William Wilberforce is perhaps the best known of the abolitionists. He came from a prosperous merchant family of Kingston-upon-Hull, a North Sea port which saw little in the way of slave trading. (His birthplace is now preserved as the Wilberforce House Museum.) At twenty-one, the youngest age at which one could be so elected, he was returned to Parliament for his native town. Four years later he was again returned to Parliament, this time for the county seat of Yorkshire which was large and populous, and which therefore required an expensive election contest. The advantage was that the election, being genuinely democratic, conferred a greater legitimacy to the two Members which that county returned to Parliament. Wilberforce’s early years in Parliament were not untypical for a young back-bencher. He was noted for his eloquence and charm, attributes no doubt enhanced by his considerable wealth, but he did not involve himself at first with any great cause. A sudden conversion to evangelical Christianity in 1785 changed that and from then onwards he approached politics from a position of strict Christian morality. In 1786 he carried through the House of Commons a bill for amending criminal law which failed to pass the Lords, a pattern which was to be repeated during his abolitionist career. The following year he founded the Proclamation Society which had as its aim the suppression of vice and the reformation of public manners. Later in 1787 he became, at the suggestion of the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, the parliamentary leader of the abolition movement, although he did not officially join the Abolition Society until 1794.
The story of Pitt’s conversation with Wilberforce under an old tree near Croydon has passed into the mythology of the anti-slavery movement. The result was that Wilberforce returned to London having promised to look over the evidence which Thomas Clarkson had amassed against the trade. As he did so he clearly become genuinely horrified and resolved to give the abolition movement his support. Working closely with Clarkson, he presented evidence to a committee of the Privy Council during 1788. This episode did not go as planned. Some of the key witnesses against the trade, apparently bribed or intimidated, changed their story and testified in favour. In the country at large abolitionist sentiment was growing rapidly. While the king’s illness and the Regency Bill crisis no doubt supplanted the slave trade as the chief topic of political conversation in the winter of 1788-9, by the spring the king had recovered and abolition was once more at the top of the agenda. It was under these circumstances that Wilberforce prepared to present his Abolition Bill before the House of Commons. This speech, the most important of Wilberforce’s life to that point, was praised in the newspapers as being one of the most eloquent ever to have been heard in the house. Indeed, The Star reported that ‘the gallery of the House of Commons on Tuesday was crowded with Liverpool Merchants; who hung their heads in sorrow – for the African occupation of bolts and chains are no more’.
The newspaper was premature in sounding the death knell of the slave trade. After the 1789 speech parliamentary delaying tactics came into play. Further evidence was requested and heard over the summer months and then, on 23 June 1789, the matter was adjourned until the next session. Wilberforce left town, holidaying at Buxton with Hannah More, confident that the next session would see a resolution of the debate and abolition of the trade. It did not and by January 1790 the question was deemed to be taking up so much parliamentary time that consideration of the evidence was moved upstairs (as parliamentary jargon has it) to a Select Committee. Evidence in favor of the trade was heard until April, followed by evidence against. In June Pitt called an early general election. Wilberforce was safely returned as a Member for Yorkshire, but parliamentary business was disrupted. Despite being behind schedule, Wilberforce continued to work for an abolition which it appeared the country wanted. News of the slave rebellion in Dominica reached Britain in February 1791 and hardened attitudes against abolition, but Wilberforce pressed on. After almost two years of delay the debate finally resumed and Wilberforce again addressed the Commons on 18 April 1791.
When, on the following night, the House divided on the question of abolition fewer than half of its Members remained to vote. Because of this or not, the Abolition Bill fell with a majority of 75 against abolishing the slave trade. Wilberforce and the other members of the Abolition Committee returned to the task of drumming up support for abolition both from Members of Parliament and from ordinary people. More petitions were collected, further meetings held, extra pamphlets published, and a boycott of sugar was organised. The campaign was not helped by news of the revolutions in France and Haiti. Perhaps sensing that a hardening of attitudes was becoming increasingly likely Wilberforce again brought the question of abolition before the House and, almost a year after the previous defeat, on 2 April 1792, once more found himself addressing the House of Commons. Every account we have of this speech shows that it was an intense and lengthy emotional harangue. Public feeling was outraged and, on this occasion, so was the feeling of the House. But not quite enough. Henry Dundas suggested an amendment to the Abolition Bill: the introduction of the word ‘gradual’. The bill passed as amended, by 230 votes to 85, and gradual abolition became law, the final date for slave trading to remain legal being later fixed at 1796. But this gave the ‘West India Interest’ – the slave traders’ lobby – room to maneuver. Once again parliamentary delaying tactics came into play, further evidence was demanded, and it became clear that gradual abolition was to mean no abolition.
