William Wilberforce ("The Liberator")
Abolition of Slavery by Britain in 1807
From Various


William Wilberforce ("The Liberator") British Abolitionist (1759-1833)

William Wilberforce was a deeply religious man whose political views were very conservative, but who devoted most of his parliamentary career to the abolition of the slave trade and slavery.  He also campaigned for legislation to prohibit the worst forms of child labor, cruelty to animals and the removal of political disabilities on Roman Catholics.   He fought to abolish the slave trade which, after many years of defeats, he finally achieved in 1807.  However, this did not abolish slavery.   He would frequently introduce a private member’s Bill abolishing slavery.  Year after year his Bills were defeated until, finally, late on Friday July 26, 1833, as he lay on his deathbed, his friend, Thomas Babington Macaulay, the famous historian and member of the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Dominions, brought him word that the Slavery Abolition Bill 1833 abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire had been read a third time (which means that it had been passed) by the House of Commons. William Wilberforce
William Wilberforce

Passage of the Bill through the House of Lords was assured. 
Wilberforce exclaimed:

"Thank God that I have lived to witness the day in which England is willing to give £20 million for the abolishment of slavery."
( £20,000,000 two hundred years ago. What would that be worth today ?? )

He died three days later. 
It was agreed that he should be in Westminster Abbey in London.   The Slavery Abolition Bill 1833 passed through the House of Lords, it received the Royal Assent (which means it became law) on 29 August 1833 and came into force on 1 August 1834.  On that date slavery was abolished throughout the vast British Empire.  The Act automatically applied as new possessions (principally in Africa) subsequently became part of the British Empire.

William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce, the son of a wealthy merchant, was born in Hull in 1759. William's father died when he was young and for a time was brought up by an uncle and aunt. William came under the influence of his aunt, who was a strong supporter of John Wesley and the Methodist movement. Disturbed by these developments, Mrs. Wilberforce brought her son back to the family home.

At seventeen Wilberforce was sent to St. John's College, Cambridge. Wilberforce was shocked by the behaviour of his fellow students and later wrote: "I was introduced on the very first night of my arrival to as licentious a set of men as can well be conceived. They drank hard, and their conversation was even worse than their lives." One of Wilberforce's friends at university was William Pitt, who was later to become Britain's youngest ever Prime Minister.

William Wilberforce decided on a career in politics and soon after leaving university at the age of twenty, he decided to become a candidate in the forthcoming parliamentary election in Hull. His opponent was Lord Rockingham, a rich and powerful member of the nobility, and Wilberforce had to spend nearly £9,000 to become elected. In the House of Commons Wilberforce supported the the Tory government led by William Pitt.

In 1784 Wilberforce became converted to Evangelical Christianity. He joined the Clapham Set, a group of evangelical members of the Anglican Church, centered around John Venn, rector of Clapham Church in London. As a result of this conversion, Wilberforce became interested in social reform and was eventually approached by Lady Middleton, to use his power as an MP to bring an end to the slave trade.

Society of Friends in Britain had been campaigning against the slave trade for many years. They had presented a petition to Parliament in 1783 and in 1787 had helped form the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Of the twelve members on the committee nine were Quakers. As a member of the evangelical movement, Wilberforce was sympathetic to Mrs. Middleton's request. In his letter of reply, Wilberforce wrote: "I feel the great importance of the subject and I think myself unequal to the task allotted to me." Despite these doubts, Wilberforce agreed to Mrs. Middleton's request, but soon afterwards, he became very ill and it was not until 12th May, 1789, that he made his first speech against the slave trade.

Wilberforce, along with Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp, was now seen as one of the leaders of the anti-slave trade movement. Most of Wilberforce's Tory colleagues in the House of Commons were opposed to any restrictions on the slave trade and at first he had to rely on the support of Whigs such as Charles Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, William Grenville and Henry Brougham. When William Wilberforce presented his first bill to abolish the slave trade in 1791 it was easily defeated by 163 votes to 88.

Wilberforce refused to be beaten and in 1805 the House of Commons passed a bill to that made it unlawful for any British subject to transport slaves, but the measure was blocked by the House of Lords.

