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Some Englishmen, including John Wesley and Thomas Clarkson, had taken steps to mitigate the evil. Yet few in England shared the abolitionists’ sense that slavery was a great social evil. Some presumed that slaves were a justifiable necessity or that they deserved their plight.
For Wilberforce light began to dawn slowly during his 27th year. His diary for Sunday, October 28, 1787, shows with extraordinary clarity the fruit of prolonged study, prayer, and conversation. He realized the need for “some reformer of the nation’s morals, who should raise his voice in the high places of the land and do within the church and nearer the throne what Wesley has accomplished in the meeting and among the multitude.”
He also summed up what became his life mission: “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners” (i.e., morality).
Later he reflected on his decision about slavery: “So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would; I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.”
Wilberforce was initially optimistic, naively so, and expressed “no doubt of our success.” He sought to stem the flow of slaves from Africa by international accord. The strength of his feelings and the support of prominent politicians like Pitt, Edmund Burke, and Charles Fox blinded him to the enormity of his task.
From his deathbed, John Wesley wrote him, “I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you
will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you?”
In May 1788, Wilberforce had recovered from another of his periodic bouts of illness to introduce a 12-point motion to Parliament indicting the trade. He and Thomas Clarkson (whom Wilberforce praised as central to the cause’s success) had thoroughly researched and now publicized the trade’s physical atrocities. But Parliament wanted to maintain the status quo, and the motion was defeated.
The campaign and opposition intensified. Planters, businessmen, ship owners, traditionalists, and even the Crown opposed the movement. Many feared personal financial ruin and nationwide recession if the trade ceased. Wilberforce was vilified. Admiral Horatio Nelson castigated “the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies.” One of Wilberforce’s friends wrote fearing he would one day read of Wilberforce being “carbonadoed [broiled] by West Indian planters, barbecued by African merchants, and eaten by Guinea captains.”
Wilberforce’s spirit was indomitable, his enthusiasm palpable. As the slave owners’ agent in Jamaica wrote, “It is necessary to watch him, as he is blessed with a very sufficient quantity of that enthusiastic spirit, which is so far from yielding that it grows more vigorous from blows.”
The pathway to abolition was fraught with difficulty. Vested interest, parliamentary filibustering, entrenched bigotry, international politics, slave unrest, personal sickness, and political fear-all combined to frustrate the movement. It would take years before Wilberforce would see success.
Prime Minister of Philanthropy
The cause of the slaves was not Wilberforce’s only concern. The second “great object” of Wilberforce’s life was the reformation of the nation’s morals. Early in 1787, he conceived of a society that would work, as a royal proclamation put it, “for the encouragement of piety and virtue; and for the preventing of vice, profaneness, and immorality.” It eventually became known as the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Enlisting support from leading figures in church and state—and King George III—Wilberforce made private morality a matter of public concern.
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