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Guns & Politics: The Legacy Of Wilberforce

Susan Smith Columnist
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Perhaps its most tragic, but definitely its most recent and ironic, manifestations follow the election of a black man to the American Presidency.  Since Barack Obama has been President, race in America has magnified exponentially as a divisive and destructive issue.  It is now as if our nation never fought a bloody Civil War to free the black men and women who were slaves within our borders, never established and implemented an underground railroad that achieved freedom for thousands of the enslaved, never championed innumerable abolitionist societies, never fought Jim Crow, never fought segregation, never created multitudinous legislative and judicial solutions to combat racial inequality and to champion the equality of all races.

It is also as if William Wilberforce, the great Englishman who single-handedly fought and won the battle against slave trafficking and slavery in 19th century Britain, never existed.

This was the man known as “the greatest reformer in history.”

William Wilberfoce was born in the port city of Hull, in England, on Aug. 24, 1759, into a prosperous merchant family. Though there were social limitations at this societal level, young William overcame them through his charm, wit and brilliance, and endeared himself to many of the upper classes which helped take him forward in life.  His best friend was William Pitt, who not only became one of Britain’s greatest orators, but was also the youngest Prime Minister in England’s history.   Pitt the Younger, as he became known, thought a great deal of Wilberforce and said of his friend that he “had the greatest natural eloquence of any man (he) ever knew.”

William was the quintessential young man about town, with wine, women and song (throw in gambling, too) as his priorities, and it was not until his tour of the continent, the ‘educational’ interlude of every young English man of fashion, that his attitude, and behavior, began to change.

It was during this voyage that he began to question his direction, and contemplated instead on what he could do to help the many less fortunate in his nation.  He returned to London in the fall of 1785 full of doubts about his previous path and how to proceed in his life.  Everything changed for him when he became acquainted with a man named John Newton, who was a former slave-ship captain turned Anglican parson.  He was also the author of the internationally acclaimed hymn “Amazing Grace,”  and a strident abolitionist.

By 1787, with help from Newton, and the passion and certitude that only a convert can provide, Wilberforce reached the decision to make it his life’s work to abolish the slave trade.  This seemingly impossible mission, as slavery was an entrenched practice worldwide, was looked upon by this young man as an entirely doable endeavor, and a necessary one within the goals of Wilberforce’s renewed Christianity.  Wilberforce truly felt that “it is the true duty of every man to promote the happiness of his fellow creatures to the utmost of his power,” and in terms of slavery, this happiness started with freedom.

Wilberforce was so passionate about his renewed Christianity and the duty that accompanied it that he came to lead or became a member of at least 69 different benevolent societies. He was a “founder and contributor to the Christian Observer, the Christianity Today of his time,” and he helped to found the Sierra Leone colony for freed slaves, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, numerous hospitals for the poor, Britain’s Royal Institution (dedicated to scientific research), and the National Gallery (of art).”  He was active in educational reform, prison reform, the promotion of public health initiatives, and advocating shorter working hours in factories and improved conditions for factory workers.

Wilberforce saved his fiercest efforts, though, for the freedom of enslaved peoples everywhere.  He fought this unpopular battle for over 20 years, (there was quite a pro-slavery constituency at the time, as there was an astonishing amount of money involved in the institution of slavery and the slave trade).  There were at least two attempts against his life, and he fought a constant battle with incipient illness; his passionate nature was belied by his slight stature – he was 5’3” and always underweight.  When he found the “pathway to abolition blocked by vested interests, political fear, parliamentary filibustering, entrenched bigotry, (and) international politics,” he was undaunted.  He introduced his first bill in Parliament to abolish slavery in 1791, and when it went down to defeat, he introduced another in 1792, then in 1793, again in 1797, encore in 1798, then again in 1799, again in 1804, and yet another time in 1805.

