|William Wilberforce was a
deeply religious man whose political views were very conservative,
but who devoted most of his parliamentary career to the
abolition of the slave trade and slavery. He also
campaigned for legislation to prohibit the worst forms
of child labor, cruelty to animals and the removal of
political disabilities on Roman Catholics. He fought
to abolish the slave trade which, after many years of
defeats, he finally achieved in 1807. However, this
did not abolish slavery. He would frequently introduce
a private member’s Bill abolishing slavery. Year
after year his Bills were defeated until, finally, late
on Friday July 26, 1833, as he lay on his deathbed, his
friend, Thomas Babington Macaulay, the famous historian
and member of the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual
Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Dominions,
brought him word that the Slavery Abolition Bill 1833
abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire had been
read a third time (which means that it had been passed)
by the House of Commons.
"Thank God that
I have lived to witness the day in which England is willing
to give £20 million for the abolishment of slavery."
It was agreed that he should be in Westminster Abbey in London.
The Slavery Abolition Bill 1833 passed through the House
of Lords, it received the Royal Assent (which means it became
law) on 29 August 1833 and came into force on 1 August 1834.
On that date slavery was abolished throughout the vast British
Empire. The Act automatically applied as new possessions
(principally in Africa) subsequently became part of the British
William Wilberforce, the son of a wealthy merchant, was born
in Hull in 1759.
William's father died when he was young and for a time was brought
up by an uncle and aunt. William came under the influence of
his aunt, who was a strong supporter of John Wesley
and the Methodist
movement. Disturbed by these developments, Mrs. Wilberforce
brought her son back to the family home.
At seventeen Wilberforce was sent to St. John's College, Cambridge.
Wilberforce was shocked by the behaviour of his fellow students
and later wrote: "I was introduced on the very first night of
my arrival to as licentious a set of men as can well be conceived.
They drank hard, and their conversation was even worse than
their lives." One of Wilberforce's friends at university was
who was later to become Britain's youngest ever Prime Minister.
William Wilberforce decided on a career in politics and soon
after leaving university at the age of twenty, he decided to
become a candidate in the forthcoming parliamentary election
in Hull. His opponent
was Lord Rockingham, a rich and powerful member of the nobility,
and Wilberforce had to spend nearly £9,000 to become elected.
In the House
of Commons Wilberforce supported the the Tory government
led by William Pitt.
In 1784 Wilberforce became converted to Evangelical
Christianity. He joined the Clapham Set,
a group of evangelical members of the Anglican Church,
centered around John Venn, rector of Clapham Church in London. As
a result of this conversion, Wilberforce became interested in
social reform and was eventually approached by Lady Middleton,
to use his power as an MP to bring an end to the slave trade.
Society of Friends
in Britain had been campaigning against the slave trade for
many years. They had presented a petition to Parliament in 1783
and in 1787 had helped form the Society
for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Of the twelve members
on the committee nine were Quakers.
As a member of the evangelical
movement, Wilberforce was sympathetic to Mrs. Middleton's request.
In his letter of reply, Wilberforce wrote: "I feel the great
importance of the subject and I think myself unequal to the
task allotted to me." Despite these doubts, Wilberforce agreed
to Mrs. Middleton's request, but soon afterwards, he became
very ill and it was not until 12th May, 1789, that he made his
first speech against the slave trade.
Wilberforce, along with Thomas Clarkson
and Granville Sharp,
was now seen as one of the leaders of the anti-slave trade movement.
Most of Wilberforce's Tory colleagues
in the House of Commons
were opposed to any restrictions on the slave trade and at first
he had to rely on the support of Whigs such
Fox, Richard Brinsley
Sheridan, William Grenville
and Henry Brougham.
When William Wilberforce presented his first bill to abolish
the slave trade in 1791 it was easily defeated by 163 votes
Wilberforce refused to be beaten and in 1805 the House of Commons
passed a bill to that made it unlawful for any British subject
to transport slaves, but the measure was blocked by the House
In February 1806, Lord Grenville
formed a Whig administration.
Grenville and his Foreign Secretary, Charles Fox,
were strong opponents of the slave trade. Fox and Wilberforce
led the campaign in the House of Commons,
whereas Grenville, had the task of persuading the House of Lords
to accept the measure.
