William Wilberforce, 1759-1833

Excerpt from Ecclesia Anglicana April 2016 edition;

WHM146809 Portrait of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), 1794 (oil on canvas) by Hickel, Anton (1745-98)oil on canvasĀ© Wilberforce House, Hull City Museums and Art Galleries, UKGerman, out of copyright

William Wilberforce was a British politician and philanthropist who from 1787 was prominent in the struggle to abolish the slave trade and then to abolish slavery itself in British overseas possessions. He studied at St. John’s College at the University of Cambridge, where he became a close friend of the future prime minister, William Pitt, and was known as an amiable companion rather than an outstanding student. In 1780, both he and Pitt entered the House of Commons, and he soon began to support parliamentary reform and Roman Catholic political emancipation. In 1787, Wilberforce helped to found a society for the “reformation of manners” called the Proclamation Society (to suppress the publication of obscenity) and the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the latter more commonly called the Anti-Slavery Society. In 1789, he introduced 12 resolutions against the slave trade and gave what many newspapers at the time considered among the most eloquent speeches ever delivered in the Commons. The resolutions were supported by Pitt (who was by then prime minister), Charles Fox (Often an opponent of Pitt’s), and Edmund Burke, but they failed to be enacted into law, and instead the issue was postponed until the next Parliament. In 1791, he again brought a motion to the House of Commons to abolish the slave trade, but it was defeated 163 to 88. For the next 15 years, Wilberforce was able to achieve little progress toward ending the slave trade (in part because of the domestic preoccupation with the war against Napoleon). In 1807, however, he finally achieved success: on Feb. 23, 1807, a bill to abolish the slave trade in the British West Indies was carried in the Commons 283 to 16, and it became law on march 25th. The 1807 statute did not, however, change the legal position of persons enslaved before its enactment. In 1823, he aided in organizing and became a vice president of the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions, again, more commonly called the Anti-Slavery Society. Turning over to Buxton the parliamentary leadership of the abolition movement, he retired from the House of Commons in 1825. On July 26, 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed by the Commons (it became law the following month); three days later Wilberforce died. He was interred at Westminster Abbey.