Biography of William Wilberforce

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William Wilberforce
William Wilberforce

Member of Parliament
for Kingston-upon-Hull
2-seat constituency
(with Lord Robert Manners, to 1782;
David Hartley, 1782–March 1784;
Samuel Thornton, from March 1784)
In office
1780 – 1784
Preceded by Lord Robert Manners
David Hartley
Succeeded by Samuel Thornton
Walter Spencer Stanhope
Constituency Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire

Member of Parliament
for Yorkshire
2-seat constituency
(with Henry Duncombe, to 1796;
Henry Lascelles, 1796–1806
Walter Ramsden Fawkes, 1806–1807
Viscount Milton, from 1807)
In office
1784 – 1812
Preceded by Henry Duncombe
Francis Ferrand Foljambe
Succeeded by Viscount Milton
Henry Lascelles
Constituency Yorkshire

Member of Parliament
for Bramber
2-seat constituency
(with John Irving)
In office
1812 – 1825
Preceded by Henry Jodrell
John Irving
Succeeded by John Irving
Arthur Gough-Calthorpe
Constituency Bramber, Sussex

Born 24 August 1759(1759-08-24)
Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire
Died 29 July 1833, aged 73
Political party Independent Tory
Spouse Barbara Spooner
Occupation Member of Parliament
Religion Anglican


William Wilberforce (August 24, 1759–July 29, 1833) was a British politician and philanthropist. A native of Hull, Yorkshire, he began his political career in 1780 and became Member of Parliament for Yorkshire (1784–1812), and independent supporter of the Tory party. A close friend of Prime Minister William Pitt, in 1785 he underwent a conversion experience and became an evangelical Christian. In 1787 he came into contact with Thomas Clarkson and a group of anti-slave trade activists, including Granville Sharp, Beilby Porteus, Hannah More, and Lord Middleton.

At their suggestion, Wilberforce was persuaded to take on the cause. He became one of the leading English abolitionists, heading the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade, which he saw through to the eventual passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807.

Wilberforce also championed many other causes and campaigns, including the Society for Suppression of Vice, Charity schools, the introduction of Christianity to India, the foundation of the Church Mission Society, and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

In later years, he supported the campaign for complete abolition, which eventually led to the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.[1] This Act paved the way for the complete abolition of slavery in the British Empire.[2][3][4] A tireless campaigner for the abolition of slavery, Wilberforce died just three days after hearing of the passage of the Act through Parliament. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, close to his friend William Pitt.

Early life

William Wilberforce was born in Hull on 24 August 1759, the only son of Robert Wilberforce (1728–68), a wealthy merchant and his wife Elizabeth. His grandfather William (1690–1776) had made the family fortune through the Baltic trade and had been elected mayor of Hull on two occasions.[5] The Wilberforces were an old Yorkshire family, the name deriving from the village of Wilberfoss, eight miles east of York.[6][7]

William Wilberforce was described as a sickly and delicate child.[8] He attended Hull Grammar School,[9] from 1767–68, at the time headed by a young, dynamic headmaster, Joseph Milner, who was to become a life-long friend.[10] Wilberforce profited from the innovative and supportive atmosphere until the age of eight when his father died. In 1768, with his mother struggling to cope, Wilberforce was sent to live with a prosperous uncle and aunt in St James’ Place, London and in Wimbledon, at that time a village to the south-west of London. He attended an "indifferent" boarding school in Putney for two years, spending his holidays in Wimbledon, where he grew extremely fond of his relatives[11] and was influenced towards evangelical Christianity by his aunt Hannah, the sister of John Thornton and a supporter of George Whitefield.[12]

His mother and grandfather, concerned at these nonconformist influences, and the young Wilberforce's leanings towards Methodism and evangelicalism, brought him back to Hull in 1771 – he was heartbroken by the separation.[13] Unable to return to Hull Grammar School because the headmaster had become a Methodist, Wilberforce continued his education at nearby Pocklington School between 1771 and 1776.[14][15] He succeeded especially in English poetry and was known as a fine singer.[16] Influenced by Methodist scruples, he initially resisted Hull's lively social life but, with his religious fervour diminishing, he embraced theatre-going, attending balls, and playing cards.[17]

