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William Wilberforce, whose name a heartfelt, enlightened, and unwearied philanthropy, directing talents of the highest order, has enrolled among those of the most illustrious benefactors of mankind, was born August 24, 1759, in Hull, England, where his ancestors had been long and successfully engaged in trade. By his father's death he was left an orphan at an early age. He received the chief part of his education at the grammar school of Pockington, in Yorkshire, and at St. John's College, Cambridge, of which he became a fellow-commoner about 1776 or 1777. When just of age, and apparently before taking his B.A. degree, he was returned for his native town at the general election of 1780. In 1784 he was returned again, but being also chosen member for Yorkshire he elected to sit for that great county, which he continued to represent until the year 1812, during six successive Parliaments. From 1812 to 1825, when he retired from Parliament, he was returned by Lord Calthorpe for the borough of Bramber. His politics were in general those of Mr. Pitt's party, and his first prominent appearance was in 1783, in opposition to Mr. Fox's India Bill. In 1786 he introduced and carried through the Commons a bill for the amendment of the criminal code, which was roughly handled by the Lord Chancellor, Thurlow, and rejected in the House of Lords without a division.
At the time when Mr. Wilberforce was rising into manhood, the inquiry into the slave trade had engaged in a slight degree the attention of the public. To the Quakers belongs the high honor of having taken the lead in denouncing that unjust and unchristian traffic. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, during the life of Penn, the Quakers of Pennsylvania passed a censure upon it, and from time to time the Society of Friends expressed their disapprobation of the deportation of negroes, until, in 1761, they completed their good work by a resolution to disown all such as continued to be engaged in it. Occasionally the question was brought before magistrates, whether a slave became entitled to his liberty upon landing in England. In 1765 Granville Sharp came forward as the protector of a negro, who, having been abandoned and cast upon the world in disease and misery by his owner, was healed and assisted through the charity of Mr. Sharp's brother. Recovering his value with his health, he was claimed and seized by his master, and would have been shipped to the colonies, as many Africans were, but for the prompt and resolute interference of Mr. Sharp. In several similar cases the same gentleman came forward successfully; but the general question was not determined, or even argued, until 1772, when the celebrated case of the negro Somerset was brought before the Court of King's Bench, which adjudged, after a deliberate hearing, that in England the right of the master over the slave could not be maintained. The general question was afterward, in 1778, decided still more absolutely by the Scotch Courts, in the case of Wedderburn vs. Knight. In 1783 an event occurred well qualified to rouse the feelings of the nation, and call its attention to the atrocities of which the slave trade was the cause and pretext. An action was brought by certain underwriters against the owners of the ship Zong, on the ground that the captain had caused 132 weak, sickly slaves to be thrown overboard for the purpose of claiming their value, for which the plaintiffs would not have been liable if the cargo had died a natural death. The fact of the drowning was admitted, and defended on the plea that want of water had rendered it necessary, though it appeared that the crew had not been put upon short allowance. It now seems incredible that no criminal proceeding should have been instituted against the perpetrators of this wholesale murder.
In 1785 the Vice-chancellor of Cambridge proposed as the subject for the Bachelor's Prize Essay, the question, Is it allowable to enslave men without their consent? Thomas Clarkson, who had gained the prize in the preceding year, again became a candidate. Conceiving that the thesis, though couched in general terms, had an especial reference to the African slave trade, he went to London to make inquiries on the subject. Investigation brought under his view a mass of cruelties and abominations which engrossed his thoughts and shocked his imagination. By night and day they haunted him; and he has described in lively colors the intense pain which this composition, undertaken solely in the spirit of honorable rivalry, inflicted on him. He gained the prize, but found it impossible to discard the subject from his thoughts. In the succeeding autumn, after great struggles of mind, he resolved to give up his plan for entering the Church, and devoted time, health, and substance (to use his own words) to "seeing these calamities to an end." In sketching the progress of this great measure, the name of Wilberforce alone will be presented to view; and it is our duty, therefore, in the first place, to make honorable mention of him who first roused Wilberforce in the cause, and whose athletic vigor and indomitable perseverance surmounted danger, difficulties, fatigues, and discouragements which few men could have endured, in the first great object of collecting evidence of the cruelties habitually perpetrated in the slave trade.
