Birth of William Wilberforce

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By Ian Bradley | Published in History Today Volume: 33 Issue: 7 1983

'And who, Carruthers, was William Wilberforce?' 'He was the man who freed the slaves, sir.' Yet the answer to the schoolmaster's question could just as well be that he was the man who called his countrymen to repentance, the leading lay theologian of the Evangelical Revival, the politician who dedicated himself to reforming the nation's morals or, quite simply, as many of his contemporaries regarded him, the Saint, whose life, both public and private, provides one of the most shining and inspiring examples of practical Christianity.

It is, of course, Wilberforce the emancipator who is being remembered this month, the 150th anniversary of his death. This is hardly surprising when we are also celebrating the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, the triumphant culmination of his life's work of which Wilberforce heard the news just three days before he died on July 29th, 1833. The impressive programme of activities which has been organised this summer in his home city of Hull, ranging from a performance of Handel's Israel in Egypt to a cricket match between Yorkshire and the West Indies, focuses almost entirely on Wilberforce's abolitionist activities. It would be a great pity, however, if his other claims to fame, and to the attention of historians, were to go unnoticed in this anniversary year.

Historians and biographers have, indeed, become progressively less interested over the last sixty years in Wilberforce the liberator of the slaves and much more interested in Wilberforce the politician, and Wilberforce the Evangelical. In Reginald Coupland's celebrated biography, published by Collins in 1923, the battle against the slave trade and then the institution of slavery itself is the central theme of the story. It was, indeed, significant that Wilberforce's first twentieth-century biographer should have been a professor of colonial history. The two main recent biographies, by contrast, by Robin Furneaux (Hamish Hamilton, 1974) and John Pollock (Constable, 1977) devote much less space to the abolitionist cause and much more to Wilberforce's other political campaigns, his religious ideas and practices and his behaviour and personality.

Wilberforce's historical reputation has undergone an interesting series of fluctuations in the twentieth century, reflecting the changing values and perceptions of succeeding generations. For Coupland and many of his contemporaries the man who freed the slaves was a straightforward hero to be treated in much the same way as Cromwell or Nelson. To a large extent this view prevailed, at least in school textbooks and books for the general reader, right up to the early 1960s. It is, for example, the view taken by Oliver Warner (significantly also the biographer of Nelson) in his biography published by Batsford in 1962.

This simple heroic view of Wilberforce had first been challenged by Fabian historians writing in the Edwardian period. In their works on British labour and social history, Beatrice and Sydney Webb and J.L. and Barbara Hammond echoed the criticisms of the Saint which had been made by his radical contemporaries like William Hazlitt and William Cobbett. In their eyes Wilberforce was not the courageous apostle of liberation for the negroes but rather the friend of repression and reaction, ever ready to support the illiberal measures taken by his friend William Pitt in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the notorious Six Acts with which Lord Liverpool gagged the press and prevented free speech and assembly in the years after the Napoleonic Wars.

However much they might condemn Wilberforce's record in the domestic field, it was difficult for these critics to detract from his reputation as the champion of the negro slaves. Indeed the picture which they drew, and which began to find its way into the more sophisticated textbooks, was one of the curious inconsistency of a man who championed the rights of men when they were black and lived far away across the sea but seemed to have scant regard for the rights of his own white countrymen.

It was not to be long, however, before even Wilberforce's reputation as the man who had freed the slaves came to be challenged. In his book Capitalism and Slavery , published by Andre Deutsch in 1944, Eric Williams, later to be Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, argued that the slave trade had not collapsed because of the pressure of Wilberforce and the abolitionist movement but simply because it was no longer economically profitable or viable. The efforts of the Saints had been, at best, peripheral. The real cause of abolition, as of so many other movements and events in the world, was economic determinism, and specifically the profit motive.

Wilberforce's reputation, both as domestic politician and emancipator, almost certainly reached its lowest point in the iconoclastic and aggressively secular 1960s and early 1970s. Two books in particular sought to topple him from the pedestal which Coupland and others had erected and relegate him to the company of the 'baddies' of history. In his epic The Making of the English Working Class (Gollancz, 1963) E.P. Thompson accused Wilberforce and his fellow Evangelicals of leading the counterrevolution which warped the humanitarian tradition of the eighteenth century 'beyond recognition' and laid the foundations of Victorian complacency and repressive morality. The Yorkshire MP was portrayed not just as an enthusiastic supporter but also as a prime instigator of the Seditious Meetings Act and other measures passed in the 1790s to curb radicalism and popular liberty.