In October 1776, at the age of seventeen, Wilberforce went up to St John's College, Cambridge.[18] The deaths of his grandfather and uncle in 1776 and 1777 respectively had left him independently wealthy,[19] 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 the students.[19][18] Although at first shocked by the licentious activities of those around him, he pursued a somewhat hedonistic lifestyle himself, enjoying playing cards, gambling, and late-night drinking sessions – although he refrained from doing so to excess and found the extreme behaviour of some of his fellow students distasteful.[20][21] Witty, generous, and an excellent conversationalist, Wilberforce was a popular figure, and amongst other friendships made the acquaintance of the more studious William Pitt.[22][21] Despite his lifestyle and disinclination towards study, he managed to pass his examinations because of his quick brain and high intellect, although never achieving an honours degree.[23] He was awarded B.A. in 1781 and M.A. in 1788.[12]


Early parliamentary career

With little interest in returning to be involved in the family business, Wilberforce, still at university, decided to enter politics and seek election to Parliament.[24] In September 1780, at the age of twenty-one and still a student at Cambridge, he was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Kingston upon Hull,[12] spending over £8,000 on ensuring he received the necessary votes, as was the custom of the time.[25] Wilberforce sat as an independent, resolving to be "no party man".[24] He took part in debates regarding naval shipbuilding and smuggling, and renewed his friendship with future Prime Minister William Pitt the younger,[12] whom he frequently met in the gallery of the House of Commons [26] Wilberforce attended parliament regularly, but he also maintained his lively social life, becoming a regular attender at gentlemen's gambling clubs such as Goostree's in Pall Mall. He was an excellent mimic and singer – the Prince of Wales reportedly said that he would go anywhere to hear Wilberforce sing, and he used a mesmerizing speaking voice to great effect in political speeches.[27] During the political upheaval of 1781–84, Wilberforce supported his friend Pitt in parliamentary debates,[28] and in autumn 1783 Pitt, Wilberforce and Edward Eliot travelled to France.[12] After a difficult start in Rheims where their presence initially aroused police suspicion that they were English spies, they travelled to Paris, where they met Benjamin Franklin, Lafayette, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, and joined the French court at Fontainebleau.[29][30]

Pitt became prime minister in December 1783 and Wilberforce became a key supporter of his minority government.[31] 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 his chronic eye problems, may have convinced Pitt that his trusted friend was not ministerial material.[32] When Parliament was dissolved in spring 1784, Wilberforce was soon recognised as a compromise Pittite candidate in the 1784 General Election. On 6 April, when the Whigs were defeated, he was returned as MP for Yorkshire at the age of twenty-four.[33]


In October 1784 Wilberforce embarked upon a tour of Europe which would change his life and, ultimately, his whole future career. He travelled with his mother and sister in the company of Isaac Milner, the brilliant younger brother of his former headmaster, who had been Fellow of Queens' College, Cambridge in the year that Wilberforce first went up. They went to the French Riviera, enjoying the usual pastimes of dinners, cards and gambling.[34] However, in February 1785 Wilberforce returned temporarily to United Kingdom in order to support Pitt’s proposals for parliamentary reforms, later rejoining the party in Genoa, Italy, and continuing the tour to Switzerland. Milner accompanied him to England, and on the journey they read Philip Doddridge's Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul together.[35]

This is thought to have been the beginning of Wilberforce’s spiritual journey, and he began to rise early to read the Bible and pray, as well as to keep a personal private journal.[36] He underwent an evangelical conversion, regretting his past life and resolving to commit his future life and work to the service of God.[12] He sought guidance from John Newton, a leading evangelical Anglican clergyman of the day and Rector of St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London.[37] Both Newton and Pitt counselled him to remain in politics, and he resolved to do so "with increased diligence and conscientiousness".[12] His conversion changed some of his habits but not his nature: he remained outwardly cheerful, interested, and respectful, urging others towards his new faith but never imposing it.[38] Inwardly, he became relentlessly self-critical, harshly judging his failures in spirituality, use of time, vanity, self-control and relationships with others.[39]

In 1786 Wilberforce introduced a parliamentary reform measure, the Registration Bill, which would have required voters to be registered in advance, and for polls to be held in various locations on the same day, rather than over several days in the county town. The bill was passed by the House of Commons but thrown out by the Lords.[12][40] He also brought forward a bill to extend the measure permitting the dissection after execution of those convicted of murder to further include other criminals such as rapists, arsonists and thieves, and to reduce the sentences on women convicted of treason from execution by burning to hanging. This proposed measure was passed by the Commons but was also defeated in the Lords.[41][42]