Greenville made a passionate speech where he argued that the
trade was "contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and
sound policy" and criticised fellow members for "not having
abolished the trade long ago". When the vote was taken the Abolition
of the Slave Trade bill was passed in the House of Lords
by 41 votes to 20. In the House of Commons
it was carried by 114 to 15 and it become law on 25th March,
British captains who were caught continuing the trade were fined
£100 for every slave found on board. However, this law did not
stop the British slave trade. If slave-ships were in danger
of being captured by the British navy, captains often reduced
the fines they had to pay by ordering the slaves to be thrown
into the sea.
Some people involved in the anti-slave trade campaign such as
Buxton, argued that the only way to end the suffering of
the slaves was to make slavery illegal. Wilberforce disagreed,
he believed that at this time slaves were not ready to be granted
their freedom. He pointed out in a pamphlet that he wrote in
1807 that: "It would be wrong to emancipate (the slaves). To
grant freedom to them immediately, would be to insure not only
their masters' ruin, but their own. They must (first) be trained
and educated for freedom."
In 1823 Thomas Fowell
Buxton formed the Society
for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery. Buxton
eventually persuaded Wilberforce to join his campaign but as
he had retired from the House of Commons
in 1825, he did not play an important part in persuading Parliament
to bring an end to slavery.
William Wilberforce died on 29th July, 1833. One month later,
Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition
Act that gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom.
Wilberforce was a deeply religious English member of parliament
and social reformer who was very influential in the abolition
of the slave trade and eventually slavery itself in the British
William Wilberforce was born on 24 August 1759 in Hull, the
son of a wealthy merchant. He studied at Cambridge University
where he began a lasting friendship with the future prime
minister, William Pitt the Younger. In 1780, Wilberforce became
member of parliament for Hull, later representing Yorkshire.
His dissolute lifestyle changed completely when he became
an evangelical Christian, and in 1784 joined a leading group
known as the Clapham Sect. His Christian faith prompted him
to become interested in social reform, particularly the improvement
of factory conditions in Britain.
The abolitionist Thomas Clarkson had an enormous influence
on Wilberforce. He and others were campaigning for an end
to the trade in which British ships were carrying black slaves
from Africa, in terrible conditions, to the West Indies as
goods to be bought and sold. Wilberforce was persuaded to
lobby for the abolition of the slave trade and for 18 years
he regularly introduced anti-slavery motions in parliament.
The campaign was supported by many members of the Clapham
Sect and other abolitionists who raised public awareness of
their cause with pamphlets, books, rallies and petitions.
In 1807, the slave trade was finally abolished, but this did
not free those who were already slaves. It was not until 1833
that an act was passed giving freedom to all slaves in the
Wilberforce's other efforts to 'renew society' included the
organisation of the Society for the Suppression of Vice in
1802. He worked with the reformer, Hannah More, in the Association
for the Better Observance of Sunday. Its goal was to provide
all children with regular education in reading, personal hygiene
and religion. He was closely involved with the Royal Society
for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He was also instrumental
in encouraging Christian missionaries to go to India.
Wilberforce retired from politics in 1825 and died on 29 July
1833, shortly after the act to free slaves in the British empire
passed through the House of Commons. He was buried near his
friend Pitt in Westminster Abbey.
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(24 August 1759 to 29 July 1833) was a British politician,
philanthropist, abolitionist and leader of
the parliamentary campaign against the slave trade.
Wilberforce was born in Hull, the son of Robert
Wilberforce (1728â€“1768), a wealthy merchant whose father
William (1690â€“1776) had made the family fortune
through the Baltic trade.
William Wilberforce the younger attended Hull Grammar School
and in 1768, at his fatherâ€™s
death, was sent to live with an uncle and aunt in St Jamesâ€™
Place, London and in Wimbledon. During
this time he was educated at school in Putney. It was also at this time
that his aunt Hannah, a staunch supporter of George Whitefield, influenced
the young Wilberforce towards Methodism.
His mother and grandfather, concerned at his leanings towards
him back to Hull in 1771, where he continued his education
at Pocklington School.
Wilberforce went up to St John's College,
Cambridge in 1776, where he
immersed himself in the social round of the students, and
felt little inclination to apply himself to serious study.
Amongst these surroundings, he befriended the young William Pitt,
who would become a lifelong friend. Although at first shocked
by the goings on around him, he later pursued a hedonistic
lifestyle himself, although the extreme behaviour of some
of his fellow students he found distasteful. He was awarded
in 1781 and M.A. in 1788.