An even more devastating attack on Wilberforce appeared in 1973 in a book by Jack Gratus entitled The Great White Lie (Hutchinson). Gratus deliberately set out to remove the halo that had surrounded the leading Saint for so long. 'Hero-worship', he wrote, 'makes bad history. This is particularly true of the history of the abolition movement and William Wilberforce. His friends exaggerated his virtues and achievements during his lifetime; his sons sanctified him in their biography, and subsequent generations of writers continued the tradition'.

Far from being the liberator of the negroes, Gratus argued, Wilberforce actually caused them greater misery in the long run by propagating ideas of racial supremacy which justified colonialism and the permanent suppression of black people. The slave trade was not abolished through the efforts of the Saints but rather through the activities of a largely forgotten group of radicals who used much more direct action.

Meanwhile other less partisan historians were examining the religious and social context in which Wilberforce worked and seeking to describe the Evangelical world of which he was the leading inhabitant. Ernest Marshall Howse's Saints in Politics (Allen and Unwin, 1953) was a clear and perceptive account of the Clapham Sect, that remarkable group of Evangelicals, all active in public life, who lived around Clapham Common in the 1790s and 1800s, and who induded Henry Thornton, the banker, Lord Teignmouth, the former Governor-General of India, and, of course, Wilberforce himself. While accepting Wilberforce's conservative views on politics and morality, Howse essentially saw the Saints (as the small group of Evangelical MPs who formed themselves into a mini-party under Wilberforce's leadership were popularly known) as a force for liberalism and humanity. In another detailed study of the world of Evangelical pressure groups and societies, Fathers of the Victorians (Cambridge University Press, 1961) Ford K. Brown portrayed Wilberforce as directing a carefully planned and meticulously organised assault on the Church of England, the aristocracy and other commanding heights of the country to secure them for 'vital religion'. Brown also put forward the novel, if rather thinly documented, theory that the leading lay Evangelical of his generation had actually moved to High Churchmanship in the last years of his life.

Robin Furneaux's biography, published in 1974, used the Wilberforce family papers to produce a much fuller and more balanced account of the Saint's life than any previous biographer had achieved. Furneaux was particularly interested in the complex psychology of his subject and produced the revelation, scarcely less extraordinary than Brown's thesis about his move to Anglo-Catholicism, that for much of his life Wilberforce had been an opium addict.

In my own book The Call to Seriousness , published by Jonathan Cape in 1976, I attempted to rescue Wilberforce and his fellow Saints from some of the accumulated opprobium that had attached to them during the twentieth century. I tried to show that in their attitude to the key political questions of their time, such as parliamentary reform, the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, Catholic Emancipation, and the controversy over the corn laws, they were, in fact, firmly on the liberal side. I also argued, as I will later in this article, that Wilberforce can be seen as a pivotal figure in the transformation of British politics and society which took place between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

It is interesting that with the two most recently published biographies of Wilberforce, the wheel has come full circle and the Saint is once more restored to his heroic status. John Pollock's William Wilberforce (Constable, 1977) and Garth Lean's God's Politician (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1980) are both works of near hagiography. Written quite unashamedly from the Evangelical perspective, they restore the old view of Wilberforce as a man who battled courageously against evil and who deserves a prominent place in the list of 'good men' in history.

How, then, should we assess William Wilberforce 150 years after his death? Perhaps by eschewing both the cult of the hero and the anti-hero and by concentrating rather on his influence and significance in history. The central question of how far Wilberforce himself was responsible for bringing about the end of the slave trade and later of slavery in the British Empire is, of course, impossible to answer. It is clear that economic factors played an important part, but so also did the abolition movement and the very least that can be said is that the activities of the Saints and their supporters certainly hastened the day when the slaves were emancipated.

What is much more certain is the long-term influence which the crusade against the slave trade had on British life and politics. It was the first successful campaign of mass agitation in Britain, the prototype of the thousands of pressure groups which have been a dominant feature of our national life ever since. Wilberforce and his supporters, seeking to mobilise public opinion not just behind the abolitionist banner but also in favour of such causes as strict observance of the Sabbath, the ending of cruelty to animals and the admission of missionaries into the Indian subcontinent, are the progenitors of such diverse groups as the Greenham Common peace women, the 'animal liberation' protestors and the bring-back-the-birch-brigade.

In the great campaigns of the Evangelical Revival, and particularly in the struggle against the slave trade, Wilberforce pioneered the techniques which have been used by nearly every pressure group and campaigning movement since. It was he who first brought together in a highly organised and systematic way the various means of influencing public opinion and impressing opinion formers: pamphlets, public meetings, selective lobbying of key politicians, careful use of the press and mass petitioning of Parliament. He also introduced another important and distinctive feature into the anti-slavery campaign which was equally vital to its success. He infused it with a strongly religious and moral character which appealed greatly to the growing body of 'serious' opinion which the Evangelical Revival, Benthamite Utilitarianism and other ideologies of industrial society had created in Britain.