In February 1806, Lord Grenville formed a Whig administration. Grenville and his Foreign Secretary, Charles Fox, were strong opponents of the slave trade. Fox and Wilberforce led the campaign in the House of Commons, whereas Grenville, had the task of persuading the House of Lords to accept the measure.

Greenville made a passionate speech where he argued that the trade was "contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and sound policy" and criticised fellow members for "not having abolished the trade long ago". When the vote was taken the Abolition of the Slave Trade bill was passed in the House of Lords by 41 votes to 20. In the House of Commons it was carried by 114 to 15 and it become law on 25th March, 1807.

British captains who were caught continuing the trade were fined £100 for every slave found on board. However, this law did not stop the British slave trade. If slave-ships were in danger of being captured by the British navy, captains often reduced the fines they had to pay by ordering the slaves to be thrown into the sea.

Some people involved in the anti-slave trade campaign such as Thomas Fowell Buxton, argued that the only way to end the suffering of the slaves was to make slavery illegal. Wilberforce disagreed, he believed that at this time slaves were not ready to be granted their freedom. He pointed out in a pamphlet that he wrote in 1807 that: "It would be wrong to emancipate (the slaves). To grant freedom to them immediately, would be to insure not only their masters' ruin, but their own. They must (first) be trained and educated for freedom."

In 1823 Thomas Fowell Buxton formed the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery. Buxton eventually persuaded Wilberforce to join his campaign but as he had retired from the House of Commons in 1825, he did not play an important part in persuading Parliament to bring an end to slavery.

William Wilberforce died on 29th July, 1833. One month later, Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act that gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom.

William Wilberforce

Wilberforce was a deeply religious English member of parliament and social reformer who was very influential in the abolition of the slave trade and eventually slavery itself in the British empire.

William Wilberforce was born on 24 August 1759 in Hull, the son of a wealthy merchant. He studied at Cambridge University where he began a lasting friendship with the future prime minister, William Pitt the Younger. In 1780, Wilberforce became member of parliament for Hull, later representing Yorkshire. His dissolute lifestyle changed completely when he became an evangelical Christian, and in 1784 joined a leading group known as the Clapham Sect. His Christian faith prompted him to become interested in social reform, particularly the improvement of factory conditions in Britain.

The abolitionist Thomas Clarkson had an enormous influence on Wilberforce. He and others were campaigning for an end to the trade in which British ships were carrying black slaves from Africa, in terrible conditions, to the West Indies as goods to be bought and sold. Wilberforce was persuaded to lobby for the abolition of the slave trade and for 18 years he regularly introduced anti-slavery motions in parliament. The campaign was supported by many members of the Clapham Sect and other abolitionists who raised public awareness of their cause with pamphlets, books, rallies and petitions. In 1807, the slave trade was finally abolished, but this did not free those who were already slaves. It was not until 1833 that an act was passed giving freedom to all slaves in the British empire.

Wilberforce's other efforts to 'renew society' included the organisation of the Society for the Suppression of Vice in 1802. He worked with the reformer, Hannah More, in the Association for the Better Observance of Sunday. Its goal was to provide all children with regular education in reading, personal hygiene and religion. He was closely involved with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He was also instrumental in encouraging Christian missionaries to go to India.

Wilberforce retired from politics in 1825 and died on 29 July 1833, shortly after the act to free slaves in the British empire passed through the House of Commons. He was buried near his friend Pitt in Westminster Abbey.

William Wilberforce
William Wilberforce

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William Wilberforce
(24 August 1759 to 29 July 1833) was a British politician, philanthropist, abolitionist and leader of the parliamentary campaign against the slave trade.

Early life

Wilberforce was born in Hull, the son of Robert Wilberforce (1728–1768), a wealthy merchant whose father William (1690–1776) had made the family fortune through the Baltic trade.

William Wilberforce the younger attended Hull Grammar School and in 1768, at his father’s death, was sent to live with an uncle and aunt in St James’ Place, London and in Wimbledon. During this time he was educated at school in Putney. It was also at this time that his aunt Hannah, a staunch supporter of George Whitefield, influenced the young Wilberforce towards Methodism.

His mother and grandfather, concerned at his leanings towards evangelicalism, brought him back to Hull in 1771, where he continued his education at Pocklington School.