Having little interest in returning to be involved in the
family business, while still at university Wilberforce made
the decision to seek election to Parliament.
Accordingly, in September 1780, at the age of twenty-one, he
was elected Member of Parliament
(MP) for Hull. As an independent
he took part in debates regarding naval shipbuilding and smuggling, and
renewed his friendship with future Prime Minister
William Pitt the younger and with Edward Eliot, another
contemporary from Cambridge. In autumn 1783 Pitt, Wilberforce
and Eliot travelled to France together.
Pitt became prime minister in December 1783 and Wilberforce became a key
supporter of his minority government. When
Parliament was dissolved in spring 1784, Wilberforce was soon recognised
as a Pitt supporter and candidate for the 1784 General
Election and, on April 6, when the Whigs were defeated,
he was returned as MP for Yorkshire
at the age of twenty-four.
In 1785 Wilberforce underwent a spiritual encounter which
he described as a conversion
experience. He resolved to commit his future life and
work wholly in the service of God, and one of the people he
received advice from was John Newton,
the leading evangelical Anglican clergyman. All those
he sought advice from, including Pitt, counselled him to remain
In 1787 Wilberforce was introduced to Thomas Clarkson and the
growing group campaigning against the slave trade by Sir Charles
Middleton and Lady Middleton, at their house in Teston, Kent, and was persuaded to become
leader of the parliamentary campaign.
After months of planning, on 12 May 1789 he made his first
major speech on the subject of abolition in the House of Commons,
in which he reasoned that the trade was morally reprehensible
and an issue of natural justice. Drawing on Clarksonâ€™s evidence,
he described in detail the appalling conditions in which slaves travelled from Africa in the middle
passage, and argued that abolishing the trade would also
bring an improvement to the conditions of existing slaves
in the West Indies. He put forward
twelve propositions for abolition, largely based upon Clarkson's
Essay on the Impolicy of the African Slave Trade, which
had been printed in large numbers and widely circulated.
In January 1790 he succeeded in gaining approval for a Parliamentary
select committee to consider
the slave trade and to examine the vast quantity of evidence
which he put forward.
In April 1791 Wilberforce introduced the first Parliamentary Bill
to abolish the slave trade, which was easily defeated by 163
votes to 88. As Wilberforce continued to bring the issue of
the slave trade before parliament, Clarkson continued to travel
and write. Between them, Clarkson and Wilberforce were responsible
for generating and sustaining a national movement which mobilised
public opinion as never before.
This was the beginning of a protracted parliamentary campaign, during which Wilberforce
introduced a motion in favour of abolition during every session of parliament.
He took every possible opportunity to bring the subject of
the slave trade before the Commons, and moved bills for its
abolition again in April 1792 and February 1793. Parliament,
however, refused to pass the bill.
The outbreak of the War with France in 1793
effectively prevented further serious consideration as the
public mood was concentrated on the national crisis and the
threat of invasion, although Wilberforce still persisted in
his efforts to have the subject debated, and brought further
motions in February 1795, February 1796 and May 1797.
In 1788 Sir William Dolben's Act had been passed which limited
slave carrying capacity on the ships which crossed the Atlantic.
However, it was not until 1799 that The Slave Trade Regulation
Act was passed to further prevent the overcrowding on slave ships.
There began to be a shift in public attitudes towards slavery and the slave trade, and
the early years of the nineteenth century saw greater prospects
for abolition. However, it was not until 1804 that Wilberforce
had any real hope of moving a bill and this did indeed pass
all its stages through the House of Commons by June of that
year. Unfortunately, it was too late in the parliamentary
session for it to complete its passage through the House of Lords, and Wilberforce
was obliged to reintroduce it in the 1805 session, although
on this occasion it was defeated on the second reading.
Wilberforce began to collaborate more with the Whigs and
the abolitionists within that party and gave general support
to the Grenville-Fox administration of February 1806 after
the death of Pitt. Wilberforce and Charles Fox thus led the campaign
in the House of Commons, with Lord
Grenville seeking to persuade the House of Lords to support
A change of tactics was advised by maritime lawyer James Stephen, at whose
suggestion in early 1806 he supported a bill to ban British
subjects from aiding or participating in the slave trade to
the French colonies. It was
a smart move, as the majority of the ships were, in fact,
now flying under American flags and were manned by British
crews, sailing out of Liverpool. The
new Foreign Slave Trade Act, which was quickly passed, and
the tactic was successful, as the new legislation effectively
also prohibited two-thirds of the British slave trade.
