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William Wilberforce
1759 - 1833

The English statesman and humanitarian William Wilberforce 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.


William Wilberforce (24 August 1759–29 July 1833) was an English politician, Member of Parliament for Yorkshire (1784–1812), a philanthropist, and evangelical Christian who, as a leading abolitionist headed the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade, culminating in the passing of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, which paved the way for the complete abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833.

Early life

William Wilberforce was born in Hull on 24 August 1759, the son of Robert Wilberforce (1728–68), a wealthy merchant and his wife Elizabeth. His grandfather William (1690–1776) had made the family fortune through the Baltic trade and had been elected mayor of Hull on two occasions.

William's great-grandfather was Samuel Wilberforce (1660–?) of Beverley. The Wilberforces were an old Yorkshire family, the name deriving from the village of Wilberfoss, eight miles east of York.

William Wilberforce was described as a sickly and delicate child. He attended the grammar school of Kingston upon Hull from 1767–68, but following his father’s death, was sent to live with an uncle and aunt in St James’ Place, London and in Wimbledon, at that time a village to the south-west of London. He attended school in Putney for two years, and was influenced towards evangelical Christianity by his aunt Hannah, who was the sister of John Thornton and a supporter of George Whitefield.

His mother and grandfather, concerned at these nonconformist influences, and his leanings towards evangelicalism (which, at that time was associated with religious groups other than Anglicans), brought him back to Hull in 1771, where he continued his education at nearby Pocklington School between 1771 and 1776. He succeeded especially in English poetry and was known as a fine singer

Wilberforce went up to St John's College, Cambridge, in October 1776, where he immersed himself in the social round of the students, and felt little inclination to apply himself to serious study. Amongst these surroundings, he befriended the young William Pitt, who would become a lifelong friend. Although at first shocked by the goings on around him, he later pursued a somewhat hedonistic lifestyle himself, enjoying playing cards, gambling, and late-night drinking sessions – although he refrained from doing so to excess; the extreme behaviour of some of his fellow students he found distasteful and he never engaged in their more dissipated behaviour. He was awarded B.A. in 1781 and M.A. in 1788.

Early parliamentary career and conversion

Having little interest in returning to be involved in the family business, Wilberforce, still at university, decided to enter politics and seek election to Parliament. In September 1780, at the age of twenty-one and still a student at Cambridge, he was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Kingston upon Hull, spending as over 8,000 on ensuring he received the necessary votes, as was the custom of the time. As an independent Tory he was an opponent of the North administration, sharing the general feeling of discontent with the government. He took part in debates regarding naval shipbuilding and smuggling, and renewed his friendship with future Prime Minister William Pitt the younger, with whom he frequently met in the gallery of the House of Commons, and they formed a lasting friendship, together with Edward James Eliot (later to become Pitt’s brother-in-law). Wilberforce was charming, witty and an excellent mimic – the Prince of Wales reportedly said that he would go anywhere to hear Wilberforce sing, and he had a mesmerizing speaking voice that he used to great effect in political speeches. In autumn 1783 Pitt, Wilberforce and Eliot travelled to France together. They stayed in Rheims to improve their French, and were presented to the king and queen at Fontainebleau.

In 1783 Wilberforce, while dining with his old Cambridge friend, Gerard Edwards, at his home in Curzon Street, London, first met the former ship’s surgeon James Ramsay, who had later become rector of St Christopher (now St Kitts) and medical supervisor of the plantations there. What he had witnessed of the conditions of the black slaves both at sea and on the plantations horrified him, until he returned to England and accepted the living of Teston, Kent. The conversation soon turned to the lot of the slaves, and this was one of the chance meetings which was later to have a profound influence on he young MP.

Pitt became prime minister in December 1783 and Wilberforce became a key supporter of his minority government. When Parliament was dissolved in spring 1784, Wilberforce was soon recognised as a compromise Pittite candidate in the 1784 General Election. On 6 April, when the Whigs were defeated, he was returned as MP for Yorkshire at the age of twenty-four.

