William Wilberforce was a philanthropist, politician, social activist, and the leading figure in the British abolitionist movement. He convinced Parliament to put a stop to the slave trade in 1807 and to end slavery within the British Empire in 1833. He was elected to Parliament in 1780 at the age of 21 and served there for 45 years, until his retirement in 1825. Although his elected position gave him the platform and visibility to promote the antislavery cause for which he is best known, he also devoted considerable time and energy to a second cause he termed “the reformation of manners.” The latter cause led him to champion an eclectic range of efforts, including “free” education, sobriety, charity schools, penal reform, child labor, moral instruction, Christian mission work in India, and an end to cruelty toward animals. His work against slavery clearly raises him to the highest ranks in the annals of libertarianism, but some of his other activities evidenced a willingness to deploy state power to advance a whole range of social objectives.
Wilberforce never had the physical presence one might expect of someone so eager to take on entrenched interests. James Boswell, the famous biographer of Samuel Johnson, called Wilberforce a “shrimp.” Thin and short, Wilberforce compensated with vision, eloquence, and willpower. As a newly minted Tory Parliamentarian, he spoke out against the war with America, labeling it “cruel, bloody and impractical,” clearly a minority view in the midst of the war. But he drifted from issue to issue without a central focus until a religious awakening sparked a lifelong calling to the nascent antislavery movement. Repulsed by the hideous barbarity of the slave trade then prevalent, he determined in October 1787 to work for its abolition. His allies included Thomas Clarkson, John Newton, Hannah More, Granville Sharp, Charles Fox, and close friend and prime minister, William Pitt the Younger.
Ending slavery seemed an unlikely prospect in the 1780s. Viewed widely as integral to British naval and commercial success, slavery was a huge business, enjoying broad political support, as well as widespread (through essentially racist) intellectual justification. For 75 years before Wilberforce set about to end the trade in slaves, indeed, the slave trade, while lucrative for British slavers, was savagely merciless for its millions of victims.
Wilberforce assisted the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and other organizations to spread the word about the inhumanity of one man owning another. “Our motto must continue to be perseverance,” he once told followers. He endured and overcame just about every obstacle imaginable, including ill health, derision from his colleagues, death threats, and defeats almost too numerous to count.
He rose in the House of Commons to give his first abolition speech in 1789. It would take 18 years before the slave trade would be ended by law. He introduced an abolition measure in every session, only to lose time after time. On at least one occasion, some of his own allies deserted him for reasons as petty as the opposition having given them free tickets to attend the theater during a crucial vote. The war with France that began in the 1790s often put the slavery issue on the back burner, and those who opposed Wilberforce’s argued persuasively that if Britain ended its trade in slaves, it would simply hand a profitable enterprise over to a mortal enemy, the French. He was often ridiculed and condemned as a traitorous rabble‐rouser.
Abolition of the slave trade finally won Parliament’s approval on February 23, 1807. Biographer David J. Vaughan reports that,
as the attorney general, Sir Samuel Romilly, stood and praised the perseverance of Wilberforce, the House rose to its feet and broke out in cheers. Wilberforce was so overcome with emotion that he sat head in hand, tears streaming down his face.
Although the trade in slaves was officially over, an end to slavery remained the biggest prize. To bring it about, Wilberforce worked for another 26 years after the 1807 vote, even after retiring from nearly a half‐century of service in Parliament in 1825. He was finally victorious on July 26, 1833, when Britain enacted a peaceful, compensated emancipation and became the world’s first major nation to unshackle an entire race within its jurisdiction. Hailed as one of the heroes who made it possible, Wilberforce died 3 days later.
Wilberforce was born in Hull, in Yorkshire, the son of a wealthy merchant. He inherited substantial assets, which sustained him at a comfortable level for most of his life and financed his political, philanthropic, and community efforts. Unlike many social activists, he largely spent away his personal wealth on the causes he championed, leaving little behind when he died at the age of 73. A lover of animals, he helped start and substantially funded the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Although libertarians admire his principled stance on slavery, Wilberforce was not uniformly committed to the principle of noninitiation of force. He endorsed public education funded by taxes. He joined leading clergymen in encouraging the government to suppress vice, leading to repressive fines and prison sentences for trifling offenses and even deterring freedoms of speech and assembly. He convinced Parliament to require the British East India Company to sponsor Christian missionary work in India as a condition of its being granted a monopoly share of the spice trade. He worked against parliamentary reforms that were promoted by secular elements. Early labor union advocates saw him as an enemy of worker rights to organize for better pay, hours, and working conditions. Many libertarians might applaud his successful campaign to end the state lottery.
The most lasting legacy of William Wilberforce remains the remarkable change in world opinion and policy toward the institution of slavery. Widespread and commonly accepted throughout the world in the 1780s, slavery was virtually wiped out over the course of a century, an outcome inspired in great measure by Wilberforce, his eloquence, and his allies.
Belmonte, Kevin. William Wilberforce: A Hero for Humanity. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007.
Furneaux, Robin. William Wilberforce. Vancouver, BC, Canada: Regent College Publishing, 2006.
Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
Metaxas, Eric. William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.
Tomkins, Stephen. William Wilberforce: A Biography. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdsman Publishing, 2007.