The death of Fox in September 1806 was a further blow for
the abolitionists. Wilberforce was again re-elected for Yorkshire
after Grenville called a general election and spent the latter
part of the year writing A Letter on the Abolition of the
Slave Trade, an apologetic essay in which he summarised
the huge volume of evidence against the trade that he and
Clarkson had accumulated over two decades. It was published
on 31 January 1807, and formed the basis for the final phase
of the campaign.
Lord Grenville had introduced an Abolition Bill in the House
of Lords, and made an impassioned speech, during which he
criticised fellow members for "not having abolished the trade
long ago," and argued that the trade was "contrary to the
principles of justice, humanity and sound policy." When a
final vote was taken the bill was passed in the House of Lords
by the unexpectedly large margin of 41 votes to 20. Sensing
that this was at last the breakthrough that had been long
anticipated, Charles Grey (now Viscount
Howick) moved its second reading in the Commons on 23 February.
As tributes were made to Wilberforce, who had laboured for
the cause during the preceding twenty years, the bill was
carried by 283 votes to 16 and the Slave Trade Act received
the royal assent on 25 March,
Although most remembered for his work towards the abolition
of slavery, Wilberforce was also concerned with other matters
of social reform. He had written, "God Almighty has set before
me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and
the Reformation of Manners." It was at the suggestion of Wilberforce,
together with Bishop Porteus and other
churchmen, that the Archbishop of Canterbury
requested King George
III to issue his 'Proclamation for the Discouragement
of Vice' in 1787, which he saw as
a remedy for what he saw as the rising tide of immorality
The British East India
Company had been set up to give the British a share in
the East Indian spice
trade In 1793, Wilberforce used the renewal of its charter
to suggest the addition of clauses enabling the company to
employ religious teachers with the aim of 'introducing Christian
light into India.'
This plan was unsuccessful and the clauses were omitted,
initially because of lobbying by the directors of the company,
who feared their commercial interests would be damaged should
the proposed legislation result in religious confrontations.
Wilberforce tried again in 1813 when the charter next came
up for renewal. Using public petitions and various statistics,
this time he managed to persuade the House of Commons to include
the relevant clauses and the Charter
Act 1813 was passed. His work thus enabled missionary
work to become partly a condition of the renewed charter.
(Although concerned with the country deeply, Wilberforce himself
had never been to India. .)
Eventually, this resulted in the foundation of the Bishopric of Calcutta.
Wilberforce was also a founding member of the Church Missionary
Society (since renamed Church Mission Society),
as well as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
(now the Royal
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). He
also gave his support to local projects and was treasurer
to a nearby charity school while
he was living in Wimbledon.
Wilberforce was buried in Westminster Abbey next
to Pitt. This memorial statue was erected in 1840 in the north
Wilberforce continued with his work after 1807, and his concern
about slavery led him to found the African Institution, the
aim of which was to improve the conditions of slaves in the
West Indies. He was also instrumental in developing the Sierra Leone project to help
with the eventual goal of taking Christianity into west Africa. Wilberforce's
position as the leading evangelical in parliament was acknowledged,
and he was by now the foremost member of the so-called Clapham Sect, along with
his brotherâ€“in-law Henry Thornton
and Edward Eliot. Because most of the group held evangelical
Christian convictions they were dubbed â€˜the Saints.â€™
By 1820, after a period of ill health and a decision to limit
his public activities, Wilberforce was still labouring for
the eventual emancipation of all slaves, and in 1821 asked
Thomas Fowell Buxton
to take over the leadership of the campaign in the Commons.
Wilberforce published his Appeal to the Religion, Justice
and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in Behalf
of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies in early 1823,
in which he claimed that the moral and spiritual condition
of the slaves stemmed directly from their slavery, and claimed
that total emancipation was morally and ethically justified,
and a matter of national duty before God.
1823 also saw the formation of the Society for the Mitigation
and Gradual Abolition of Slavery (later the Anti-Slavery Society)
and on 15 May 1823 Buxton moved a resolution in Parliament
against slavery, a debate in which Wilberforce took an active
part. There followed subsequent debates on 16 March and 11
June 1823, at which Wilberforce made his the last speech in
In 1824 Wilberforce suffered a serious illness, and early
the following year resigned his parliamentary seat. He moved
to a small estate in Mill Hill,
north of London in 1826. This resulted in his health improving
somewhat, although in his retirement he continued his passionate
belief in the anti-slavery cause, to which he had given his
life, and maintained an active correspondence with his extensive
circle of friends, many of whom he continued to visit.