In 1784 Wilberforce embarked upon a tour of Europe which would change his life and, ultimately, his whole future career. In October he travelled with his friend Isaac Milner, who had been Fellow of Queens' College, Cambridge in the year that Wilberforce first went up. They went in the company of his mother and sister, to the French Riviera, where they spent some time. However, he had to return temporarily in February 1785, in order to give his support to Pitt’s parliamentary reforms. Milner accompanied him both back to England and on the return journey, and they used the time to read Philip Doddridge's Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul together, and later to study the New Testament. They were able to rejoin the party in Genoa, Italy, where they continued their tour to Spa, Switzerland. This is thought to have been the beginning of Wilberforce’s spiritual journey, and he began to rise early to read the Bible and pray, as well as to keep a personal private journal. He experienced an evangelical conversion experience, regretting his past life and resolving to commit his future life and work to the service of God. He sought guidance from John Newton, a leading evangelical Anglican clergyman of the day and Rector of St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London. Both Newton and Pitt counselled him to remain in politics, and he resolved to do so "with increased diligence and conscientiousness".

By 1786 Wilberforce brought forward a bill to reform criminal law and propose a reduction in the sentences on women convicted of treason from burning to hanging and to extend dissection after execution from murderers to other criminals such as rapists, arsonists, burglars and thieves. This was passed by the House of Commons but failed to get through the Lords. Other bills included the Registration Bill, which would have given all freeholders the right to vote, and for polls to be held in various locations on the same day, rather than over several days in the county town. This bill, too, was passed by the Commons but thrown out by the Lords.

Final resolve

Wilberforce had not yet found a cause on which to focus his attention and energy but, nevertheless, was beginning to show his interest in humanitarian reform, at the same time demonstrating his lack of experience in parliamentary procedure. However, by the end of 1786, he had decided to sell his house in Wimbledon and leased a house in Old Palace Yard, Westminster, in order to be closer to parliament.

In November 1786 Wilberforce had received a letter from Captain Sir Charles Middleton, MP, and father-in-law of his old friend Gerard Edwards, which was to ignite again his old interest in the subject of the slave trade. At the urging of Lady Middleton, he suggested that it should be Wilberforce who should bring forward the cause of the abolition of the slave trade in Parliament. In early winter, William Wilberforce spent some time with the Middletons at Barham Court, and the other members of the growing group campaigning against the slave trade, who came to be known as the Testonites, including Ramsay, Sharp, Porteus and Hannah More.

In early 1787 Thomas Clarkson, already convinced of his God-given mission, called upon Wilberforce at Old Palace Yard with a copy of his Essay on Slavery. This was the first time the two men had met, and a collaboration was formed which was to last over fifty years.

The Quaker members of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade recognised their need for influence within Parliament and urged Clarkson to secure an immediate commitment from Wilberforce that he would bring forward the case for abolition in the House of Commons.

So it was arranged that Bennet Langton, a Lincolnshire landowner and mutual acquaintance of Wilberforce and Clarkson would arrange a dinner party, at which the suggestion would be made and Wilberforce given the opportunity to confirm his intention to raise the issue. This took place on 13 March, 1787, other guests including Charles Middleton, Sir Joshua Reynolds, William Windham, MP, James Boswell and Isaac Hawkins Browne, MP. By the end of the evening they had elicited the response that they had sought, and Wilberforce agreed in general terms that he would be willing to bring the measure forward in Parliament, provided that no person more proper could be found.

In the same spring, still hesitant, but having already begun to collect evidence to support the cause, Wilberforce held a conversation with his close friend William Pitt the Younger and future Prime Minister William Grenville on 12 May 1787, as they sat under a large oak tree on Pitt's estate in Kent. Under what came to be known as the ‘Wilberforce Oak’ at Holwood, Pitt challenged his friend: “Wilberforce, why don’t you give notice of a motion on the subject of the Slave Trade? You have already taken great pains to collect evidence, and are therefore fully entitled to the credit which doing so will ensure you. Do not lose time, or the ground will be occupied by another.”

This meeting was critical in Wilberforce’s decision to take up the cause, and, although his response is not recorded, he later declared in old age that he could “distinctly remember the very knoll on which I was sitting near Pitt and Grenville.” At last, the abolitionists had what they needed – a voice in Parliament.

Abolition campaign

Wilberforce, compelled by his strong Christian faith, was persuaded to become leader of the parliamentary campaign of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Wilberforce's biographers have sufficiently shown that he was already interested in the matter independently. He had, it is said, written about slavery in the papers ‘in his boyhood,’ and in 1783 had talked to James Ramsay (1733–1789), whose book on slavery in 1784 excited much interest.










This web page was last updated on: 17 December, 2008