When it became clear that Wilberforce was not going to let the issue die, pro-slavery forces targeted him even more vociferously.  He was vilified in Britain and around the world; one of the most vocal was the great and beloved hero of Trafalgar, Admiral Horatio Nelson, who spoke of William Wilberforce’s anti-slavery efforts as “the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies.” The opposition became so fierce that a friend of William’s feared that one day he would read about Wilberforce’s being “carbonated [broiled] by Indian planters, barbecued by African merchants, and eaten by Guinea captains.”

During this heated Parliamentary activity, his illness became so pronounced that he started using opium to dull his constant pain  This was a new drug at the time with its long term affects still unknown. Wilberforce soon became addicted, though opium’s hallucinatory powers terrified him, and the depressions it caused “virtually crippled him at times,” though he later conquered his addiction.

It was during this time that William Wilberforce wrote and published a book entitled “A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System Contrasted with Real Christianity in 1797.”  It became an immediate best seller in England and went through five editions in six months.  Its popularity was universal and so prolonged that by 1826, 15 editions had been printed in Britain and 25  had been printed in the United States; it was translated into Dutch, French, German, Italian, and Spanish.  To Wilberforce’s contemporaries, A Practical View of Real Christianity (as it became known) was a cri de coeur (“cry from the heart”), to encourage his countrymen to apply their Christian principles and their Christian natures to all God’s creatures.

And at a time when most tomes of a theological nature were considered turgid, and difficult to read, A Practical View of Real Christianity was considered a “winsome and conversational book.”

Due to his increasingly poor health, William Wilberforce was forced to retire from political life in February 1825, having served his nation in various capacities for nearly 45 years. Yet his passion to secure the “emancipation of slaves throughout Britain’s colonies” continued unabated.  Among other efforts in this regard, he continued to initiate and take part in petition drives, to guide numerous younger British politicians to “inherit his mantle,” and to speak publicly wherever and whenever he could about the need to end slavery.

It was not until three days before he died that he learned that parliament at last passed the legislation for which he had fought so hard – to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire.  This occurred following the equally remarkable legislative achievement of ending the British slave trade.

The legacy of William Wilberforce “influenced the lives of kings and presidents and touched the poor and downtrodden in nations throughout the world.” Following Wilberforce’s retirement in 1825, Robert Southey, Britain’s Poet Laureate from 1813 to 1843, paid tribute to his old friend when he wrote that the world: “will not look upon (his) like again.”

William Wilberforce has indeed not been forgotten, except by Barack Obama and his like who need to keep those racial fires stoked for their own political benefit.  A primary example of the international regard in which this great man is held can be found in that Wilberforce University of Ohio, which is America’s oldest African-American college, continues to educate young people in our nation to this day.

In America, race was actually receeding as a divisive issue until the arrival on the scene seven and one half years ago of Mr. Hope and Change.  Since the purposeful efforts of this man and his Alinskyites, there has never been more hatred between blacks and whites, more violent activity of every kind between the races, the re-emergence of segregation in many aspects of American life, and innumerable manifestations of racial animosity of all kinds, e.g., hatred and mistrust of the police and firefighters.  And this is while record amounts of American tax dollars are being taken from us and spent on ill conceived and badly implemented federal programs that are not only useless but that make things worse.

Heck of a job, Barry.

Yet it was the unsung William Wilberforce who did the truly great things of implementing the freedom of enslaved individuals in the 19th century, in what was known as “one of the turning events in the history of the world.”

Click on the link to read Susan’s Guns & Politics column.

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Susan Smith brings an international perspective to her writing by having lived primarily in western Europe, mainly in Paris, France, and the U.S., primarily in Washington, D.C. She authored a weekly column for Human Events on politics with historical aspects.. She also served as the Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Children, Family, Drugs and Alcoholism, and Special Assistant to the first Ambassador of Afghanistan following the initial fall of the Taliban. Ms. Smith is a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University and Georgetown University, as well as the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, France, where she obtained her French language certification. Ms. Smith now makes her home in McLean, Va.


Susan Smith