Wilberforce went up to St John's College, Cambridge in 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 hedonistic lifestyle himself, although the extreme behaviour of some of his fellow students he found distasteful. He was awarded B.A. in 1781 and M.A. in 1788.

Parliamentary career

Having little interest in returning to be involved in the family business, while still at university Wilberforce made the decision to seek election to Parliament. Accordingly, in September 1780, at the age of twenty-one, he was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Hull. As an independent Tory, he took part in debates regarding naval shipbuilding and smuggling, and renewed his friendship with future Prime Minister William Pitt the younger and with Edward Eliot, another contemporary from Cambridge. In autumn 1783 Pitt, Wilberforce and Eliot travelled to France together.

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 Pitt supporter and candidate for the 1784 General Election and, on April 6, when the Whigs were defeated, he was returned as MP for Yorkshire at the age of twenty-four.

Abolition campaign

In 1785 Wilberforce underwent a spiritual encounter which he described as a conversion experience. He resolved to commit his future life and work wholly in the service of God, and one of the people he received advice from was John Newton, the leading evangelical Anglican clergyman. All those he sought advice from, including Pitt, counselled him to remain in politics.

In 1787 Wilberforce was introduced to Thomas Clarkson and the growing group campaigning against the slave trade by Sir Charles Middleton and Lady Middleton, at their house in Teston, Kent, and was persuaded to become leader of the parliamentary campaign.

After months of planning, on 12 May 1789 he made his first major speech on the subject of abolition in the House of Commons, in which he reasoned that the trade was morally reprehensible and an issue of natural justice. Drawing on Clarkson’s evidence, he described in detail the appalling conditions in which slaves travelled from Africa in the middle passage, and argued that abolishing the trade would also bring an improvement to the conditions of existing slaves in the West Indies. He put forward twelve propositions for abolition, largely based upon Clarkson's Essay on the Impolicy of the African Slave Trade, which had been printed in large numbers and widely circulated.

In January 1790 he succeeded in gaining approval for a Parliamentary select committee to consider the slave trade and to examine the vast quantity of evidence which he put forward.

In April 1791 Wilberforce introduced the first Parliamentary Bill to abolish the slave trade, which was easily defeated by 163 votes to 88. As Wilberforce continued to bring the issue of the slave trade before parliament, Clarkson continued to travel and write. Between them, Clarkson and Wilberforce were responsible for generating and sustaining a national movement which mobilised public opinion as never before.

This was the beginning of a protracted parliamentary campaign, during which Wilberforce introduced a motion in favour of abolition during every session of parliament. He took every possible opportunity to bring the subject of the slave trade before the Commons, and moved bills for its abolition again in April 1792 and February 1793. Parliament, however, refused to pass the bill.

War with France

The outbreak of the War with France in 1793 effectively prevented further serious consideration as the public mood was concentrated on the national crisis and the threat of invasion, although Wilberforce still persisted in his efforts to have the subject debated, and brought further motions in February 1795, February 1796 and May 1797.

In 1788 Sir William Dolben's Act had been passed which limited slave carrying capacity on the ships which crossed the Atlantic. However, it was not until 1799 that The Slave Trade Regulation Act was passed to further prevent the overcrowding on slave ships.

There began to be a shift in public attitudes towards slavery and the slave trade, and the early years of the nineteenth century saw greater prospects for abolition. However, it was not until 1804 that Wilberforce had any real hope of moving a bill and this did indeed pass all its stages through the House of Commons by June of that year. Unfortunately, it was too late in the parliamentary session for it to complete its passage through the House of Lords, and Wilberforce was obliged to reintroduce it in the 1805 session, although on this occasion it was defeated on the second reading.

The final phase

Wilberforce began to collaborate more with the Whigs and the abolitionists within that party and gave general support to the Grenville-Fox administration of February 1806 after the death of Pitt. Wilberforce and Charles Fox thus led the campaign in the House of Commons, with Lord Grenville seeking to persuade the House of Lords to support the measure.

A change of tactics was advised by maritime lawyer James Stephen, at whose suggestion in early 1806 he supported a bill to ban British subjects from aiding or participating in the slave trade to the French colonies. It was a smart move, as the majority of the ships were, in fact, now flying under American flags and were manned by British crews, sailing out of Liverpool. The new Foreign Slave Trade Act, which was quickly passed, and the tactic was successful, as the new legislation effectively also prohibited two-thirds of the British slave trade.

