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leader of the movement to abolish slavery in the British Empire
William Wilberforce was born in Kingston upon Hull, East Riding of Yorkshire, on August 24, 1759, the son of a wealthy merchant. He was educated at Hull Grammar School up to the age of nine, when his father died. His mother then sent him to live with an aunt and uncle near London, and he attended a boarding school in Putney. The evangelical leanings of the aunt and uncle disturbed his mother so much that, after two years, she took him back to Hull. He completed his primary education at Pocklington School in 1776, after which he entered St. John's College at Cambridge University. Despite not being a particularly studious student, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1781.
Wilberforce was still in college when classmate William Pitt the Younger convinced him to run for a seat in Parliament. In September of 1780, he was elected to the House of Commons as MP for Kingston upon Hull. Refusing to join a party, Wilberforce supported both Tory and Whig governments and voted on specific measures according to their merits. His only consistent support was of Pitt, who became Prime Minister in December of 1783. He was not, however, offered a ministerial position in Pitt's government. When Parliament was dissolved in the spring of 1784, Wilberforce decided to run as a candidate for Yorkshire, which elected him.
Between 1784 and 1786, Wilberforce underwent a gradual but intense religious conversion while travelling Europe with a friend. He considered leaving politics, but his friend and mentor, John Newton, as well as Pitt, advised that he could best serve God from Parliament. His views from this time were often deeply conservative, and focused on issues such as the observance of the Sabbath and the eradication of immorality through education and reform. He also became interested in social reform, particularly the improvement of factory conditions in Britain.
The one issue that most consumed Wilberforce from this time was slavery, and in 1790 he joined a religious group known as the Clapham Sect, which was dedicated to the abolition of the institution throughout the British Empire. He introduced his first anti-slavery motion before Parliament in 1789, and continued introducing motions for the next eighteen years. His motions were consistently rejected until February 23, 1807, when a bill to abolish the slave trade was carried in the Commons 283 to 16; it became law on March 25. This bill did not free those who were already slaves, however, and Wilberforce continued to press for nothing short of total abolition. Although poor health forced him to leave Parliament in 1825, he refused to give up on abolition, and slavery was finally outlawed throughout the Empire just three days before his death, which came in London on July 29, 1833.
This page was last updated on January 21, 2017.