Greetings, Literary Life readers, from here on the coast of New England…
This February, I invite you to take part in the Literary Life conversation as we discuss my book, “William Wilberforce.” This book, the primary resource for the 2007 motion picture, “Amazing Grace,” was written as a “re-introduction,” as it were, to the British statesman and abolitionist who led the 20-year fight in Parliament to end the British slave trade, a victory achieved in 1807. After this, he became a leader in the 26-year struggle to achieve emancipation itself for all slaves in the British Empire, a victory achieved in 1833. When that took place, some 800,000 sons and daughters of Africa were free.
Harriet Beecher Stowe praised Wilberforce in the pages of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The novelist E.M. Forster compared him to Gandhi. Abraham Lincoln invoked his memory in a famous speech, and in the U.K., Nelson Mandela spoke of Wilberforce’s tireless labors for the sons and daughters of Africa, calling Britain “the land of William Wilberforce—who dared to stand up to demand that the slaves in our country should be freed.”
I served for six years as the lead script and historical consultant for “Amazing Grace,” and in the years since its release, both my book and the film have been taught six times as part of a course on character formation and leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. That has been a true privilege, as it is also to know that readers at Literary Life will be taking up my book. How fine a thing indeed.
Best regards to one and all, and I hope you enjoy your reading journey.
Wilberforce seemed to be improving, and he was greatly encouraged to receive word on July 26 that a bill for the abolition of slavery throughout the British colonies was now assured of becoming law. His work and the work of those who had taken up his mantle had done the job of winning the hearts and minds of the nation.
“Thank God,” he said, “that I should have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give £20,000,000 for the Abolition of Slavery.”
Where could there have been found a leader more humane, more accomplished, or more determined? [Wilberforce] foresaw and aimed at the ultimate emancipation of [slaves in] the British colonies. . . . He laid the foundation by annihilating the commerce in man.
BENJAMIN HUGHES, AFRICAN-AMERICAN EDUCATOR AND ABOLITIONIST
In 1823 a further point of connection between Brontë and Wilberforce occurred concerning the patronage of a school for women. Some of the most eminent philanthropists of the day, including Wilberforce and More, had consented to sponsor the Clergy Daughters School, a school to which Brontë sent his daughters. Thus Wilberforce not only sponsored Patrick Brontë’s education, he was a sponsor for Brontë’s daughters, who later wrote many classic novels, including Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.
[Our father] was beloved in general society; but if he sparkled there, he shone at home. None but his own family could fully know the warmth of his heart . . . the full sunshine of his kindliest affections.
ROBERT AND SAMUEL WILBERFORCE
In an essay written for The Dictionary of National Biography Leslie Stephen, Sir James’ third son, said of Wilberforce:
“His relations to his family seem to have been perfect.”
How can we judge fairly of the characters and merits of men, of the wisdom or folly of actions, unless we have . . . an accurate knowledge of all particulars, so that we may live as it were in the times, and among the persons, of whom we read, see with their eyes, and reason and decide on their premises?
Though his body was often weak, Wilberforce’s mental energy was nearly inexhaustible. Following his Great Change in 1786, he became a student in earnest, turning nearly every moment to account.
That good and great man, William Wilberforce.
THOMAS BABINGTON MACAULAY
In March 1818 the Italian statesman Count Pecchio was visiting Britain. He was in London on the day Parliament opened its new legislative session. During the day’s proceedings, he witnessed Wilberforce’s entrance into the House of Commons. He never forgot the scene.
. . . bind the task assign’d thee to thine heart.
By ending the slave trade, Britain had become a more enlightened and civilized nation, an example to other nations of the power of principled politics. Many wondered how Britain’s opinion could be so totally changed within one generation. A major reason why a legislated end to the slave trade was possible was the flowering of Wilberforce’s second great object: the reformation of manners.
Wilberforce [is] one of the party called in derision the Saints . . . who under sanctified visors pursue worldly objects with the ardour and perseverance of saints.
JOHN QUINCY ADAMS
The final catalyst for Wilberforce came when he met with John Newton on Sunday, October 28. The two friends talked for a long time. Wilberforce now saw his path clearly. After Newton left, he took up his quill pen, and wrote in his diary:
“God has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.”
Acquaint thyself with God. . . .
Admitted once to his embrace,
Thou shalt perceive that thou wast blind before.
When Wilberforce had extended his invitation to Milner, he was unaware that Milner had any deeper principles. He did not learn that this was so until the two dined together in Scarborough before leaving England. The conversation turned to an evangelical, the Reverend James Stillingfleet, the rector of Hotham. Wilberforce spoke of him as “a good man, but one who carried things too far.” “Not a bit too far,” Milner replied.
O gentlemen! the time of life is short;
To spend that shortness basely were too long.
Wilberforce’s neglect of his studies bothered him more than anything else about his years at Cambridge.
“I was a good [classicist],” he later recalled, “and acquitted myself well in college examinations; but mathematics, which my mind greatly needed, I almost entirely neglected. . . . Whilst my companions were reading hard and attending lectures . . . [my] tutors would often say within my hearing that ‘they were mere saps, but that I did all by talent.’ This was poison to a mind constituted like mine.”
The Child is the father of the Man.
I never saw anyone who touched life at so many points,” a friend once said of William Wilberforce. So, fittingly, can commence the story of a man of whom it was also said, “Not one nation, but the whole human family participated in the benefit he conferred on his fellow men.”
William Wilberforce was born in the English port city of Hull on August 24, 1759. His family was an ancient and respected one that could trace its ancestry back to the reign of King Henry II in the twelfth century.
Wilberforce’s steadfast dedication to fostering cultural renewal and seeking social justice flowed from a Christian faith commitment as all-consuming and seminal as that which had transformed Pascal, whose writings he deeply admired and read for hours at a time. Where Martin Luther King Jr. had spoken in his timeless “I have a dream” speech of “a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” – Wilberforce had, 155 years before, written of a “concert of benevolence” in an abolition letter to President Thomas Jefferson.
In words that Dr. King would have understood well Wilberforce had also written:
“In the Scriptures no national crime is condemned so frequently, and few so strongly, as oppression and cruelty, and the not using our best endeavours to deliver our fellow-creatures from them.”