Wednesday, November 28, 2012

William Wilberforce and the End of the Slave Trade

Introducing a new hero for me, one that hails from England. He and his good friend William Pitt, the Younger, were both privileged gentlemen with great wealth, a recent Cambridge education, and seats in Parliament. Both Tories, these influential young men set out to shake the old order. I was glad to learn all about them with a book I stumbled upon at a used bookstore! Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas. Wait a minute? Isn't Metaxas one of the Veggie Tales guys???? He is! He was one of the writers for Veggie Tales! My kids were raised on them! Anyway, back on topic, I made this required reading for my son this year for his junior year studies on the 19th century. What an incredible book to include in our homeschool curriculum! In fact, this is the official companion book to the movie, Amazing Grace! We first saw the movie four years ago when we studied the 19th century at the dialectic level. This book (and the movie again) were perfect for our rhetoric studies!


"I thank God that I live in the age of Wilberforce and that I know one man at least who is both moral and entertaining." -Gerard Edwards, 1782

In 1783, William Wilberforce, William Pitt and Edward Eliot made a trip to France. In October they dined with another of my favorites, who also fought for abolition...none other than the Marquis de Lafayette. A famous American abolitionist was there too...Benjamin Franklin! I would have loved to have been there and heard their discussion!

During the American Revolution Lafayette was given a slave, named James Armistead. Lafayette preferred not to think of him or treat him as a slave. Given a position of extreme trust, Armistead freely traveled between the Continental and British camps in Yorktown to spy on the British. Later Lafayette used his influence to have Armistead freed. Once freed, Armistead took the name Lafayette as his own.

When Lafayette returned to France after the war, one of his projects focused on liberty for all, especially slaves. He became a member of three different abolition societies, one of which was New York based and another was British based. In 1785 he purchased two plantations in French Guiana, which came with 48 slaves. He freed them and gave them land so they could provide for themselves. He hoped for this to be a model of successful emancipation for all. Then the French Revolution ended Lafayette's work, as he ultimately ended up in an Austrian prison for years.

Through it all Lafayette encouraged his good friends, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison (as well as many others) to free their slaves. As he visited their plantations, from Mount Vernon to Monticello to Montpelier, at various times over the years, he'd look at the slave quarters just beyond the manor house and implore his friends to look at the dichotomy and extend the liberty for which they fought to all. They were good enough friends that Lafayette could say that and remain friends. Lafayette also had such an endearing sanguine personality he could do that. In addition, his friends were in agreement with him from the beginning, though Virginia law did not permit them to free all their slaves at once. They were also concerned that freeing all the slaves at once would render many homeless and jobless. They were of the hope that slavery would die out, as it seemed to be doing, until the advent of the cotton gin.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in such a way so that the slaves would be freed. However the southernmost colonies, South Carolina and Georgia, would not agree to it. Without their support, the American Revolution was futile. Unity was needed. Therefore freedom for slaves was removed from the document.

James Madison fought for freedom of slaves when the Constitution was written in 1787. George Washington supported the idea, but presided over the convention without inserting his opinions. Again the southernmost colonies refused to comply unless slavery was kept. In compromise, for the unity of the states, it was agreed that there would be a 20 year ban on restricting the slave trade.

Three years after Wilberforce's dinner at Lafayette's home, he began a fifty year battle against slavery. This dramatic story of all that Wilberforce physically and mentally suffered for those who suffered more, is dramatically told in William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery: Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas, which is the companion book to the infamous movie made in 2006, Amazing Grace.

On December 17, 1783, William Pitt, the Younger, became the youngest prime minister in the history of England, at the age of 24.

As Wilberforce struggled between serving the state and serving God, he felt the tug to abandon his Parliament seat to serve God in full time ministry. However his friend, John Newton, who wrote the infamous hymn, Amazing Grace, encouraged him that his service in Parliament could indeed be a means of serving God.

As Wilberforce battled slavery, he also battled the intense stomach pain for which doctors prescribed laudanum (opium). He is known as being one of the few who could use this drug without becoming addicted to it.
"Since 1787, year after year, Wilberforce had put forth his bill, and year after year after year it had been defeated, one way or another. In twenty long years, he had still not brought the boat into the harbor, though he had tacked and retacked and circled back and tacked in again and again and again. There had always been some difficulty, some heartbreaking last-minute barrier to success. Wilberforce was tired. The abolitionists had come so tantalizingly, horribly close to success in 1796, only to be handed their most devastating defeat yet. At that time, Wilberforce had all but decided to quit public service for good. But no less than the encouragements of the aged patriarchs John Wesley and John Newton prevented him from doing that...Now, ten long years later, the waters were quite suddenly smooth, and the harbor for which he had longed for two decades seemed finally to open her arms to him." (Metaxas, 205-206).
Parliament, February 23, 1807:
"Everyone caught up in the increasingly charged atmosphere had been waiting, as it were, for some unconscious cue, something to ground the electricity-and Wilberforce's tears were it. Almost simultaneously, every man in the chamber lost his composure and was carried off by the flood of emotion. Everyone rose, and three deafening cheers rang out for Mr. Wilberforce; they echoed off those historic walls and hallowed them, and all was lost to the tumult" (Metaxas, 210).
"In a little while the House would decide 283-16 in favor of abolition, and the battle would be officially won" ( Metaxas, 211).

According to Metaxas, Thomas Jefferson was inspired by Wilberforce. (xviii)

A week later, on March 2, 1807, twenty years after the Constitutional Convention, President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill into law ending the slave trade in the jurisdiction of the United States. Of course such great change could not be approved by Congress in a week. Instead, from the writing of the Declaration of Independence to his encouraging letters to Madison during the Constitutional Convention and beyond, Jefferson certainly knew of Wilberforce and his battle to end slavery. This was the Age of Enlightenment where gentlemen were educated, well read and broadly read, keeping current with modern events at home and across the seas. Jefferson was also a prodigious letter writer and certainly he wrote to Wilberforce. It is highly probable that they communicated, though I haven't found the proof yet. Their letter writing is mentioned in the movie, Amazing Grace. I was telling the kids this would make a great research topic. (Edited 6-4-16, A few years ago I got to meet with Thomas Jefferson, himself, at Colonial Williamsburg, where you can meet him too! I asked him if he had communications with Wilberforce and indeed he did! Listening to him tell the tale was wonderful!)

The legacy of William Wilberforce continues to live on in many ways, including with an annual event through the Colson Center's Wilberforce Weekend, which will be next held in Arlington, Virginia April 26-28, 2013. As Christians, we are citizens of a heavenly kingdom as well as an earthly kingdom. We are to be in this world but not of it. We are to impact our world for Christ. Wilberforce exemplified this. Do we?

Edited 12-30-16:
I stumbled upon this great interview from June 18, 2012 podcast with Phil Vischer (aka Bob the Tomato from Veggie Tales.) In 2005 Metaxas wrote Everything You Always Wanted to Know AboutGod (But Were Afraid to Ask). That led to him being asked to write the biography of William Wilberforce. Although he was offered a copy of the movie, Amazing Grace, that was soon to come out to the screen, Metaxas refused. He wanted to write his book based on research, not a movie. Movies often leave out details. As wonderful as the movie, Amazing Grace, is, it leaves out details that Eric Metaxas put into his book! I highly recommend it!

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