Wilberforce, William

Wilberforce, William an English philanthropist, was born at Hull, Aug. 24, 1759. His father was a merchant of that city, descended from the ancient Yorshire family of Wilberfoss. He first attended the grammar-school at Hull; but on the death of his father, in 1768, he was transferred to the care of his uncle, who placed him in a school at Wimbledon. While at this school his aunt, who was an ardent admirer of Whitefield's preaching, first led him to the contemplation of the truths of religion; but, at the same time, impressed upon him her peculiar views. His mother, fearing lest he should become a Methodist, removed him from the care of his uncle and placed him in the Pocklington Grammar-school, in Yorkshire, where his serious impressions were soon dissipated in a life of ease and gayety. In October, 1776, he entered St. John's College, Cambridge, being only seventeen years of age. He graduated in 1781, and almost immediately thereafter was elected member of Parliament from Hull. He now came to London, and entered at once into the first society. He was elected a member of the most fashionable clubs, and became intimate with the leading wits and politicians of the day. He had formed an intimacy with Pitt while at Cambridge which now became still closer. In Parliament he took but little part in the debates, but was generally opposed to Lord North's administration and particularly adverse to the American War. In 1784, while delivering an address before the freeholders of York, they suddenly decided to have him for their representative, and he was returned to Parliament from this the largest county in England. He made a tour on the Continent during 1784-85 with Mr. Pitt and the Rev. Isaac Milner, whose influence, coupled with the reading of the New Test and Doddridge's Rise and Progress, awakened in him those serious impressions which had been implanted by his aunt at Wimbledon, and fixed in him the determination to devote his life to God and humanity. On his return to England he began to devote himself to all reforms which opportunity permitted. But in 1787 he began a series of efforts for the reformation of manners, the suppression of vice and immorality, and especially for the abolition of the African slave-trade. He opened the debate against the traffic in May, 1789, and, during all the period that followed until the accomplishment of this great result, never lost sight of the one object of his public career. He continued to represent York until 1812, from which time until 1825 he was representative from Bramber. From the English Cyclopaedia (Biog. Div. 6:600, 601) we quote-the account of his efforts against the slave-traffic: "Relying more upon the, humane and religious feelings of the country than upon parliamentary support, he availed himself of the agency of a society of which Granville Sharp was the president, and Thomas Clarkson the agent. Throughout the struggle, which lasted twenty years, Mr. Wilberforce was indefatigable. Year after year his hopes were deferred. Thwarted at one time by the protracted examination of witnesses, outvoted at others, now in the Commons, now in the Lords, he never flinched from a renewal of the contest. In Parliament he supported his cause by many admirable speeches, and by -a diligent collection and sifting of evidence. One of Parliament he never lost sight of the same great object. In his conversation and his letters he conciliated the support of all parties. Cabinet ministers, opposition members, the clergy of all shades of opinion, and his own familiar friends were alike solicited to advance the cause of abolition.

"Apart from the opposition which he encountered from the West India interest, the fearful excesses of the French Revolution and the rebellion of the slaves in St. Domingo led many to associate the abolition of the slave- trade with the frantic schemes of the Jacobins. For seven years this cause alone retarded the success of his endeavors. Meanwhile, though it fitted morally for the labors he had undertaken, it is marvelous how his weakly constitution enabled him to bear up against the bodily fatigues, which he was forced to endure. In the spring of 1788, when his labors were yet to come, his health appeared entirely to fail from an absolute decay of the digestive organs. The first physicians, after a consultation, declared to his family that he had not stamina to last a fortnight; and, although he happily recovered from his illness, we find him exclaiming on New-year's-day, 1790, 'At thirty and a half I am in constitution sixty.' From his infancy he had suffered much from weak eyes, and his exertions were constantly interrupted or rendered painful by this infirmity. Still, rising with new hopes and vigor from every disappointment, he confidently relied upon ultimate success. At length the hour of triumph was at hand. In January, 1807, he published a book against the slave-trade, at the very moment that question was about to be discussed in the House of Lords. The Abolition Bill passed the Lords, and its passage through the Commons was one continued triumph to its author. Sir Samuel Romilly concluded an affecting speech in favor of the bill by contrasting the feelings of Napoleon, in all his greatness, with those of that honored individual who would this day lay his head upon his pillow and remember that 'the slave-trade was no more;' when the whole House, we are told, burst forth in acclamations of applause, and greeted Mr. Wilberforce with three cheers." During this whole period he had been actively engaged in all the great questions of the times. He sacrificed friendship to the cause of truth and humanity, and never suffered an opportunity to escape for doing good. His great task, however, was the agitation of negro-emancipation, which he continued until his retirement in 1825. The emancipation act passed just before his death. "Thank God," he exclaimed, "that I should have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty millions sterling for the abolition of slavery!" He died at Cadogan Place, London, July 29, 1833, and was buried in Westminster Abbey with all the honors of a public funeral. His most important literary works are, Speech in the House of Commons on the Abolition of the Slave-trade (1789): — Practical View of the Prevailing Religious Systems of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity (1797): — Apology for the Christian Sabbath (1799): — Letter on the Abolition of the Slave-trade, Addressed to the Freeholders and other Inhabitants of Yorkshire (1807): — and others on philanthropic and religious subjects. See [by his sons Robert Isaac and Samuel] The Life of William Wilberforce (Lond. 1838,5 vols. 8vo); id. The Correspondence of William Wilberforce (ibid. 1840, 2 vols.); Gurney, Familiar Sketch of Wilberforce (eod.); Chipchase, Character of William Wilberforce (1844); Collier, Memoir of William Wilberforce (1855); and Hartford, Recollections of William Wilberforce, Esq., M.P., etc.

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