Amazing Grace

Early Years

When he was born, William Wilberforce was a small, sickly and delicate child, with poor eyesight. When he was 9 years of age, his father died and he had to be sent off to his relatives. Because of the influence of his aunt, a methodist supporter, he became interested in Christianity and grew extremely fond of his aunt and uncle. But when word of this reached his mother and grandfather, he was brought back to Hull in 1771, he was then 12 years old. He initially resisted Hull's lively social life, but as his religious fervour diminished, he embraced theatre-going, attended balls and played cards.

In October 1776 at the age of seventeen, Wilberforce went up to St John's College, Cambridge. The deaths of his grandfather and uncle in 1776 and 1777 respectively had left him independently wealthy and as a result he had little inclination or need to apply himself to serious study. Instead, he immersed himself in the social round of student life and pursued a hedonistic lifestyle enjoying cards, gambling and late-night drinking sessions. Witty, generous and an excellent conversationalist, Wilberforce was a popular figure. He made many friends, including the more studious future Prime Minister, William Pitt.

Early Political Career

It was while in university that Wilberforce began to consider a political career, he and Pitt frequently watched House of Commons debates from the gallery. Pitt, already set on a political career, encouraged Wilberforce to join him in obtaining a parliamentary seat. In September 1780, at the age of twenty-one and while still a student, Wilberforce was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Kingston upon Hull, spending over £8,000 to ensure he received the necessary votes.

Free from financial pressures, Wilberforce sat as an independent. Criticised at times for inconsistency, he supported both Tory and Whig governments according to his conscience, working closely with the party in power, and voting on specific measures according to their merits. Wilberforce attended Parliament regularly, but he also maintained a lively social life, becoming a regular attendee at gentlemen's gambling clubs such as Goostree's and Boodle's in Pall Mall, London.

Pitt became Prime Minister in December 1783, with Wilberforce a key supporter of his minority government. Despite their close friendship, there is no record that Pitt offered Wilberforce a ministerial position in this or future governments. This may have been due to Wilberforce's wish to remain an independent MP. Alternatively, Wilberforce's frequent tardiness and disorganisation, as well as the chronic eye problems that at times made reading impossible, may have convinced Pitt that his trusted friend was not ministerial material. When Parliament was dissolved in the spring of 1784, Wilberforce decided to stand as a candidate for the county of Yorkshire in the 1784 General Election. On 6 April, he was returned as MP for Yorkshire at the age of twenty-four.

The Conversion

In October 1784, Wilberforce embarked upon a tour of Europe which would change his life and ultimately his future career. He travelled with his mother and sister, in the company of Isaac Milner, the brilliant younger brother of his former headmaster. During one of their journeys, he had read The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Philip Doddridge and it had such an effect on him that he started to rise early to read the Bible and pray and kept a private journal. He then resolved to commit the rest of his life in service to God.

At the time, religious enthusiasm was generally regarded as a social transgression and was stigmatised in polite society. Evangelicals in the upper classes, such as Sir Richard Hill, the Methodist MP for Shropshire, and Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon were exposed to contempt and ridicule and Wilberforce's conversion led him to question whether he should remain in public life.

Wilberforce sought guidance from John Newton, a former slave-ship captain turned preacher and the one who inked the hymn, "Amazing Grace". Both Newton and Pitt counselled Wilberforce to remain in politics, and he resolved to do so "with increased diligence and conscientiousness". Thereafter, his political views were informed by his faith and by his desire to promote Christianity and Christian ethics in private and public life.

In 1786, He began using his parliamentary position to advocate reform, 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 Abolition of the Slave Trade

The British had initially become involved in the slave trade during the 16th century. By 1783, the triangular route that took British-made goods to Africa to buy slaves, transported the enslaved to the West Indies, and then brought slave-grown products such as sugar, tobacco, and cotton to Britain, represented about 80 per cent of Great Britain's foreign income. British ships dominated the trade, supplying French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and British colonies, and in peak years carried forty thousand enslaved men, women and children across the Atlantic in the horrific conditions of the middle passage. Of the estimated 11 million Africans transported into slavery, about 1.4 million died during the voyage.

