William Wilberforce

The Dictionary of National Biography – Volume 21, 1909

William Wilberforce
William Wilberforce

William Wilberforce – A Leader of the Movement to Abolish the Slave Trade

William WilberforceWILBERFORCE, WILLIAM (1769-1833), philanthropist, born in the High Street, Hull, on 24 Aug. 1769, was the only son of Robert Wilberforce by his wife Elisabeth, daughter of Thomas Bird of Barton, Oxfordshire. Of three other children a daughter alone reached maturity. The family had long been settled in Yorkshire, and took their name from the township of Wilberfoss, eight miles east of York…

…Wilberforce was re-elected for Yorkshire without opposition in July 1802, and in 1804 again brought forward the abolition of the slave trade. Conditions had become more favourable. The anti-Jacobill sentiment which had animated the last parliament was no longer a dominant factor in the situation. The Irish members introduced by the union were almost unanimously against the slave trade, and public opinion nad been greatly altered. The abolition committee again became active, and was joined by Brougham, Z. Macaulay, and James Stephen and in the next year Clarkson was again able to take part in the agitation, after a long illness.

The new government of Fox and Grenville was generally in favour of abolition, though the opposition of two members prevented it from being adopted by the cabinet. Resolutions in favour of abolition were carried by 116 to 14 on 10 June 1806.  On the dissolution of parliament Wilberforce was again returned without opposition for Yorkshire in November, and afterwards finished a book upon the slave trade.  It was published on 31 Dec., and had a marked effect.   The bill for abolishing the slave trade was introduced in the House of Lords in January 1807, and, though still opposed by a few bigots, the second reading was carried by 100 to 36, and it was sent to the House of Commons on 10 Feb.  Counsel was heard against it during the following week. On 23 Feb. the chief debate took place, when Romilly, as solicitor-general, made an eloquent comparison between Napoleon and the ‘honoured man who would that day lay his head upon his pillow and remember that the slave trade was no more.’  Wilberforce was too much affected to be conscious of the cheers with which the house greeted him, and the motion was carried by 283 to 16.

The bill finally received the royal assent on 26 March 1807 just before the resignation of the ministry.  The ‘African Institution’ was founded upon the passing of the act, in order to promote the effective application of the measure and the suppression of the slave trade in foreign countries.

Wilberforce was henceforth the object of unique respect.