Abolition of the slave trade

Initial decision

In 1783 Wilberforce, while dining with his old Cambridge friend, Gerard Edwards, at his home in Curzon Street, London,[43] had met the former ship’s surgeon Rev. James Ramsay, who had become a clergyman on the island of St Christopher (later St Kitts) and medical supervisor of the plantations there. What he had witnessed of the conditions of the slaves both at sea and on the plantations horrified him, and returning to England he accepted the living of Teston, Kent. Ramsay, Captain Sir Charles Middleton, MP, Lady Middleton, and Thomas Clarkson and others met to form a group campaigning against the slave trade, that came to be known as the Testonites.[44]

William Wilberforce by Karl Anton Hickel, ca 1794. William Wilberforce by Karl Anton Hickel, ca 1794.

Inspired by his new faith, Wilberforce was showing an increasing interest in humanitarian reform, and in November 1786 Wilberforce received a letter from Sir Charles Middleton which was to re-ignite his interest in the subject of the slave trade.[45][46] At the urging of Lady Middleton, Sir Charles suggested that it should be Wilberforce who should bring forward the cause of the abolition of the slave trade in Parliament. Wilberforce’s response that “he felt the great importance of the subject, and thought himself unequal to the task allotted to him, but yet would not positively decline it”. [47] He continued to read widely, and met with the Testonites at Middleton’s home at Barham Court in Teston in the early winter of 1787.[48]

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 after writing an essay on the subject,[44] called upon Wilberforce at Old Palace Yard with a copy of the essay. This was the first time the two men had met, and a collaboration was formed which was to last nearly fifty years.[49][50] Clarkson began to call at Old Palace Yard on a weekly basis, bringing first-hand evidence he had obtained about the slave trade.[49] The Quaker members of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade also recognised their need for influence within Parliament and urged Clarkson to secure an immediate commitment from Wilberforce that he would bring forward the case for abolition in the House of Commons.[51]

In order for an opportunity to be engineered for Wilberforce to formally agree to lead the cause in Parliament, it was arranged that Bennet Langton, a Lincolnshire landowner and mutual acquaintance of Wilberforce and Clarkson, would arrange a dinner party at which the suggestion would be made.[52] The dinner took place on 13 March, 1787, other guests including Charles Middleton, Sir Joshua Reynolds, William Windham, MP, James Boswell and Isaac Hawkins Browne, MP. By the end of the evening they had elicited the response that they had sought, and Wilberforce agreed in general terms that he would be willing to bring the measure forward in Parliament, “provided that no person more proper could be found”.[53]

In the same spring, still hesitant, Wilberforce held a conversation with his close friend William Pitt the Younger and future Prime Minister William Grenville on 12 May 1787, as they sat under a large oak tree on Pitt's estate in Kent.[12] 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."[54] This meeting was critical in Wilberforce’s decision to take up the cause, and, although his response is not recorded, he later declared in old age that he could "distinctly remember the very knoll on which I was sitting near Pitt and Grenville."[55]


Early parliamentary action

Following highly successful efforts to raise public awareness and support by the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, Wilberforce planned to move a motion giving notice that he would be bringing forward a bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade during the 1789 parliamentary session. However, in January 1788, Wilberforce was taken ill with a probable stress-related condition, thought to be ulcerative colitis.[56][57] It was some months before he was able to resume work, and spent some time convalescing at Bath and Cambridge. His regular bouts of gastro-intestinal illnesses precipitated his regular use of opium in moderate quantities, which proved effective in alleviating his condition,[58] and which he continued to use for the rest of his life.[59]

During Wilberforce’s absence, Pitt, long supportive of the cause, introduced the preparatory motion himself, and ordered a Privy Council investigation into the slave trade, followed by a House of Commons review.[60][61] It became clear that there was considerable parliamentary support for slave trade abolition, and this resulted in the passage of the 1788 bill brought by Sir William Dolben to improve the conditions for enslaved Africans by limiting the capacity of slave-carrying ships which crossed the Atlantic.[62]

