William Wilberforce ( 24 August 1759 – 29 July 1833) was one of Britain’s great social reformers involved in campaigns against slavery, the promotion of education, Christianity, strict morality and animal welfare. Wilberforce saw his life’s mission to end slavery and is remembered for his active participation in getting Parliament to outlaw the slave trade. He died in 1833, just three days after Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, which effectively banned slavery in the British Empire.
“God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners (morality).”
– William Wilberforce
Early Life William Wilberforce
William Wilberforce was born in Hull, to a wealthy family. At a young age, he moved to London where he lived with some nonconformist relatives. These puritan ideals appealed to the young William, and he became closely attached to his London relatives. However, at the age of 12, his mother brought him back to Hull. His mother was keen to see William brought up in the traditional Anglican Church tradition and was not keen on her son having a nonconformist upbringing.
At the age of 18, William went to St John’s College, Cambridge University. As a student he lived a carefree life, his early religious intensity had diminished, and he was an active participant in the social life of University. However, he distanced himself from some of the social and drinking excesses his student colleagues participated in. William was not the best student (he had come into an inheritance and so felt little need to work very hard) However, he was well liked; he was an excellent conversationalist with a pleasing voice and renowned singing voice. It was at Cambridge that he became friends with William Pitt the younger. William Pitt, a future Prime Minister, would remain a good friend and mostly a loyal supporter of William in later life. (except during the war with France, when they fell out on politics)
As his time at University was drawing to a close, William decided to run for parliament. Spending £8,000 he was able to win the seat in his native Hull, entering parliament at the age of 21. He decided to be an independent, although he would lean towards the reform element of the Tory party.
After four years in Parliament, William travelled to Europe with his sister and Mother. It was during their European vacation that the religious urge came back to William. A key factor was reading the evangelical book, Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul together. This encouraged him to lead a religious life, such as getting up early to read the Bible; he lost interest in card games and drinking. He became a committed Christian for the remainder of his life, and his religion profoundly influenced his outlook on life. On returning to England, he spoke with John Newton, one of the leading Anglican churchman of his day. This further encouraged him to lead a religious life, but also he was encouraged to stay in politics and work for social reform.
William Wilberforce and the Anti-Slavery Movement
It was shortly after this ‘conversion’ period in 1786 that Wilberforce was invited to take an active role in the abolitionist movement. The Leading figures in the anti-slavery campaign (such as Thomas Clarkson) wished Wilberforce to be their figurehead for passing legislation through parliament. Although Wilberforce was in complete sympathy with their aims, initially he was sceptical of his own abilities. However, after deliberation, he decided to take the campaign on.
“If to be feelingly alive to the sufferings of my fellow-creatures is to be a fanatic, I am one of the most incurable fanatics ever permitted to be at large.”
– William Wilberforce
An example of a poster which was effective in highlighting the conditions of the slaves in ships.
Following successful public campaigns by the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in raising awareness of the conditions of slaves, William Wilberforce was encouraged to try and pass a bill in the year of 1789.
In 1789 Wilberforce spoke in the House of Commons arguing that slavery was a matter of great injustice and contrary to principles of human dignity. He spoke passionately on the subject.
“I mean not to accuse any one, but to take the shame upon myself, in common, indeed, with the whole parliament of Great Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority. We are all guilty—we ought all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others..”
Although there was considerable support within Parliament, the anti-abolitionists were well organised, and they managed to out-vote the bill by 163 votes to 88.
After spending a year raising awareness of the issue, Wilberforce tried the next year again. However, the anti-abolitionists were again well organised and were able to slip in a delaying tactic – putting off abolition indefinitely.
Following the outbreak of war with France in 1793, the mood swung against the cause for abolishing the slave trade. Any calls for its abolition were often accused of being seditious. The country became very conservative due to the threat of invasion; in the climate of fear, there was little interest in the emancipation of slaves.
However, in the early part of the nineteenth century, the climate once again became favourable, and following the death of William Pitt, in 1806, Wilberforce tried once more. However, they first tried a clever trick of making it illegal for slave owners to participate in the trading slaves with the French colonies. It was a bill not designed to make the slave trade illegal; it was hoped to just undermine their business, therefore weakening the position of the ship owners. It was suggested by a maritime lawyer, James Stephen. The bill made it illegal for ships to aid the French slave trade; it was passed and effectively ended 75% of the slave trade.
Slave Trade Act 1807
In 1807, both the Lords and the Commons finally passed the Slave Trade Act; Wilberforce was able to command an unexpectedly large margin of 283 votes to 16.
Slavery Abolition Act
This act only made illegal the trade of slaves. Many slaves in the British Empire were still not free. Therefore, in the remaining period of his life, William Wilberforce campaigned for the rights of slaves in Africa and other parts of the world. Just a few days before his death, Wilberforce heard the news that on 26 July 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act had effectively passed after its third reading – the act outlawed slavery in most parts of the British Empire. India would be freed from slavery a decade later.
Other Social Campaigns of William Wilberforce
Although he is best associated with the slave trade, William Wilberforce also campaigned for other social issues such as prison reform, education, missionary work in India and matters of public health. However, he did not support trades unions, nor did he support women rights.
Personal Life of William Wilberforce
William’s personal life was dominated by his religious sensibilities. He married late in life to the devoted Barbara Ann Spooner. In ten years they had six children.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of William Wilberforce”, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net 12th Jan 2012. Last updated 21st March 2017.
William Wilberforce by William Hague
Film about William Wilberforce – Amazing Grace
Amazing Grace – The Life of William Wilberforce
Famous English people – Famous English men and women. From Anne Boleyn and Queen Elizabeth I to Henry VIII and Winston Churchill. Includes the great poets – William Shakespeare, William Blake and William Wordsworth.
Great Briton list – Top 100 famous Britons as voted by a BBC poll. Including Winston Churchill, William Shakespeare, Thomas Cromwell and Queen Elizabeth I.
People in the anti-slavery movement – Men and women who campaigned for the end of slavery. This includes former slaves such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, and political campaigners, such as William Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln.
- William Wilberforce short biography at BBC