Abolition CampaignIn 1787, Sir Charles Middleton and Lady Middleton introduced Wilberforce at their house in Teston, Kent to the growing group campaigning against slave trade. Wilberforce, compelled by his strong Christian faith, was persuaded to become leader of the parliamentary campaign of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. 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 Thomas Clarkson’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. However, Wilberforce was opposed to extending the franchise to working class reformers, encouraged by Thomas Paine's Rights of Man to seek the vote. Wilberforce led the establishment of the Society for Suppression of Vice and Encouragement of Religion to curb political aspiration and support for the French Revolution. In January 1790, Wilberforce 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 subsequent 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. William Wilberforce was viewed as an enigma by some of his contemporaries: a popular but small and sickly man whose single-handed energy and determination helped to eventually overcome the powerful pro-slavery lobby in Parliament and compel the abolition of the slave trade. James Boswell (1740–1795), Samuel Johnson's official biographer (who had been present at the dinner when it had first been suggested that he take up the cause), later witnessed Wilberforce's eloquence in the House of Commons, and noted:
"I saw what seemed a mere shrimp mount upon the table; but as I listened, he grew, and grew, until the shrimp became a whale."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. On 15 April 1797, he met Barbara Ann Spooner (1777–1847), 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, Somerset on 30 May 1797 within six weeks of their first meeting. Their children were William Wilberforce (b 1798), Barbara (b 1799), Elizabeth (b 1801), Robert Isaac Wilberforce (b 1802), Samuel Wilberforce (b 1805) and Henry William Wilberforce (b 1807). 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 reduce overcrowding on slave ships. Public attitudes towards slavery and the slave trade began to shift, 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. That year, his bill did indeed pass all its stages through the House of Commons by June. Unfortunately, it was too late in the parliamentary session for it to complete its passage through the House of Lords. Wilberforce had to reintroduce it in the 1805 session, and on this occasion it was defeated on the second reading. Wilberforce began to collaborate more with the Whigs and the abolitionists in that party. He gave general support to the Grenville-Fox administration of February 1806 after the death of William Pitt the younger. Wilberforce and Charles James Fox thus led the campaign in the House of Commons, while Lord Grenville advocated the cause in the House of Lords. A change of tactics, which involved introducing a bill to ban British subjects from aiding or participating in the slave trade to the French colonies, was suggested by maritime lawyer James Stephen in early 1806. It was a smart move, as the majority of the ships were, in fact, now flying American flags, though manned by British crews and sailing out of Liverpool. The new Foreign Slave Trade Act was quickly passed and the tactic proved successful. The new legislation effectively prohibited two-thirds of the British slave trade. This was in part enabled by Lord Nelson's victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, which had given Britain the sea power to ensure that any ban could be enforced. The death of Fox in September 1806 was a blow to the abolitionists. Wilberforce was again re-elected for Yorkshire after Grenville called for a general election. He and Clarkson had collected a large volume of evidence against the slave trade over the previous two decades. Wilberforce spent the latter part of the year following the election writing A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which was an apologetic essay summarizing this evidence. After it was published on 31 January 1807, it 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 criticized 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 a breakthrough that had been long anticipated, Charles Grey (now Viscount Howick) moved for a 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. The Slave Trade Act received the royal assent on 25 March 1807.
ParlimentarianWilberforce was one of the most regular of MPs in his attendance in the House of Commons, and served on many parliamentary committees. He was a persistent campaigner for parliamentary reform and constantly attacked the system under which members were elected, which had become corrupt. And, as time went on, he came to be regarded as keeper of the nation's conscience, to the extent that a speech was expected from him on almost every motion. On one occasion, Richard Sheridan, on hearing a rumour that Wilberforce was retiring from politics, stopped him and protested "Though you and I have not much agreed in our votes in the House of Commons, yet I thought the independent part you acted would render your retirement a public loss."
Although most remembered for his work towards the abolition of slavery, Wilberforce was also concerned with other matters of social reform. He wrote in his personal journals, "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 and vice. This became the Society for Suppression of Vice in 1802, which led to the fining and imprisonment of many people, including free speech campaigners like Richard Carlile, for distributing the works of Thomas Paine and other secular reformers.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 deeply concerned with the country, 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. Despite his role in ending the slave trade, Wilberforce was opposed to workers' rights to organise for better pay, conditions and working hours. In 1799 he drew up the Combination Act, which suppressed trade union activity throughout the United Kingdom.
