Biography of William Wilberforce


WILLIAM WILBERFORCE was born at Hull, on the 24th of August, 1759. His father was a wealthy merchant, descended from an old family, proprietors of Wilberfoss, in the East Riding of York. While at school, he addressed a letter to a York paper "in condemnation of the odious traffic in human flesh," a subject he seems never afterwards to have lost sight of. At seventeen, he entered St. John's College at Cambridge, and in due time he passed his examination with credit. He came, on attaining his majority, into possession of a large fortune, and determined to enter parliament. In 1780, he was returned for Hull. He had known Mr. Pitt when at Cambridge, and in London they became inseparable friends. Wilberforce, in parliament, remained independent of party. In 1787, he founded an association for the discouragement of vice, and in the following year, while in very poor health, he entered on his great struggle for the abolition of the slave trade, to which he thenceforward devoted his whole time. In 179l, impelled by his strong Christian convictions, he first proposed the abolition of the slave-trade in the House of Commons, and met as he expected with powerful opposition. In 1804, his bill was first carried through the Commons; it was thrown out in the Lords, and in the following year it was again lost in the Commons. In 1806, however, a resolution was moved by Mr. Fox, pledging the Commons to a total abolition of the slave-trade in the following session. It was adopted by the Lords. Just before the discussion began, in January, 1804, a work had been published by Wilberforce against the slave-trade, which had a marked influence on public opinion and the subsequent debates. The bill was passed by the Lords. In the Commons, it was carried by an enthusiastic majority. Sir Samuel Romilly, who supported the measure, compared the feelings of Napoleon, then at the height of his glory, with those of the English philanthropist, "who would that day lay his head upon his pillow and remember that the slave-trade was no more," and the whole house burst into applause, and greeted Wilberforce with enthusiastic cheers. Wilberforce now sought to secure the abolition of the slave trade abroad. He at the same time entered on an agitation for the total abolition of slavery itself. Declining health, however, compelled him in 1825 to retire from parliament. The movement against slavery was then intrusted to Sir T. Fowell Buxton. Three days before Wilberforce's death, news was brought him that the Abolition Bill had passed a second reading, and he thanked God that he had lived to see his countrymen spend twenty millions sterling in such a cause. He died on the 29th of July, 1833, and was buried as a national benefactor in Westminster Abbey.