With the publication of the Privy Council report in April 1789, Wilberforce made his delayed entry into the parliamentary campaign.[63] 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 moved twelve resolutions condemning the slave trade, but made no reference to the abolition of slavery itself, and instead dwelling on the potential for reproduction in the existing slave population should the trade be abolished.[64] With the tide running against them, the opponents of abolition delayed the vote by proposing that the House of Commons hear its own evidence, and Wilberforce, in a move that has been frequently criticised for prolonging the slave trade, reluctantly agreed.[65] The hearings were not completed by the end of the parliamentary session, and were deferred to the following year.[66]

Diagram of a slave ship, the Brookes, intended to illustrate the inhuman conditions aboard such vessels. Diagram of a slave ship, the Brookes, intended to illustrate the inhuman conditions aboard such vessels.

In January 1790, Wilberforce succeeded in speeding up the hearings by gaining approval for a smaller Parliamentary select committee to consider the vast quantity of evidence.[67] The house in Old Palace Yard now became a centre for the abolitionists’ campaign, and became a focus for many of the principal strategy meetings.[12]

Interrupted by a general election in June 1790,[68] the committee finally finished hearing witnesses, and in April 1791, Wilberforce introduced the first Parliamentary Bill to abolish the slave trade with a closely-reasoned speech which lasted four hours.[69] However, after two evenings of debate, the bill was easily defeated by 163 votes to 88, the political climate swung in a conservative direction in the wake of the French Revolution, increasing radicalism and the slave revolts.[70]

It was becoming clear that this would not be an easy victory and the campaigners decided that they must broaden their activity and widen their base of support. Wilberforce had become more aware that activity outside parliament was important and took a greater interest in the work of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, attending its meeting for the first time in December 1791.

The following year, on 2 April 1792, Wilberforce again brought a bill calling for abolition. The memorable debate that followed brought contributions from the greatest orators in the house, William Pitt and Charles Fox, as well as Wilberforce himself.[71] Henry Dundas, as home secretary, proposed a compromise solution of so-called ‘gradual abolition’ over a number of years. This was passed by 230 to 85 votes, but the compromise was little more than a clever ploy, with the intention of ensuring that total abolition would be delayed indefinitely.[72]

This was the beginning of a protracted parliamentary campaign, during which Wilberforce’s commitment to the cause of abolition was never to waver, despite the frustration and hostility. He introduced a motion in favour of abolition during every subsequent session of parliament, taking every possible opportunity to bring the subject of the slave trade before the Commons, and moved bills for its abolition again and again. On 26 February 1793 the vote was narrowly lost by only eight votes.[73] Later the same year, and again in 1794, he sought to bring before parliament instead a Foreign Slave Bill, with the intention of outlawing the use of British ships to the colonies and territories of other countries.[74] Parliament, however, refused to pass these bills.


War with France

The outbreak of the War with France in 1793 effectively prevented further serious consideration of the issue as politicians concentrated on the national crisis and the threat of invasion. Abolition became associated with the French revolution and with the radical societies in the United Kingdom, and fears of instability resulted in increasing conservatism.[75]

Wilberforce was greatly concerned at the war, which he opposed, and tried to persuade Pitt to make greater efforts to prevent its outbreak. Growing more alarmed, on 31 December 1794 he moved a motion urging the government to attempt to achieve a peaceful resolution with France creating a temporary breach in his long friendship with Pitt.[76]

Despite his interest in abolition, Wilberforce was deeply conservative when it came to challenges to the existing political and social order. He supported suspension of Habeas Corpus, and when the war and a poor harvest led to demonstrations, voted for Pitt's 'Gagging Bills" which banned meetings of more than 50 people, allowed the speakers to be arrested, and imposed harsh penalties on those who attacked the constitution.[77]

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.