The death of Fox in September 1806 was a further blow for the abolitionists. Wilberforce was again re-elected for Yorkshire after Grenville called a general election and spent the latter part of the year writing A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, an apologetic essay in which he summarised the huge volume of evidence against the trade that he and Clarkson had accumulated over two decades. It was published on 31 January 1807, and formed the basis for the final phase of the campaign.

Lord Grenville had introduced an Abolition Bill in the House of Lords, and made an impassioned speech, during which he criticised fellow members for "not having abolished the trade long ago," and argued that the trade was "contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and sound policy." When a final vote was taken the bill was passed in the House of Lords by the unexpectedly large margin of 41 votes to 20. Sensing that this was at last the breakthrough that had been long anticipated, Charles Grey (now Viscount Howick) moved its second reading in the Commons on 23 February. As tributes were made to Wilberforce, who had laboured for the cause during the preceding twenty years, the bill was carried by 283 votes to 16 and the Slave Trade Act received the royal assent on 25 March, 1807.

Other campaigns

Although most remembered for his work towards the abolition of slavery, Wilberforce was also concerned with other matters of social reform. He had written, "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners." It was at the suggestion of Wilberforce, together with Bishop Porteus and other churchmen, that the Archbishop of Canterbury requested King George III to issue his 'Proclamation for the Discouragement of Vice' in 1787, which he saw as a remedy for what he saw as the rising tide of immorality and vice.

The British East India Company had been set up to give the British a share in the East Indian spice trade In 1793, Wilberforce used the renewal of its charter to suggest the addition of clauses enabling the company to employ religious teachers with the aim of 'introducing Christian light into India.'

This plan was unsuccessful and the clauses were omitted, initially because of lobbying by the directors of the company, who feared their commercial interests would be damaged should the proposed legislation result in religious confrontations.

Wilberforce tried again in 1813 when the charter next came up for renewal. Using public petitions and various statistics, this time he managed to persuade the House of Commons to include the relevant clauses and the Charter Act 1813 was passed. His work thus enabled missionary work to become partly a condition of the renewed charter. (Although concerned with the country deeply, Wilberforce himself had never been to India. [1].) Eventually, this resulted in the foundation of the Bishopric of Calcutta.

Wilberforce was also a founding member of the Church Missionary Society (since renamed Church Mission Society), as well as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (now the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). He also gave his support to local projects and was treasurer to a nearby charity school while he was living in Wimbledon.

Emancipation of slaves

Wilberforce was buried in Westminster Abbey next to Pitt. This memorial statue was erected in 1840 in the north choir aisle.

Wilberforce continued with his work after 1807, and his concern about slavery led him to found the African Institution, the aim of which was to improve the conditions of slaves in the West Indies. He was also instrumental in developing the Sierra Leone project to help with the eventual goal of taking Christianity into west Africa. Wilberforce's position as the leading evangelical in parliament was acknowledged, and he was by now the foremost member of the so-called Clapham Sect, along with his brother–in-law Henry Thornton and Edward Eliot. Because most of the group held evangelical Christian convictions they were dubbed ‘the Saints.’

By 1820, after a period of ill health and a decision to limit his public activities, Wilberforce was still labouring for the eventual emancipation of all slaves, and in 1821 asked Thomas Fowell Buxton to take over the leadership of the campaign in the Commons.

Wilberforce published his Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies in early 1823, in which he claimed that the moral and spiritual condition of the slaves stemmed directly from their slavery, and claimed that total emancipation was morally and ethically justified, and a matter of national duty before God.

1823 also saw the formation of the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery (later the Anti-Slavery Society) and on 15 May 1823 Buxton moved a resolution in Parliament against slavery, a debate in which Wilberforce took an active part. There followed subsequent debates on 16 March and 11 June 1823, at which Wilberforce made his the last speech in the Commons.

In 1824 Wilberforce suffered a serious illness, and early the following year resigned his parliamentary seat. He moved to a small estate in Mill Hill, north of London in 1826. This resulted in his health improving somewhat, although in his retirement he continued his passionate belief in the anti-slavery cause, to which he had given his life, and maintained an active correspondence with his extensive circle of friends, many of whom he continued to visit.