In the first stage of his proceedings, Mr. Clarkson, in the course of his application to members of Parliament, called on Mr. Wilberforce, who stated that "the subject had often employed his thoughts and was near his heart." He inquired into the authorities for the statements laid before him, and became not only convinced of, but impressed with, the paramount duty of abolishing so hateful a traffic. Occasional meetings of those who were alike interested were held at his house; and in May, 1787, a committee was formed, of which Wilberforce became the Parliamentary leader. Early in 1788 he gave notice of his intention to bring the subject before the House; but, owing to his severe indisposition, that task was ultimately undertaken by Mr. Pitt, who moved and carried a resolution, pledging the House in the ensuing session to enter on the consideration of the subject. Accordingly, May 12, 1789, Mr. Wilberforce moved a series of resolutions, founded on a report of the Privy Council, exposing the iniquity and cruelty of the traffic in slaves, the mortality which it occasioned among white as well as black men, and the neglect of health and morals by which the natural increase of the race in the West India islands was checked; and concluding with a declaration that if the causes by which that increase was checked were removed, no considerable inconvenience would result from discontinuing the importation of African slaves. Burke, Pitt, and Fox supported the resolutions. Mr. Wilberforce's speech was distinguished by eloquence and earnestness, and by its unanswerable appeals to the first principles of justice and religion. The consideration of the subject was ultimately adjourned to the following session. In that, and in two subsequent sessions, the motions were renewed; and the effect of pressing such a subject upon the attention of the country was to open the eyes of many who would willingly have kept them closed, yet could not deny the existence of the evils so forced on their view. In 1792 Mr. Wilberforce's motion for the abolition of the slave trade was met by a proposal to insert in it the word "gradually;" and, in pursuance of the same policy, Mr. Dundas introduced a bill to provide for its discontinuance in 1800. The date was altered to 1796, and in that state the bill passed the Commons, but was stopped in the Upper House by a proposal to hear evidence upon it. Mr. Wilberforce annually renewed his efforts, and brought every new argument to bear upon the question which new discoveries, or the events of the times, produced. In 1799 the friends of the measure resolved on letting it repose for awhile, and for five years Mr. Wilberforce contented himself with moving for certain papers; but he took an opportunity of assuring the House that he had not grown cool in the cause, and that he would renew the discussion in a future session. On May 30, 1804, he once more moved for leave to bring in his bill for the abolition of the slave trade, in a speech of great eloquence and effect. He took the opportunity of making a powerful appeal to the Irish members, before whom, in consequence of the Union, this question was now for the first time brought, and the greater part of whom supported it. The decision showed a majority of 124 to 49 in his favor; and the bill was carried through the Commons, but was again postponed in the House of Lords. In 1805 he renewed his motion; but on this occasion it was lost in the Commons by over-security among the friends of the measure. But when Mr. Fox and Lord Granville took office in 1806, the abolition was brought forward by the ministers, most of whom supported it, though it was not made a government question in consequence of several members of the cabinet opposing it. The attorney-general (Sir A. Pigott) brought in a bill, which was passed into a law, prohibiting the slave trade in the conquered colonies, and excluding British subjects from engaging in the foreign slave trade; and Mr. Fox at Mr. Wilberforce's special request, introduced a resolution pledging the House to take the earliest measures for effectually abolishing the whole slave trade. This resolution was carried by a majority of 114 to 15; and January 2, 1807, Lord Granville brought forward, in the House of Lords, a bill for the abolition of the slave trade, which passed safely through both Houses of Parliament. As, however, the king was believed to be unfriendly to the measure, some alarm was felt by its friends, lest its fate might still be affected by the dismissal of the ministers, which had been determined upon. Those fears were groundless; for though they received orders to deliver up the seals of their offices on March 25th, the royal assent was given by commission by the Lord Chancellor Erskine on the same day; and thus the last act of the administration was to conclude a contest, maintained by prejudice and interest during twenty years, for the support of what Mr. Pitt denominated "the greatest practical evil that ever afflicted the human race."