This event marked a turning point in the fortunes of the abolition camapign. Partly because of a hardening of attitudes caused by the outbreak of war with France, and partly because of determined resistance from the West-India Interest there was a collapse in public enthusiasm for the cause. Some abolitionists withdrew from the campaign entirely. Wilberforce did not, but his speeches fell on ever deafer ears. Although Wilberforce reintroduced the Abolition Bill almost every year in the 1790s, little progress was made even though Wilberforce remained optimistic for the long-term success of the cause. He directed some of his efforts into other arenas, largely evangelical or philanthropic, and was instrumental in setting up organizations such as The Bible Society and The Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor. In 1797 he published a book, A Practical view of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, a work of popular theology with a strong evangelical hue which sold well on publication and throughout the nineteenth century. On 30 May 1797, after a short romance, he married Barbara Ann Spooner.
If the first two years of the new century were particularly bleak ones for the abolition movement, the situation was rapidly reversed in 1804. The association of abolitionism with Jacobinism dispersed as Napoleon’s hostility to emancipation became known. Members of Parliament, especially the many new Irish members, increasingly tended toward abolition. The Abolition Society reformed with a mixture of experienced older members and new blood. Wilberforce assumed his old role of parliamentary leader, and introduced the Abolition Bill before parliament. The Bill fell in 1804 and 1805, but gave the abolitionists an opportunity to sound out support. In 1806, Wilberforce published an influential tract advocating abolition and, in June that year, resolutions supporting abolition were passed in parliament. A public campaign once again promoted the cause, and the new Whig government was in favour as well. In January 1807, the Abolition Bill was once again introduced, this time attracting very considerable support, and, on 23 February 1807, almost fifteen years after Dundas had effectively wrecked abolition with his gradualist amendment, Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of abolition of the slave trade. During the debate the then Solicitor-General, Sir Samuel Romilly, spoke against the trade. His speech concluded with a long and emotional tribute to Wilberforce in which he contrasted the peaceful happiness of Wilberforce in his bed with the tortured sleeplessness of the guilty Napoleon Bonaparte. In the words of Romilly’s biographer;
Wilberforce was overcome by the power of Romilly’s concluding passages, and sat with his head on his hands, tears streaming down his face. As Romilly reached his final sentences the House broke into one of those scenes that it reserves for great occasions. Members stood and cheered him tumultuously.
According to The Morning Chronicle he received ‘three distinct and universal cheers’. Scenes such as this are rare in the House of Commons, where applause is forbidden, but this report, or one like it, must have reached William Hey, the Yorkshire surgeon, evangelical, and former Mayor of Leeds, for on February 28 he wrote to Wilberforce to ask if it was true. ‘If so,’ he continues, ‘was not this an unprecedented effusion of approbation?’ Wilberforce replied that ‘I was myself so completely overpowered by my feelings […] that I was insensible to all that was passing around me’.
The Abolition Act received the Royal Assent (became law) on 25 March 1807 but, although the trade in slaves had become illegal in British ships, slavery remained a reality in British colonies. Wilberforce himself was privately convinced that the institution of slavery should be entirely abolished, but understood that there was little political will for emancipation. Already recognized as an elder statesman in his 50s, Wilberforce received a steady throng of visitors and supplicants, and he became involved in many of the political questions of the day. He supported Catholic Emancipation and the Corn Laws. His health was poor, however, and in 1812 he resigned the large and arduous seat of Yorkshire for the pocket borough of Bramber. In the same year he started work on the Slave Registration Bill, which he saw as necessary to ensure compliance with the Abolition Act. If slaves were registered, he argued, it could be proved whether or not they had been recently transported from Africa. The Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, supported the Bill, but was assassinated shortly after. Thereafter, Wilberforce’s efforts met with increasing resistance from the government. In 1815, with the government again blocking progress, Wilberforce publically declared that as they would not support him, he felt himself no longer bound by their line on emancipation. From this time on, Wilberforce campaigned openly for an end to the institution of slavery.
Wilberforce’s health, never good, was deteriorating. Although now free to speak his mind on emancipation, he was never able to campaign with the same vigour that he had done for abolition of the trade. However, he continued to attack slavery both at public meetings and in the House of Commons. In 1823, he published another pamphlet attacking slavery. This pamphlet was connected with the foundation of The Anti-Slavery Society which led the campaign to emancipate all slaves in British colonies. Leadership of the parliamentary campaign, however, was passed from Wilberforce to Thomas Fowell Buxton. In 1825, Wilberforce resigned from the House of Commons. He enjoyed a quiet retirement at Mill Hill, just north of London, although he suffered some financial difficulties. His last public appearance was at a meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society in 1830, at which, at Thomas Clarkson’s suggestion, he took the chair. In parliament, the Emancipation Bill gathered support and received its final commons reading on 26 July 1833. Slavery would be abolished, but the planters would be heavily compensated. ‘Thank God’, said Wilberforce, ‘that I have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty millions sterling for the Abolition of Slavery’. Three days later, on 29 July 1833, he died. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.