Final phase of the campaign

With the death of Pitt in February 1806, Wilberforce began to collaborate more with the Whigs, especially the abolitionists in that party. He gave general support to the Grenville-Fox administration, which brought more abolitionists into cabinet.[78] Wilberforce and Charles James Fox 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 the introduction of 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.[79] 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 Bill was quickly passed and the tactic proved successful.[80] 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.[81]

The death of Fox in September 1806 was a blow to the abolitionists. In 1807 Wilberforce was again re-elected for Yorkshire after Grenville called 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.[80] The Slave Trade Act received the royal assent on 25 March 1807.[82]


Emancipation of enslaved Africans

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. His 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 best friend and cousin Henry Thornton and Edward Eliot. Because most of the group held evangelical Christian convictions, they were dubbed "the Saints."[83]

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 enslaved Africans. As his eyesight continued to fail, and aware that the campaign would eventually need younger men to continue the work, in 1821 he asked Thomas Fowell Buxton to take over the leadership of the campaign in the Commons.[84]

Wilberforce published his 56-page 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.[85] 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. This was an influential work, helping encourage many supporters to continue the campaign against the oppression suffered by the enslaved in the British colonies.

The year 1823 also saw the formation of the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery (later the Anti-Slavery Society).[86] 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 1824,[87] in which Wilberforce made his last speeches in the Commons.

After two further episodes of illness in 1824 and 1825, Wilberforce was persuaded to resign his seat in parliament, leaving the campaign in the hands of others. Thomas Clarkson continued to travel, visiting anti-slavery groups all around Britain, and as an ambassador for the anti-slavery cause to other countries,[88] and Buxton continued the campaign in parliament. Public meetings were held in various parts of the country and petitions from local groups were sent to parliament demanding gradual emancipation.

On 15 April 1831 Buxton finally tabled his resolution for the abolition of slavery and, although this was unsuccessful, he continued the campaign.[89] Public opinion was changing, despite the strenuous efforts of the pro-slavery parliamentary group, and a wave of popular agitation began the last push forward in spring 1833.[90] On 26 July the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery finally passed its third reading in the Commons, and the news was rushed to the failing Wilberforce. Three days later he died.[91]

It was now only a matter of time before the bill became law, as the Lords were sure to endorse its passage, and so, the Act received the royal assent on 23 August 1833. In spite of some concerns about potential violence, the colonial legislatures carried the act into effect and emancipation day on 1 August 1834, was a day of great rejoicing in the former British slave colonies.

Marriage and family

A statue of William Wilberforce can now be seen outside Wilberforce House in Hull, where Wilberforce was born. A statue of William Wilberforce can now be seen outside Wilberforce House in Hull, where Wilberforce was born.

Wilberforce had shown little interest in women but, in his late thirties, twenty-year-old Barbara Ann Spooner (1777–1847) was recommended as a potential bride.[92] He met her two days after, on 15 April 1797, was immediately smitten,[12] and following a whirlwind romance Wilberforce proposed eight days later.[93] Despite the urgings of friends to slow down, the couple were married five weeks later in Bath, Somerset on 30 May 1797.[12][81] The couple were devoted to each other, and though Barbara showed little interest in Wilberforce's political activities and tended to narrow-minded possessiveness, she was very attentive and supportive in his increasing ill-health.[12] They had six children in less than ten years: William, (b. 1798), Barbara (b. 1799), Elizabeth (b. 1801), Robert Isaac Wilberforce (b. 1802), Samuel Wilberforce (b. 1805) and Henry William Wilberforce (b. 1807).[12]

Other campaigns

Moral reform

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 journal, "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners"[94][95] (‘manners’ meaning ‘morality’ in the English of the eighteenth century). It was at the suggestion of Wilberforce, together with Bishop Porteus[96] and other churchmen, that the Archbishop of Canterbury requested King George III to issue his Proclamation for the Discouragement of Vice in 1787,[97] 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,[98] 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.

Christianity and India

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, he managed this time to persuade the House of Commons to include the relevant clauses and the Charter Act 1813 was passed, with missionary work to a condition of the renewed charter.[99][100]

Other concerns

Wilberforce was also a founding member of the Church Missionary Society[101] (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. 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 so-called Clapham Sect of social reformers the lottery was brought to an end by the government in 1826.


Wilberforce 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."[102]

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 (1740–95), 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."[103]

Last days

Wilberforce was buried in Westminster Abbey next to Pitt. This memorial statue was erected in 1840 in the north choir aisle. Wilberforce was buried in Westminster Abbey next to Pitt. This memorial statue was erected in 1840 in the north choir aisle.