The National Lottery
When Wilberforce's friends reassembled at Battersea Rise after the second reading of the Bill for Abolition of slavery had passed the Commons by a huge majority, Wilberforce turned to Thornton and said, “Well, Henry! What shall we abolish now?” Thornton solemnly replied, “The Lottery, I think.” Eventually owing to the efforts of this group the Lottery did go, but Wilberforce's “reformation of manners” embraced far more than that. One has only to contrast the picture of eighteenth-century society as given at the beginning of this essay with the sobriety and high moral standards of early Victorian England to realize that a great transformation had taken place, and had taken place within an even shorter period than is usually recognized. In 1829, Francis Place, who was no friend to Evangelical religion, wrote: “I am certain I risk nothing when I assert that more good has been done to the people in the last thirty years than in the three preceding centuries; that during this period they have become wiser, better, more frugal, more honest, more respectable, more virtuous than they ever were before.” For this transformation Wesley was partly responsible, and Wilberforce and his friends built on Wesley's foundations, bringing their influence to bear in circles which the Methodists could never hope to reach.Wilberforce was an outspoken critic of the National Lottery of his day. In 1817 he described the state lottery as 'a national sin'. As a result of the campaigning of various members of the Clapham Sect including William Wilberforce the lottery was brought to an end by the government in 1826.
Emancipation of Slaves
Wilberforce continued with his work after 1807. His concern about slavery led him to found the African Institution, which was dedicated to the improvement of the condition of slaves in the West Indies. He was also instrumental in the development of the Sierra Leone project, which was dedicated to the eventual goal of taking Christianity into west Africa. Wilberforce's position as the leading evangelical in parliament was acknowledged. He was by now the foremost member of the so-called Clapham Sect, along with his best friend and cousin Henry Thornton and Edward Eliot. Because most of the group held evangelical Christian convictions, they were dubbed "the Saints."By 1820, after a period of poor health and a decision to limit his public activities, Wilberforce continued to labour for the eventual emancipation of all slaves. In 1821, he 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 this treatise, he claimed that the moral and spiritual condition of the slaves stemmed directly from their slavery. He claimed that their total emancipation was not only morally and ethically justified, but also a matter of national duty before God. The year 1823 also saw the formation of the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery (later the Anti-Slavery Society). On 15 May 1823, Buxton moved a resolution in Parliament against slavery, a debate in which Wilberforce took an active part. Subsequent debates followed on 16 March and 11 June 1823, in which Wilberforce made his the last speeches in the Commons. In 1824, Wilberforce suffered a serious illness which led to his resignation of his parliamentary seat. He moved to a small estate in Mill Hill, north of London, in 1826. This resulted in his health improving somewhat. In his retirement he continued his passionate support for the anti-slavery cause, to which he had given his life. He maintained an active correspondence with his extensive circle of friends. By 1833 his health had begun to decline. He suffered a severe attack of influenza and never fully recovered. On 26 July 1833, he heard and rejoiced at the news 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 which 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. The pall bearers included the Lord Chancellor and the Duke of Gloucester. In Hull, £1,250 was raised by public subscription to fund the erection of a monument to Wilberforce. The foundation of the Wilberforce Monument was laid on 1 August 1834 in (what became) Victoria Square. The 102 foot (31 meter) Greek Doric column, topped by a statue of Wilberforce, was moved to its current site on the axis of Queen's Gardens in 1935. The Column is now used as a logo by Hull College, in whose campus the monument stands. A statue to the memory of Wilberforce was erected in Westminster Abbey in 1840, bearing the epitaph: "To the memory of William Wilberforce (born in Hull, August 24th 1759, died in London, July 29th 1833); for nearly half a century a member of the House of Commons, and, for six parliaments during that period, one of the two representatives for Yorkshire. In an age and country fertile in great and good men, he was among the foremost of those who fixed the character of their times; because to high and various talents, to warm benevolence, and to universal candour, he added the abiding eloquence of a Christian life. Eminent as he was in every department of public labour, and a leader in every work of charity, whether to relieve the temporal or the spiritual wants of his fellow-men, his name will ever be specially identified with those exertions which, by the blessing of God, removed from England the guilt of the African slave trade, and prepared the way for the abolition of slavery in every colony of the empire: in the prosecution of these objects he relied, not in vain, on God; but in the progress he was called to endure great obloquy and great opposition: he outlived, however, all enmity; and in the evening of his days, withdrew from public life and public observation to the bosom of his family. Yet he died not unnoticed or forgotten by his country: the Peers and Commons of England, with the Lord Chancellor and the Speaker at their head, in solemn procession from their respective houses, carried him to his fitting place among the mighty dead around, here to repose: till, through the merits of Jesus Christ, his only redeemer and saviour, (whom, in his life and in his writings he had desired to glorify,) he shall rise in the resurrection of the just." From Wikipedia the online encyclopedia.