Among other testimonies to Mr. Wilberforce's merits, we are not inclined to omit that of Sir James Mackintosh, who in his journal, May 23, 1808, speaks thus of Wilberforce on the "Abolition." This refers to a pamphlet on the slave trade which Mr. Wilberforce had published in 1806: "Almost as much enchanted by Mr. Wilberforce's book as by his conduct. He is the very model of a reformer. Ardent without turbulence, mild without timidity or coolness; neither yielding to difficulties nor disturbed or exasperated by them; patient and meek yet intrepid; persisting for twenty years through good report and evil report; just and charitable even to his most malignant enemies; unwearied in every experiment to disarm the prejudices of his more rational and disinterested opponents, and supporting the zeal, without dangerously exciting the passions of his adherents."
The rest of Mr. Wilberforce's parliamentary conduct was consistent with his behavior on this question. In debates chiefly political he rarely took a forward part; but where religion and morals were directly concerned, points on which few cared to interfere, and where a leader was wanted, he never shrunk from the advocacy of his opinions. He was a supporter of Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform; he condemned the encouragement of gambling, in the shape of lotteries established by government; he insisted on the cruelty of employing boys of tender age as chimney-sweepers; he attempted to procure a legislative enactment against duelling, after the hostile meeting between Pitt and Tierney; and on the renewal of the East India Company's charter in 1816, he gave his zealous support to the propagation of Christianity in Hindostan, in opposition to those who, as has been more recently done in the West Indies, represented the employment of missionaries to be inconsistent with the preservation of the British empire. It is encouraging to observe that, with the exception of the one levelled against duelling, all these measures, however violently opposed and unfairly censured, have been carried in a more or less perfect form.
As an author, Mr. Wilberforce's claim to notice is chiefly derived from his treatise entitled "A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professing Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity." The object of it was to show that the standard of life generally adopted by those classes not only fell short of, but was inconsistent with, the doctrines of the gospel. It has justly been applauded as a work of no common courage, not from the asperity of its censures, for it breathes throughout a spirit of gentleness and love, but on the joint consideration of the unpopularity of the subject and the writer's position. The Bishop of Calcutta, in his introductory essay, justly observes that "the author, in attempting it, risked everything dear to a public man and a politician as such, consideration, weight, ambition, reputation." And Scott, the divine, one of the most fearless and ardent of men, viewed the matter in the same light; for he wrote: "Taken in all its probable effects, I do sincerely think such a stand for vital Christianity has not been made in my memory. He has come out beyond my expectations." Of a work so generally known we shall not describe the tendency more at large. It is said to have gone through about twenty editions in Britain, since the publication in 1797, and more in America; and to have been translated into most European languages.
In the discharge of his parliamentary duties, Mr. Wilberforce was punctual and active beyond his apparent strength; and those who further recollect his diligent attendance on a vast variety of public meetings and committees connected with religious and charitable purposes, will wonder how a frame naturally weak should so long have endured the wear of such exertion. In 1788, when his illness was a matter of deep concern to the Abolitionists, Dr. Warren said that he had not stamina to last a fortnight. No doubt his bodily powers were greatly aided by the placid and happy frame of mind which he habitually enjoyed; but it is important to relate his own opinion, as delivered by an ear-witness, on the physical benefits which he derived from a strict abstinence from temporal affairs on Sundays: "I have often heard him assert that he never could have sustained the labor and stretch of mind required in his early political life, if it had not been for the rest of his Sabbath; and that he could name several of his contemporaries in the vortex of political cares, whose minds had actually given way under the stress of intellectual labor so as to bring on a premature death or the still more dreadful catastrophe of insanity and suicide, who, humanly speaking, might have been preserved in health, if they would but conscientiously have observed the Sabbath."
In 1797 Mr. Wilberforce married Miss Spooner, daughter of an eminent banker at Birmingham. Four sons survived him. He died, after a gradual decline, July 29, 1833, in Cadogan Place. He directed that his funeral should be conducted without the smallest pomp; but his orders were disregarded, in compliance with a memorial addressed to his relatives by many of the most distinguished men of all parties, and couched in the following terms: "We, the undersigned Members of both Houses of Parliament, being anxious, upon public grounds, to show our respect for the memory of the late William Wilberforce, and being also satisfied that public honors can never be more fitly bestowed than upon such benefactors of mankind, earnestly request that he may be buried in Westminster Abbey, and that we and others who may agree with us in these sentiments may have permission to attend his funeral." The attendance of both Houses was numerous. Mr. Wilberforce was interred within a few yards of his great contemporaries, Pitt, Fox, and Canning.