807, Grenville introduced a bill to that effect in the Lords and, relying heavily on moral arguments that had remained unspoken the year before, carried it by 100 votes to thirty-four. The House of Commons subsequently carried the bill by 283 votes to sixteen. George III gave his formal consent and on 25 March 1807 the Slave Trade Abolition Act became British law.
The organization formed in May 1787 to abolish “the slave trade” had limited its goal to ending transportation in British ships rather than the ownership of slaves throughout the British Empire . They had decided they had no real choice at the time to pursue the ultimate goal. Hague argues that the prospect of the rapid freeing of several million slaves would have conjured up fears they could not possibly overcome. It would also have been seen as a fundamental attack on the property rights of plantation owners which, along with an intrusion into the legislative rights of the colonies, would take the Westminster Parliament beyond the range of its established powers. Once stage one of the campaign was successfully accomplished, however, those involved determined to press on. Yet again, the French proved a major problem.
Once British ships were removed from the trade, vessels from other countries moved in to take up the demand. The Royal Navy cruised the west coast of Africa intercepting both British and American ships for illegal traffic in slaves and preventing vessels of the enemy, France and Spain, from using the high seas at all. When Napoleon blockaded continental Europe to British trade, however, the British responded with a blockade of its own, the famous “Orders in Council,” which barred all neutral shipping from French and allied ports. This put the Royal Navy into frequent confrontation with American trading vessels, lost American support in suppressing the trade, and became a major cause of the War of 1812.
With the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, the peace settlement included an agreement to abolish the French slave trade. Within a year, however, thirty-six ships left French ports on slaving voyages and the Bourbon government did nothing about it. In 1816 France issued fresh directives against the trade and in 1818 passed laws that unequivocally abolished it. This was followed by an immediate increase in the French illegal trade. Indeed, in 1821 the French were caught re-enacting some of the most barbaric practices of earlier centuries. British interceptors found slave ships from which slaves stowed in casks had been thrown overboard in order to avoid detection by search parties.
Wilberforce remained active in the British efforts to shut down the foreign trade, largely by inserting relevant clauses in treaty negotiations with other European countries as the opportunity arose. Although proudly declaring himself to be no party man, he was publicly known throughout the 1820s as a Tory. In the end, the complete abolition of the ownership of slaves throughout the British Empire was accomplished once the Reform Bill of 1832 redefined the parliament and replaced the Tories with a more liberal Whig regime. On July 23, 1833 the Abolition of Slavery Bill, ending the institution throughout the British Empire and paying £20 million in compensation to slave owners, passed through the House of Commons. Three days later, Wilberforce died.
Even though the overall campaign took the best part of fifty years to achieve its goal, Hague argues that it was the events of 1807 that were decisive. The abolition of the trade at that time went beyond Britain 's national and political interests. It did so because Wilberforce and his colleagues demonstrated beyond argument that the trade was incompatible with values British people regarded themselves as proud to uphold. The moral authority they attached to their case set the example for all that followed. It emboldened Royal Navy captains intercepting ships off the coast of Africa as much as slaves who sought freedom under the law in the British West Indies . It was why at the peak of the British Empire's suzerainty of much of the world, Lord Palmerston declared one of his greatest achievements as Prime Minister had been the extinction of the transportation of slaves to Brazil . “In the avalanche of condemnation that descended on slavery in the nineteenth century,” Hague writes, “the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 was the fall of the mightiest possible boulder.”
William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner , by William Hague; Harcourt, 582 pages, $35