29 July 2008

Blessed Wm. Wilberforce

Here's a review of a new biography of William Wilberforce, who is commemorated in the Episcopal Church's calendar tomorrow:

Wilberforce likened his conversion, only a year after his election, to wakening from a dream and "recovering the use of my reason after a delirium." The experience gave his humanitarian impulse a more particular form. The sentiment against the slave trade had grown in the late 18th century, although the wealth it generated still served to back powerful interests. When Wilberforce offered his first motion in Parliament for slave-trade abolition, in May 1787, luminaries across the political spectrum -- including Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox and Pitt himself -- spoke for him. But the House of Commons defeated the motion. (When the Commons was finally won over, the House of Lords became abolition's stumbling block.)

Full success would come only two decades later, as a result of a persistent campaign to shift public opinion, principally by showing the horrors of the slave trade while arguing that its abolition would not wreck the economy or merely benefit foreigners who would step into the market. Wilberforce guided a coalition to make the case for abolition. Mr. Hague's insider knowledge of politics -- he is himself a member of Parliament and a former leader of Britain's Conservative Party -- sharpens his analysis of Wilberforce's own campaign and deepens his admiration for its success. Winning over both public opinion and key politicians eventually allowed Wilberforce to push abolition through. Lord Grenville, as prime minister, introduced a motion in the House of Lords in 1807 that made its passage in the House of Commons a foregone conclusion.

As the debate in the Commons reached a climax, Samuel Romilly rose to give a speech that poignantly contrasted Wilberforce's victory with Napoleon Bonaparte's career. When Bonaparte seemed to have reached the summit of his ambition, he could not escape "recollection of the blood he had spilled and the oppressions he had committed." Wilberforce, by contrast, could enjoy the consciousness of having saved "so many millions of his fellow creatures." When Romilly concluded his tribute, the House of Commons rose to its feet and cheered.

Here's the whole thing.


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