Wilberforce met Rev. James Ramsay, a ship's surgeon who had become a clergyman on the island of St. Christopher in the Leeward Islands, and a medical supervisor of the plantations there. What Ramsay had witnessed of the conditions endured by the slaves, both at sea and on the plantations, horrified him. Returning to England after fifteen years, he met Sir Charles Middleton, Lady Middleton, Thomas Clarkson, Hannah More and others, a group that later became known as the Testonites. They were appalled by Ramsay's reports of the depraved lifestyles of slave owners and the cruel treatment meted out to the enslaved. With their encouragement and help, Ramsay spent three years writing An essay on the treatment and conversion of African slaves in the British sugar colonies, which was highly critical of slavery in the West Indies. The book, published in 1784, was to have an important impact in raising public awareness and interest.

In early 1787, Thomas Clarkson, a fellow graduate of St. John's, Cambridge, who had become convinced of the need to end the slave trade called upon Wilberforce. This was the first time the two men had met; their collaboration would last nearly fifty years. Clarkson began to visit Wilberforce on a weekly basis, bringing first-hand evidence he had obtained about the slave trade. The Quakers (anti-slavery committee), already working for abolition, also recognised the need for influence within Parliament, and urged Clarkson to secure a commitment from Wilberforce to bring forward the case for abolition in the House of Commons.

On May 12, 1787, the still hesitant Wilberforce held a conversation with William Pitt and the future Prime Minister William Grenville as they sat under a large oak tree on Pitt's estate in Kent. Under what came to be known as the "Wilberforce Oak" at Holwood, Pitt challenged his friend: "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 will be occupied by another." Wilberforce’s response is not recorded, but he later declared in old age that he could "distinctly remember the very knoll on which I was sitting near Pitt and Grenville" where he made his decision.

Wilberforce's involvement in the abolition movement was motivated by a desire to put his Christian principles into action and to serve God in public life. Wilberforce sensed a call from God, writing in a journal entry in 1787 that "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners [moral values]."

Many Disappointments

Working closely with Clarkson, he presented evidence to a committee of the Privy Council during 1788. Some of the key witnesses against the trade, apparently bribed or intimidated, changed their story and testified in favour. On 12 May 1789, he made his first major speech on the subject of abolition in the House of Commons. This speech, perhaps 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. However, after the 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 was 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 consideration of the evidence was moved to a Select Committee. Evidence in favour 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. 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 it came time to vote on the bill in the House of Commons, fewer than half of the members remained to vote. The bill was easily defeated by 163 votes to 88, 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.

War with France

On 26 February 1793, another vote to abolish the slave trade was narrowly defeated by eight votes. The outbreak of war with France the same month effectively prevented any further serious consideration of the issue, as politicians concentrated on the national crisis and the threat of invasion. The same year, and again in 1794, Wilberforce unsuccessfully brought before Parliament a bill to outlaw British ships from supplying slaves to foreign colonies. He voiced his concern about the war and urged Pitt and his government to make greater efforts to end hostilities.

Abolition continued to be associated in the public consciousness with the French Revolution and with British radical groups, resulting in a decline in public support. In 1795, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade ceased to meet, and Clarkson retired in ill-health to the Lake District. However, despite the decreased interest in abolition, Wilberforce continued to introduce abolition bills throughout the 1790s.

A New Century

If the first two years of the new century were particularly bleak ones for the abolition movement, the situation was rapidly reversed in 1804. 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 favour 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.

The Abolition Act became law on 25 March 1807 and although the trade in slaves had become illegal in British ships, slavery remained a reality in British colonies. Wilberforce himself was convinced that the institution of slavery should be entirely abolished, but understood that there was little political will for emancipation.

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.

Leadership of the parliamentary campaign, however, was passed from Wilberforce to Thomas Fowell Buxton. In 1825, Wilberforce resigned from the House of Commons. 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.

The funeral was attended by many Members of Parliament, as well as by members of the public. The pallbearers included the Duke of Gloucester, the Lord Chancellor Henry Brougham and the Speaker of the House of Commons Charles Manners-Sutton. While tributes were paid and Wilberforce was laid to rest, both Houses of Parliament suspended their business as a mark of respect.

Sources:
Wikipedia.org article on William Wilberforce
Brycchan Carey's website on brycchancarey.com