oday one of his full portraits hangs in a pub. Another in the same town, Cambridge, hangs in a hotel. Another still, in his old college, St. John’s. In each he peers at the world quizzically through small, bright eyes over a long, upturned nose. He was said to be “the wittiest man in England, and the most religious” (Madame de Stael), and one who possessed “the greatest natural eloquence of all the men I ever met” (William Pitt). When he spoke, another quipped, “The shrimp became a whale” (James Boswell). Historian G.M. Trevelyan called this “shrimp” the primary human agent for “one of the turning events in the history of the world.”
It’s hard to imagine that this man, with the gentle grin and the small, twisted body, could move the world in a new direction. Yet William Wilberforce did.
Born on August 24, 1759, the third child of Robert and Elizabeth Wilberforce grew up surrounded by wealth. The Wilberforces had settled in Hull, England, at the beginning of the 1700s and made their wealth in the booming Baltic trade. When William was 9, his father died. The boy was sent to stay with his childless aunt and uncle, who were “great friends of Mr. [George] Whitefield.” They exposed their young charge to the evangelical preaching of John Newton, the exslave trader. Years later Wilberforce spoke of “reverencing him as a parent when I was a child.” Newton’s immediate influence, however, was short lived.
Fearing her son might be infected by the “poison” of Methodism, his mother brought him back to Hull and enrolled him at his grandfather’s old school at Pockington near York. His education as a gentleman continued among the commercial “aristocracy.” He learned to play cards and sing and developed his gift of witty repartee.
He later wrote, “I was naturally a high-spirited boy and fiery. They [his friends] pushed me forward and made me talk a great deal and made me very vain.” His grandfather’s death in November 1774 left him richer still and more susceptible to the temptations of plenty.
In October 1776, Wilberforce entered St. John’s College, Cambridge. His three years there were pleasant but unproductive. He had “unlimited command of money” and little academic pressure from his tutor.
“As much pains were taken to make me idle as were ever taken to make anyone studious,” he later complained. His intellectual aspirations were no match for his passion for socializing. His neighbor, Thomas Gisborne, later recalled, “When he [Wilberforce] returned late in the evening to his rooms, he would summon me to join him. …He was so winning and amusing that I often sat up half the night with him, much to the detriment of my attendance at lectures the next day.”
Wilberforce graduated the same year as the hardworking William Pitt (future prime minister). Their friendship grew throughout 1779. Together they watched Parliament from the gallery and dreamed of political careers.
In the summer of 1780, the ambitious Wilberforce stood for election as a Member of Parliament (MP) for Hull. He was only 21, and one of his opponents had powerful supporters. His chances of winning were slim.
In the campaign, Wilberforce relied on his charm, energy, tact, and powers of persuasion, and in the end, he secured as many votes as his opponents combined. He was to remain an MP, for various constituencies, for another 45 years.
“The first years I was in Parliament,” he later wrote, “I did nothing—nothing that is to any purpose. My own distinction was my darling object.” He frequented the exclusive clubs of St. James and acquired a reputation as a songster and wit who was professionally “careless and inaccurate in method.” His fertile mind flitted from topic to topic. His early speeches, though eloquent, lacked focus and passion. Starting in 1784, however, all that changed.
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