WILBERFORCE, William (1759-1833), of Hull, Yorks. and Wimbledon, Surr.
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Family and Education
b. 24 Aug. 1759, o.s. of Robert Wilberforce, Hull merchant, by Elizabeth, da. of Thomas Bird of Barton, Oxon. educ. Hull g.s. 1766-8; Putney 1768-71; Pocklington g.s. 1771-6; St. John’s, Camb. 1776. m. 30 May 1797, Barbara Ann, da. of Isaac Spooner of Elmdon Hall, Warws., 4s. 2da. suc. fa. 1768.
Wilberforce early determined to enter public life, and before the dissolution in 1780 had begun a canvass at Hull. Robinson, in his electoral survey of July 1780, wrote about the borough:
Mr. Wilberforce, a man of large fortune ... stands and has been well received ... Mr. Wilberforce professes to be an independent man but not hostile to Government.
He had no parliamentary ancestry and was opposed by some of the leading interests at Hull; but he had youth and energy, and spent his money freely. The election cost him between £8,000 and £9,000; and he was returned head of the poll, with more than 450 votes over the next candidate.
Wilberforce was by character and circumstances an independent, disposed to judge all questions on their merits. In his first months in the House he seems to have sided with North’s Administration. He voted with them on the choice of a Speaker, 31 Oct. and was at first opposed to the association movement for economical and parliamentary reform. On 31 May 1781, after his friendship with Pitt had commenced, he voted against his motion on the commission of accounts. But as this friendship deepened and strengthened, Wilberforce was brought over to the Opposition. In his first speech of consequence, 22 Feb. 1782, on Conway’s motion against the war, he ‘declared that while the present ministry existed there were no prospects of either peace or happiness to this kingdom’.1 And in all the crucial divisions of the last weeks of North’s Administration, he voted with the Opposition.
Wilberforce was a strong supporter of the Shelburne Administration, in which Pitt was chancellor of the Exchequer; and seconded the Government motion on the peace preliminaries, 17 Feb. 1783. On 7 May he voted for Pitt’s motion for parliamentary reform. He opposed the Coalition, spoke and voted against Fox’s East India bill, and took part in the discussions preceding the formation of Pitt’s Administration. It was about this time that he came to the front as a parliamentarian. ‘He spoke with great perspicuity as well as fluency on every subject’, wrote Wraxall;2 and was particularly effective in his attacks on the Coalition ministers—‘a faction which wished to level all distinctions and ... to prostitute everything to what was falsely denominated the dignity and honour of the House of Commons’.3
On 25 Mar. 1784 Wilberforce attended the great meeting of Yorkshire freeholders to draw up an address of thanks to the King for dismissing the Coalition. While he was speaking a note was brought him from Pitt, announcing that Parliament was to be dissolved that day; and Wilberforce gave the news to the meeting. At a gathering of Pitt’s followers immediately afterwards, Wilberforce and Henry Duncombe were unanimously adopted as candidates for the county. Wilberforce wrote in retrospect:4
I had formed within my own heart the project of standing for the county. To anyone besides myself I was aware that it must appear so mad a scheme that I never mentioned it to Mr. Pitt or any of my political connexions ... However, entertaining it, I carefully prepared myself for the public debate ... and both at the public meeting and in the subsequent discussions it was this idea which regulated the line, as well as animated the spirit, of my exertions.
The Coalition candidates withdrew before the poll, and Wilberforce and Duncombe were returned without expense to themselves. Wilberforce was also elected after a contest for Hull, where he arranged for another follower of Pitt, W.S. Stanhope, to take his place.
On all important political questions during this Parliament Wilberforce voted with Pitt, but sometimes differed from him on financial and commercial business (e.g. the smuggling bill of 1784). This was his main argument for supporting parliamentary reform, 18 Apr. 1785:5
It would tend ... to diminish the progress of party .. . from which ... our greatest misfortunes arose. There were men and parties in this country which derive most of their power and influence from these burgage tenures, against which the operations of this bill were to be directed. By destroying them the freedom of opinion would be restored, and party connexions in a great measure vanish ... he wished to see the time when he could come into the House and give his vote, divested of any sentiments of attachment which should induce him to approve of measures from his connexion with men.
The religious conversion Wilberforce underwent in the winter of 1785 strengthened convictions and characteristics which were already apparent. He told Pitt,6
that though I should ever feel a strong affection for him, and had every reason to believe that I should be in general able to support him, yet that I could no more be so much a party man as I had been before.
His influence over Pitt remained, and on occasions was exercised with important consequences.
Wilberforce ‘professed himself much unacquainted with Indian politics’, and reserved his opinion when Hastings’s impeachment first came before the House. He hoped that Pitt would not be provoked by the Opposition ‘from doing that which was most likely to serve the purposes of substantial justice’. When the charge on the Rohilla war was brought up, 2 June 1786, Wilberforce declared it to be ground for impeachment—‘He sincerely lamented the necessity, but there was no alternative.’ His influence was deemed by contemporaries as the decisive factor in bringing Pitt to support the impeachment.7
‘God Almighty has set before me two great objects’, he wrote,8 ‘the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.’ As the leading layman in the Evangelical movement, his influence on society was deep and lasting; but his attempts to strengthen morality by royal proclamation and Act of Parliament had little success. On 12 May 1789 he moved his first motion against the slave trade; and in 1807, after nearly twenty years’ devoted labour, achieved his aim. But he did not live to see the culmination of his work: he died on 29 July 1833, shortly before the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.