Who was William Wilberforce?


William Wilberforce (1759-1833) is one of the best known British abolitionists. He was a Parliamentarian, writer and social reformer.

William was born in Hull in the North East of England in 1759, to a prosperous middle class family. However, his father died when he was very young and William was sent to live in Wimbledon with his aunt who was a stanch supporter of the Methodist movement. Fearing that the boy might be influenced by his aunt’s religion, his mother brought him back to the family home.

At the age of seventeen, Wilberforce enrolled in Saint John’s College, Cambridge. There he formed a close friendship with William Pitt, who was later to become the youngest Prime Minister in British history.

Wilberforce decided to enter into politics and was elected to the House of Commons in 1780. He later confessed that his primary aim had not been to do good but rather to achieve personal success. He did not involve himself with any major cause but he and William Pitt soon became political celebrities; their charm and wit making them popular in elite social circles.

In 1784, Wilberforce’s views and goals changed radically. He converted to Evangelical Christianity and joined the Clapham Sect, an Evangelical group of the Anglican Church. He became eager to reform the morals of society and wrote a book calling on the upper classes to regain true Christian values in their lives. From that point on he approached politics from a position of strict Christian morality.

Around this time, Wilberforce also developed a strong interest in social matters. He campaigned for health care, educational and prison reform and legislation to prohibit the worst forms of child labor. However, his greatest political efforts concerned the abolition of the slave trade and slavery.

In 1787 Wilberforce became, at the suggestion of the William Pitt, the parliamentary leader of the abolitionist movement. This was a daunting task as a great deal of the country’s wealth depended on slavery and there were powerful vested interests determined to prevent any restrictions of the practice.

In 1788-1789 he presented his Abolitionist Bill before the house for the first time. In a moving speech, he recited the horrific facts of slavery for three hours and ended with the words: "having heard all of this you may choose to look the other way but you can never again say that you did not know". Newspapers praised the speech highly, claiming it to be one of the most eloquent ever to have been read in the house.

Despite Wilberforce’s efforts the bill did not pass. Year after year, he re-introduced anti-slavery motions but to no avail. Finally, in 1807 the Abolition Bill was passed with 283 votes to 16, making the slave trade illegal on all British ships. It was an emotional day in Parliament and Wilberforce, having campaigned so strenuously, broke down and cried.

However, despite this victory, slavery itself remained intact and Wilberforce soon turned his attention to the emancipation of slaves in the British colonies. In 1823, he published the influential pamphlet "Appeal on Behalf of the Negro Slaves". It led to the formation of the Anti-Slavery Society, which headed the emancipation campaign.

Wilberforce retired from the House of Commons in 1825 and leadership of the Parliamentary campaign passed to Thomas Fowell Buxton. The Emancipation Bill slowly gathered support and was approved on 26 July 1833. On that day, slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire but planters were to receive high compensation. Wilberforce commented "Thank God that I have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty million sterling for the abolition of slavery". He died three days later, on 29 July, and was buried at Westminster Abbey in London.

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