William Wilberforce

The English statesman and humanitarian William Wilberforce (1759-1833) was a prominent antislavery leader. His agitation helped smooth the way for the Act of Abolition of 1833.

William Wilberforce was born to affluence at Hull on Aug. 24, 1759. He attended Hull Grammar School and St. John's College, Cambridge. He was elected to Parliament from Hull in 1780 and from Yorkshire in 1784. In 1812 he moved his constituency to Bramber, Sussex. He retired from the House of Commons in 1825.

Wilberforce was a friend and lifelong supporter of William Pitt the Younger, the great British prime minister and war leader. Like his leader, Wilberforce moved toward a more conservative position following the French Revolution and Britain's involvement in the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars. His antislavery ideas arose not out of a background of secular liberalism but out of his religious beliefs. England in the late 18th century experienced a powerful religious revival, and in 1785 Wilberforce was converted to Evangelical Christianity.

In 1787 Wilberforce was approached by the antislavery advocate Thomas Clarkson, who was already in touch with the abolitionist lawyer Granville Sharp. The three formed the nucleus of a group ridiculed as the "Clapham sect" (after the location of the house where they held their meetings). They were joined by such slavery opponents as John Newton, Hannah More, Henry Thornton, Zachary Macaulay, E. J. Eliot, and James Stephen. Clarkson organized a propaganda campaign throughout the country, while Wilberforce represented the group's interests in the House of Commons. Wilberforce created two formal organizations in 1787: the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and the Society for the Reformation of Manners.

The Claphams won a growing number of converts to their cause, but they were unable to make any legal headway against the West Indies slave traders and planters. Pitt personally supported the petitions presented to the House by Wilberforce; yet the slave trade was regarded as essential to economic health, and the West Indies interests were an important component of Pitt's Whig coalition. The 1790s witnessed some reform of the worst practices of the slavers and a resolution supporting the gradual abolition of the slave trade.

However, Wilberforce held firm in his views. His persistence was finally rewarded in 1807, when, following Pitt's death, a temporary Radical government coalition led by Charles James Fox united liberals and Evangelicals behind passage of an act prohibiting the slave trade. This act represented the culmination of Wilberforce's active participation in the movement.

In 1823 younger followers of Wilberforce founded the Antislavery Society, of which Wilberforce became a vice president. Once again a prolonged period of agitation produced results. Wilberforce, however, had been dead for a month when the Emancipation Act became law in August 1833.

Further Reading on William Wilberforce

The most authoritative volumes on Wilberforce are Reginald Coupland, Wilberforce (rev. ed. 1945), and Oliver Warner, William Wilberforce and His Times (1963). The struggle over slavery and the slave trade is examined within the framework of British imperial history in Charles E. Carrington, The British Overseas: Exploits of a Nation of Shopkeepers, vol. 1 (2d ed. 1968). J. H. Parry and P. M. Sherlock deal with the colonial aspect of the question in A Short History of the West Indies (2d ed. 1963).

Additional Biography Sources

Catherwood, H. F. R. (Henry Frederick Ross), Sir, The difference between a reformer and a progressive, London: Shaftesbury Society, 1977.

Everett, Betty Steele, Freedom fighter: the story of William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian who fought to free slaves, Fort Washington, Pa.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1994.

Furneaux, Robin, William Wilberforce, London, Hamilton, 1974.

Lean, Garth, God's politician: William Wilberforce's struggle, Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1987.

Ludwig, Charles, He freed Britain's slaves, Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1977.

Pollock, John Charles, Wilberforce, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978, 1977.