By 1833 his health had begun to decline, and he suffered a severe attack of influenza, from which he never fully recovered. On 26 July 1833 he heard, with much rejoicing, that the bill for the abolition of slavery had finally passed its third reading in the Commons. On the following day he grew much weaker, and died early on the morning of 29 July. One month later, Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act that gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom.

William Wilberforce was buried in Westminster Abbey on 3 August, 1833. The funeral was attended by many members from both Houses of Parliament, as well as many members of the public, and the pall bearers including the Lord Chancellor and the Duke of Gloucester.

A statue to the memory of one of Britain’s greatest parliamentarians was erected in Westminster Abbey in 1840, and a memorial column was erected in Hull in 1834.


In April 1797 Wilberforce completed A Practical View of the Prevailing religious system of professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity, which he had been working on since 1793 , which was an exposition of New Testament doctrine and teachings and a call for revival of the Christian religion, in view of what he saw as the moral decline of the nation. It was an influential work and illustrates, far more than any other of his writings, his own personal testimony and the views which inspired him in his life's work.

After the death of Fox in September 1806 Wilberforce was again re-elected for Yorkshire and spent the latter part of the year writing A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, an apologetic essay in which he summarised the huge volume of evidence against the trade that he and Clarkson had accumulated over two decades. It was published on 31 January 1807, and formed the basis for the final phase of the abolition campaign.

In early 1823 Wilberforce published his Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire in Behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies, in which he claimed that the moral and spiritual condition of the slaves stemmed directly from their slavery, and claimed that total emancipation was morally and ethically justified, and a matter of national duty before God.

Marriage and family

A statue of William Wilberforce can now be seen outside Wilberforce House in Hull, where Wilberforce was born.

On 15 April 1797, he met Barbara Ann (1777–1847), eldest daughter of Isaac Spooner of Elmdon Hall, Warwickshire, a banker. Within a fortnight of their first meeting William had proposed. The couple were married in Bath on 30 May 1797. Their children were William (b 1798), Barbara (b 1799), Elizabeth (b 1801), Robert Isaac Wilberforce (b 1802), Samuel Wilberforce (b 1805) and Henry William Wilberforce (b 1807).


The 17th-century house in which he was born is today Wilberforce House museum in Kingston upon Hull. A sixth-form college is named after him in the east of the city, as is a building at the university.

A film titled Amazing Grace, about the life of Wilberforce and the struggle against slavery, directed by Michael Apted, with Ioan Gruffudd playing the role of Wilberforce, is due to be released on February 23, 2007 – to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the date the Parliament of the United Kingdom voted to ban the transport of slaves by British subjects.

Wilberforce University located in Wilberforce, Ohio is named for William Wilberforce. The university is the first one owned by African-Americans, and is a historically black college (HBCU).

  • Tomkins, Stephen "William Wilberforce" (Oxford: Lion, 2007)
  • Piper, John. Amazing Grace in the Life of William Wilberforce (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2006) ISBN 9781581348750.
  • Carey, Brycchan. British Abolitionism and the Rhetoric of Sensibility: Writing, Sentiment, and Slavery, 1760-1807 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)
  • Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains, The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan, 2005)
  • Keay, John. India: A History. (New York: Grove Press Books, 2000) ISBN 0-8021-3797-0
  • Pollock, John. Wilberforce. (London: Constable, 1977)
  • Stephen, Leslie. William Wilberforce in The Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford: University Press, 1900)
  • Vaughan, David J. Statesman and Saint: The Principled Politics of William Wilberforce. (Nashville, Tennessee: Cumberland House, 2001) ISBN 1-58182-224-3
  • Wolffe, John. William Wilberforce in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: University Press, 2006)
  • Belmonte, Kevin. Hero of Humanity: A Biography of William Wilberforce (Navpress 2005)
  • Furneaux, Robin. William Wilberforce (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1974, reprinted 2006) ISBN 9781573833431
  • Pura, Murray Andrew. Vital Christianity: The Life and Spirituality of William Wilberforce (Toronto: Clements, 2002) ISBN 1894667107
  1. ^ Keay, John. India: A History (New York: Grove Press Books, distributed by Publishers Group West, 2000). pp. 429
See also
External links

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