William Wilberforce - the man (part 3)

Detail from statuette of Wilberforce

The Slavery Campaign

Wilberforce became interested in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery in the1780s. He was concerned over raising the abolition issue in Parliament, due to the money invested in the slave trade by MPs. Therefore he concentrated first on the abolition of the slave trade and then the abolition of slavery. Wilberforce made his first abolition speech in 1789. For many years, he presented the abolition bill to Parliament and it kept being defeated. . In 1807, the bill was finally passed. Parliament gave a round of applause to Wilberforce who had tears running down his face. The next step was the Slave Registration Bill in 1819 that enforced slave owners to register all slaves. Wilberforce was less active in the abolition of slavery itself, due to ill health. As Wilberforce lay dying he knew the Abolition of Slavery bill was due to be passed. It was left to his fellow MPs and abolitionists world wide to keep up the fight against slavery which continues today

Critics of Wilberforce

The work of Wilberforce and the Abolitionists had a big impact on world history, but Wilberforce still had his critics. They argued that Wilberforce cared more for enslaved Africans than the working class in Britain. Despite supporting enlightened ideas, Wilberforce supported measures that restricted people's rights, such as the Combination Acts, that made Trade Unions illegal. People accused him of being inconsistent in his support of campaigns. Wilberforce was often split between his personal beliefs and loyalty to his friends and family. Wilberforce had to choose between his opposition to slavery and his daughter's personal happiness. In 1827 Wilberforce's youngest daughter, Elizabeth wanted to marry Charles Pinney. The Pinney family were merchants whose wealth came from slavery. After many letters between the Pinney family and Wilberforce, Elizabeth was sent to Bath and she later married Reverend J. James.

The religious family man

Wilberforce's religion was very important to him, and after he became a non-conformist Christian he toiled with problem of how to be a committed Christian and a politician. After debates with friends and reading books such as 'The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul' by Philip Doddridge, Wilberforce wrote 'A Practical View of Christianity' in 1797, which aired his beliefs that people should use Christianity to create a better society. The book was hugely successful and a bestseller within six months.

Wilberforce was also a dedicated family man, devoted to his wife Barbara Spooner who he married in May 1797. They had six children and numerous servants that were often too sick or old to serve the family. The house was always filled with visitors and friends who came for advice or good conversation. Barbara Wilberforce was known as a poor hostess and provided little food on the table for their guests. Isaac Milner would yell at the dinner table to the servants for bread and butter. Wilberforce's son Samuel became Bishop of Oxford. He argued against Charles Darwin's theory of evolution with Thomas Huxley. It was a lively debate with one woman fainting, people yelling and Huxley confessing that he would rather have an ape than a Bishop for an ancestor.

Death and legacy

On the 29th July 1833 William Wilberforce died. His death was marked with a state funeral. Wilberforce's funeral was held in Westminster Abbey on 3rd August 1833 and he is buried next to William Pitt. In his home town of Hull, a subscription was raised to build a Wilberforce Monument. The foundation stone was laid on 1st August 1834 with flags flying and bells ringing in celebration. The statue of Wilberforce at the top of the monument was added later in 1835 . Wilberforce and his legacy are remembered all over the world. In Freetown in Sierra Leone a village is named after Wilberforce, and in Ohio stands America's oldest private university, Wilberforce University (founded 1856) that especially caters for African-American students.