William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner

For a Briton, the words “slavery” and “Wilberforce” go together like ham and eggs. The simplifying effect of time has obscured the many others who labored even harder and longer than Wilberforce in the interests of the enslaved. The simplifying effect of time has also obscured the fact that his great triumph was the abolition of the slave trade by British merchants — not slavery itself. But as William Hague amply proves in this outstanding biography, Wilberforce’s part in the process was a key one: he and he alone had the right qualities and opportunities to lead the fight for abolition of the British slave trade in the only place where the fight could have real effect: in Parliament.

This is an outstanding book. Part of Hague’s credentials for writing it rests in the fact that he is himself a parliamentarian and, also like his subject, a gifted orator. He has led his political party and engaged with success in the turmoil of debate in the House of Commons. His is an insider’s view. Like his subject too, he went into politics early and now sees it with the seasoned eye of experience, which, among other things, helps him to make some astute judgments about why Wilberforce pursued his antislavery and other reformist campaigns in the way he did.

But without gifts both as a writer and historian, all these adjuncts to the task would not produce such a first-rate book. Hague has both those gifts. His account of Wilberforce’s time follows the example of his biography of William Pitt in being fascinatingly rich in incidental detail and at the same time a complete history lesson. Hague writes with the kind of clarity that makes the prose vanish and the scene itself come before one’s eyes; a real skill. Still greater is the skill of mastering and effortlessly deploying so much information. By exercising both, Hague gives us Wilberforce complete: an agreeable, careful, principled man who lived a charmed, charming, and highly useful life despite the vexed times he lived through. He pursued his ideals with a persistence and ardor that would in themselves command applause even if they had failed; we would know of Wilberforce whatever had transpired.

Hague likes his subject but does not try to disguise the fact that Wilberforce was not without his flaws or his critics. A frank spectator of Wilberforce’s life would have to concede the tincture of justice in the swingeing attacks on him, mounted by William Cobbett and others, for championing the cause of slaves overseas while neglecting the starving poor at his own back door. Hague makes a case on Wilberforce’s behalf: that he picked his battles and kept his political independence and his good relations with both sides of politics in order to see his own great projects through. As it was he championed enough reformist causes besides slave trade abolition, but in all of them ensured that he did not render himself impotent by being too radical, too oppositional, too awkward: more is achieved by sailing with the wind than against it.

Hague has a point on that score. But he also acknowledges that Wilberforce was a paradoxical mixture of reformer and conservative, and explains it by the evangelical form of Christianity he adopted as a young adult, and the widely held fear he shared of revolution. “All his views,” Hague writes, “some of which are seen as progressive and some as reactionary from the standpoint of a later age, were rooted in a consistent view of the importance of religion, morality and education. Just as the state of slavery was destructive of true religion, morality and any sense of responsibility, so was a state of revolution.”

Wilberforce inherited a fortune when young and was able to live independently thereafter. That was a necessity for a political career at the time, for membership in the legislature carried no salary. He entered parliament at the same election as William Pitt, and the two were fast friends, though when Pitt became prime minister he did not offer Wilberforce a government job, well knowing his unsuitability for it — he was disorganized, unpunctual, had bad eyes (ministers had to read and write most of their own letters and reports), and unambitious in that direction. Wilberforce, for his part, did not want to be allied too closely to any side of the political argument, which was just as well: for when he was approached by the slave trade abolitionists to represent their cause in Parliament, this lack of political encumbrance was a boon.

Without the organization and help of the abolitionist movement, Wilberforce could have achieved nothing. They prepared the facts and figures, printed the leaflets, organized the meetings. But without his oratorical skills and political personality, crucially focused in the one arena where it really mattered, the abolitionist cause would have taken longer than it did to win its battle. To Wilberforce’s immense credit, he never gave up: he fought, argued, wrote letters, and gave speeches for 20 years to achieve abolition. That great day came in 1807. A quarter century later, when it was obvious that the hoped-for effects of abolishing the trade would not transpire — both illegal slaving and the legal continuation of the trade by other countries saw to that — Wilberforce returned to the fray to work for abolition of slavery itself, despite his age and infirmity. He lived just long enough to be able to hear, mere days before his death, that the British Parliament was on the brink of abolishing slavery itself in the empire. It was a poignant moment, movingly told by Hague.

The book is not only about the abolition struggle. Wilberforce was a major parliamentary player in the difficulties of the French wars and their aftermath. At one point he had to argue against the policy pursued by his friend Pitt, hurting Pitt personally and finding himself cut by the king at a royal levee as a result. “Pitt refrained from any public attack on his old friend,” Hague writes, “but was said to have himself lost sleep over the breach between them, while the Duke of Portland, one of the Whig grandees who had now joined Pitt’s coalition government, considered that ‘Pitt seemed pretty seriously hurt by it.’ ” Such detail abounds and ranges widely: it includes street scenes in the bustling port city of Hull, where Wilberforce was born; the political shenanigans in the great county of Yorkshire, which Wilberforce represented for many years; the religious and social changes of the decades on either side of 1800; and the family life of Wilberforce himself. Hague’s account is panoramic, but it never loses focus. And it is one of the best reads of the year.