Later campaigners were not slow to apply the lesson which Wilberforce had taught by his successful prosecution of the campaign against the slave trade as a righteous crusade against the powers of darkness. When Richard Cobden was deciding how best to organise his agitation for the abolition of the corn laws in 1840, it was the strategy employed by the Saints that he decided to follow. 'It appears to me', he wrote to a friend, 'that a moral and even a religious spirit may be infused into the topic, and if agitated in the same manner that the question of slavery has been, it will be irresistible'. Many of the great political and social campaigns of the nineteenth century were pursued as though they were religious crusades. This trend, of course, reached its climax in W.E. Gladstone's great appeal to the conscience of the nation on the issue of the Bulgarian atrocities in his Midlothian campaign of 1879, but it characterised the approach of many other lesser Victorian politicians. The reason why they cloaked their secular aims in the language of righteousness and morality was simple: they appreciated just how many votes there were to be won from a respectable and serious-minded electorate by appearing as Christian statesmen, possessed of a burning zeal to abjure evil and fight for right.

Wilberforce himself had, of course, been instrumental in establishing the model of the Christian statesman to which so many Victorian politicians aspired. It was in many ways a very novel concept. Most politicians in the eighteenth century had been regarded with low esteem and had certainly not been seen as possessing those characteristics normally associated with Christianity. Indeed Christian virtues seemed singularly inappropriate for those involved in what was perforce a grubby and corrupt business which required the rather sordid horse-trading necessary to create and keep majorities and the promulgation of a limited amount of legislation to promote the narrow interests of the landed class.

The presence and the dominance of Wilberforce and his fellow Saints in the House of Commons changed both the public's conception of politicians and their notion of what Parliament should be about. There is no doubt that the member for Yorkshire played a crucial role in two of the most significant changes which took place in British politics in the first half of the nineteenth century: the transformation of Parliament from being a gentlemen's club primarily concerned with the private interests of its mernbers to a national assembly seen to be legislating for the public good, and the emergence of political leaders whose support was based on principles and policies rather than on ties of family connection or vested interest.

The Saints, and Wilberforce pre-eminently, were among the first MPs to introduce into the Commons the discussion of serious issues of principle and arguments based on wider considerations than those of the self-interest of the landed class. Into an assembly which had hitherto spent most of its time discussing game laws, enclosures and turnpike applications, Wilberforce launched debates on slavery, the condition of factory workers and prisoners and the moral health of the nation. It is not too much to say that he raised the tone of politics and the popular status of politicians by establishing public life as a serious profession and vocation for those with a mission to improve the lot of humanity. He exemplified a wholly new style of political leadership which was manifestly popular with the electorate. It is, indeed, no coincidence that his life spans that transitional period in British politics when the age of Fox gave way to the age of Peel.

If this public example of a man who could win success and fame in the world of politics by holding steadfastly to Biblical Christianity and treading the path of righteousness was one of Wilberforce's main legacies to succeeding generations, then another was surely the very private example which he gave in the conduct of his family life. The Evangelical Revival was in large part responsible for the cult of home and family which characterises the Victorian Age, and in this, as in so much else, Wilberforce was perhaps the outstanding exemplar. His long letters to his children, displaying a mixture of love and affection, exhortation and rebuke, and earnest concern for their spiritual state, show him to be the very model of the Victorian paterfamilias. He was also almost certainly more responsible than any other individual for the spread of the institution which summed up the earnest religiosity and the centrality of the family unit in the nineteenth century: family prayers. Widely publicised by Evangelical tract writers, his daily supplications performed before the whole household, servants included, were emulated in countless middle-class homes.

So how should we remember William Wilberforce today – as the liberator of the negro, as the Mary Whitehouse of his age, as the man who might have been Prime Minister if he had not turned to religion, as the model Christian statesman, the instigator of pressure group politics, the father of Victorian family life, or simply, as the great Nonconformist divine Hugh Price Hughes once described Mr Gladstone, as a man who said his prayers? The answer is surely all of these and more besides. For all the calumnies that have been heaped upon him in the twentieth century, it is still the saintliness of Wilberforce that shines out from that famous portrait, from the diaries and letters and from a life crammed with 101 different good causes, a life full of fun and gaiety and never over-pious or sanctimonious, while yet being but a pilgrimage through a transitory world. Opium addict and friend of repression he may have been, but there is still more than enough pure, unalloyed goodness in his character for us to sum up Wilberforce in the words which his friends and contemporaries used as 'the Saint'.

Ian Bradley is the author of several books including The Call to Seriousness: the Evangelical Impact on the Victorians (Cape, 1976).

Birth of William Wilberforce | History Today

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