By 1833 his health had begun to decline, and he suffered
a severe attack of influenza,
from which he never fully recovered. On 26 July 1833 he heard,
with much rejoicing, that the bill for the abolition of slavery
had finally passed its third reading in the Commons. On the
following day he grew much weaker, and died early on the morning
of 29 July. One month later, Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act
that gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom.
William Wilberforce was buried in Westminster Abbey on
3 August, 1833. The funeral was attended by many members from
both Houses of Parliament,
as well as many members of the public, and the pall bearers
including the Lord
Chancellor and the Duke
A statue to the memory of one of Britainâ€™s greatest parliamentarians
was erected in Westminster Abbey in 1840, and a memorial column
was erected in Hull in 1834.
In April 1797 Wilberforce completed 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 , which was an exposition of New Testament doctrine and
teachings and a call for revival of the Christian religion,
in view of what he saw as the moral decline of the nation.
It was an influential work and illustrates, far more than
any other of his writings, his own personal testimony and
the views which inspired him in his life's work.
After the death of Fox in September 1806 Wilberforce was
again re-elected for Yorkshire and spent the latter part of
the year writing A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave
Trade, an apologetic essay in which he summarised the
huge volume of evidence against the trade that he and Clarkson
had accumulated over two decades. It was published on 31 January
1807, and formed the basis for the final phase of the abolition
In early 1823 Wilberforce published his Appeal to the
Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British
Empire in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies,
in which he claimed that the moral and spiritual condition
of the slaves stemmed directly from their slavery, and claimed
that total emancipation was morally and ethically justified,
and a matter of national duty before God.
A statue of William Wilberforce can now be seen outside Wilberforce House in
Hull, where Wilberforce was born.
On 15 April 1797, he met Barbara Ann (1777â€“1847), eldest
daughter of Isaac Spooner of Elmdon Hall, Warwickshire, a banker. Within
a fortnight of their first meeting William had proposed. The
couple were married in Bath on 30 May 1797. Their
children were William (b 1798), Barbara (b 1799), Elizabeth
(b 1801), Robert Isaac Wilberforce
(b 1802), Samuel Wilberforce
(b 1805) and Henry William Wilberforce
The 17th-century house in which he was born is today Wilberforce House museum
in Kingston upon Hull.
A sixth-form college is named after him in the east of the
city, as is a building at the university.
A film titled Amazing Grace,
about the life of Wilberforce and the struggle against slavery,
directed by Michael Apted, with Ioan Gruffudd
playing the role of Wilberforce, is due to be released on
February 23, 2007 â€“ to coincide with the 200th anniversary
of the date the Parliament
of the United Kingdom voted to ban the transport of slaves
by British subjects.
located in Wilberforce, Ohio is
named for William Wilberforce. The university is the first
one owned by African-Americans, and is a historically black
- Tomkins, Stephen "William Wilberforce" (Oxford: Lion,
- Piper, John. Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce
(Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2006) ISBN
- Carey, Brycchan. British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric
of Sensibility: Writing, Sentiment, and Slavery, 1760-1807
(Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)
- Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains, The British Struggle
to Abolish Slavery (Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan, 2005)
- Keay, John. India: A History. (New York: Grove
Press Books, 2000) ISBN
- Pollock, John. Wilberforce. (London: Constable,
- Stephen, Leslie. William Wilberforce in The Dictionary
of National Biography, (Oxford: University Press, 1900)
- Vaughan, David J. Statesman and Saint: The Principled
Politics of William Wilberforce. (Nashville, Tennessee:
Cumberland House, 2001) ISBN
- Wolffe, John. William Wilberforce in Oxford Dictionary
of National Biography (Oxford: University Press, 2006)
- Belmonte, Kevin. Hero of Humanity: A Biography of William
Wilberforce (Navpress 2005)
- Furneaux, Robin. William Wilberforce (London: Hamish
Hamilton, 1974, reprinted 2006) ISBN
- Pura, Murray Andrew. Vital Christianity: The Life and
Spirituality of William Wilberforce (Toronto: Clements,
- ^ Keay,
John. India: A History (New York: Grove Press Books,
distributed by Publishers Group West, 2000). pp. 429
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