In 1824, Wilberforce suffered a serious illness which led to him being persuaded to resign his parliamentary seat. He moved to Highwood, 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 Abolition of Slavery Bill 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.[104] One month later, Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act which gave most of the slaves in the British Empire their freedom. There were notable exceptions in this Act, the territories controlled by the British East India Company were exempt, and there were other exclusions in the Act.[105] Slavery was abolished in both Hindu and Muslim India by the Indian Slavery Act V. of 1843.[106][107] Though slavery is generally considered to have been abolished in the British Empire in 1833, the acquisition of new British colonies in the later nineteenth century meant that some forms of slavery were practised by members of the native populations in the Empire as late as 1928.[108][4]



William Wilberforce was buried in Westminster Abbey on 3 August 1833 right by his friend William Pitt. The funeral was attended by many members from both Houses of Parliament, as well as many members of the public. The pall bearers included Henry Brougham, Lord Chancellor and the Duke of Gloucester.[109] Through his lifelong commitment to the anti-slavery cause he had earned a place in the hearts of the general public and of the establishment, testified to by the many tributes paid in the press and the attendance of numerous members of both houses of parliament at his funeral.



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 metre) Greek Doric column, topped by a statue of Wilberforce, was moved to its current site on the axis of Queen's Gardens in 1935.[110] The column is now used as a logo by Hull College, in whose campus the monument stands.

A seated statue to the memory of Wilberforce by Samuel Joseph 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."



The Wilberforce Monument, Queen's Gardens, Hull. The Wilberforce Monument, Queen's Gardens, Hull.

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,[111] which he had been working on since 1793. This was an exposition of New Testament doctrine and teachings and a call for a revival of Christianity, 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.[112]

After the death of Fox in September 1806, Wilberforce 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 campaign.

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 this work, he argued that the moral and spiritual condition of the slaves stemmed directly from their slavery, and that total emancipation was morally and ethically justified, and a matter of national duty before God.


The 17th century house in which William Wilberforce was born is today Wilberforce House museum in Kingston upon Hull. A sixth-form college is also named after him in the east of the city, as is a building at the University of Hull.

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 William Wilberforce, was released on 23 March 2007 to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the date on which Parliament voted to ban the transport of slaves by British subjects.

Wilberforce University, located in Wilberforce, Ohio, United States, is named after William Wilberforce. The university is the first one owned by African-American people, and is historically a black college (HBCU). Various churches within the Anglican Communion commemorate Wilberforce in their liturgical calendars (also known as the calendars of saints) including the Anglican Church of Canada (29 July) and the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (30 July).



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  • Hague, William. William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-slave Trade Campaigner (London: HarperPress, 2007) ISBN 978-0007228850
  • Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains, The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan, 2005) ISBN 978-0330485814
  • Pollock, John. Wilberforce (London: Constable, 1977) ISBN 978-0094607804
  • Tomkins, Stephen. William Wilberforce – A Biography (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2007) ISBN 978-0745952321

Further reading

  • Belmonte, Kevin. Hero for Humanity: A Biography of William Wilberforce (Navpress Publishing Group, 2002) ISBN 978-1576833544
  • Carey, Brycchan. British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility: Writing, Sentiment, and Slavery, 1760-1807 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) ISBN 978-1403946263
  • Furneaux, Robin. William Wilberforce (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1974, reprinted 2006) ISBN 978-1573833431
  • Hague, William. William Pitt the Younger (London: HarperPerennial, 2004) ISBN 978-0007147205
  • Hennell, Michael. William Wilberforce, 1759–1833, the Liberator of the Slave (London: Church Book Room, 1950)
  • Keay, John. India: A History. (New York: Grove Press Books, 2000) ISBN 0-8021-3797-0
  • Metaxas, Eric. Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007) ISBN 0-06-117300-2
  • Piper, John. Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2006) ISBN 978-1581348750
  • Pura, Murray Andrew. Vital Christianity: The Life and Spirituality of William Wilberforce (Toronto: Clements, 2002) ISBN 1894667107
  • Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. Encyclopedia of Emancipation and Abolition in the Transatlantic World. (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2007)
  • 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 1-58182-224-3
  • Walvin, James. A Short History of Slavery (London: Penguin, 2007) ISBN 978-0141027982
  • Wilberforce, R.I. and Wilberforce S. The Life of William Wilberforce (5 vols, London: John Murray, 1838)
  • Wolffe, John. William Wilberforce in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: University Press, 2006)

External links

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