WILBERFORCE, William (1759-1833).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Constituency

Dates

1784 - 1812
1812 - Feb. 1825

Family and Education

b. 24 Aug. 1759, os. of Robert Wilberforce, Baltic merchant, of Kingston-upon-Hull, Yorks. by Elizabeth, da. of Thomas Bird of Barton, Oxon. educ. Hull g.s. 1766; Chalmer’s sch. Putney 1768-71, Pocklington g.s. 1771;. St. John’s, Camb. 1776. m. 30 May 1797, Barbara Ann, da. of Isaac Spooner, merchant banker, of Elmdon Hall, Warws., 4s. 2da. suc. fa. 1768.

Offices Held

Dir. Sierra Leone Co. 1791; member, board of agriculture 1801.

Biography

The paradox of Wilberforce’s character was thus observed by a political opponent in 1821:

Mr Wilberforce ... besides being one of the extraordinary men of the age, is very cheerful and pleasant, and gifted with extraordinary liveliness and great powers of conversation. He seems not to have been naturally intended for a ‘Saint’, his character inclines much more naturally to the courtier or man of the world.

He himself was poignantly aware of it. Since his religious conversion in 1785, he had become ‘an accountable being ... at the bar of God’, striving to learn ‘the true limits of conformity’, but in others’ company he forgot God and, the ambiguity of his prayer for ‘a constant and a sober mind with a gay exterior’, was misunderstood. In Bishop Jebb’s phrase, he combined ‘all the sweetness of an angel and all the agility of a monkey’. Other paradoxes were not far to seek: of mercantile background, he regarded the country gentry as ‘the very cement of society’; without anything approaching the usual property stake or even a passable residence in the county in which he was dubbed ‘the Shrimp’, he represented Yorkshire from 1784 to 1812 by popular acclaim, without discharging the normal duties of a knight of the shire at quarter sessions or race meetings, or even pursuing applications for patronage: such was his moral authority. Moreover, although he set out in politics as a close friend of Pitt and never respected any other statesman as much, his independence of mind and application of moral scruples to political questions made him a thorn in Pitt’s side and ‘the weathercock of St. Stephens’. As a scrupulous independent Member, his friend Henry Bankes, with whom he constantly compared notes, stood comparison with him, but he outbid Bankes in charisma and was the acknowledged parliamentary leader of the evangelical pressure group known as the ‘Saints’; when he retired from Parliament in 1825 he had a party to bequeath. Although much of his support outside Parliament came from dissenting leaders, Wilberforce was not a friend to dissenting claims (he was listed among opponents of repeal of the Test Act in Scotland in 1791) or ‘unsteepled places of worship’. Finally—and perhaps this was the paradox that pleased him most—with a forever-ailing constitution, palliated by opium, he was one of the most industrious Members of Parliament, assiduous alike in debate and committee and adept at both. Surviving seemingly more robust contemporaries, he almost lived to see the complete realization of the dream for which he had conscientiously forsworn power, office and honours. He of course regarded as providential the resolution of these paradoxes in such a way as to make him ‘an agent of usefulness’.1

Wilberforce’s dream of the abolition of the slave trade by the civilized world under British leadership, and its corollary of the emancipation of the slaves who were its victims, was the main theme of his parliamentary career. The apostle of his religious conversion, Dr Isaac Milner, assured him: ‘if you carry this point in your whole life, that life will be far better spent than in being prime minister many years’. It was not a party question, but Wilberforce had to counter the obstruction of the West Indian lobby at every step and, although he might count on the support of such parliamentary grandees as Pitt, Fox, Burke, Perceval, Canning and Castlereagh, he found himself a victim of tactical delays imposed by political or party considerations; and he had to meet the indifference of the rank and file in cabinet and in Parliament, the prejudice of the landed gentry in general against an attack on property and vested interest, the admirals against an attack on a supposed ‘nursery of seamen’ and the snubs of peers and bishops and of members of the royal family.2

Having taken up the anti-slavery cause in 1787,3 Wilberforce had first moved for abolition on 12 May 1789. The ensuing scrutiny of evidence by the House kept him working ‘like a negro’ and, after being delayed until 18 Apr. 1791, he then reviewed the evidence in a motion to prevent the further importation of slaves into the West Indies, defeated by 163 votes to 88. He consoled himself by promoting the Sierra Leone Company, of which he was a director, to extend lawful commerce with Africa, and by fostering an appeal to public opinion through meetings which led to over 500 petitions. He carefully avoided extremism and, when the negro revolts in the West Indies produced a backlash in public opinion, bided his time, lest the views which had gained him the unwanted accolade of honorary citizenship of the French republic, should be stigmatized as Jacobinical. His next abolition motion of 2 Apr. 1792, accompanied by a three-hour speech and Pitt’s eloquent support, was granted a hearing by 234 votes to 87, but Henry Dundas’s amendment for gradual abolition was carried; and although Wilberforce joined with Fox in opposing it, it was approved with a terminus ad quem of 1 Jan. 1796, only to be blocked in the Lords. Despite growing indifference to the subject with the advent of war, a boost to the British sugar colonies, Wilberforce moved further consideration on 26 Feb. 1793, when he was defeated by 61 votes to 53. On 14 May 1793, he got leave for a bill to limit temporarily the importation of slaves into British colonies, and though he failed that day to secure its corollary of vetoing the supply of slaves to foreign colonies in British ships, he did so on 22 May and introduced the bill successfully on 7 Feb. 1794: it was blocked in the Lords. On 26 Feb. 1795, he moved for abolition of the trade on 1 Jan. 1796, but was beaten by 78 votes to 61, which he thought ‘an argument for reform’ of Parliament. On 18 Feb. 1796, despite recent disturbances in the West Indies, he carried by 26 votes his motion to abolish the trade on 1 Mar. 1797; the bill was committed on 7 Mar., but defeated by 74 votes to 70 on 15 Mar. He complained that there were about a dozen supporters absent and enough at the opera to have carried it. In May 1796 his bill to regulate and reduce slave carrying was twice counted out.

In the autumn of 1796, Wilberforce, who had unsuccessfully sought an agreement with the ancien régime in France about abolition in 1789, urged Pitt to include the question in his negotiations with the French republic. He opposed as delusive the bid by Charles Rose Ellis*, swallowed by Pitt, in April 1797, to delegate abolition to the colonial governments, which secured parliamentary approval; whereas his own fresh abolition motion of 15 May was lost by 82 votes to 74. While he obtained Pitt’s collaboration in preventing the cultivation of the captured island of Trinidad by slave labour, his abolition motion of 3 Apr. 1798 was defeated by 87 votes to 83 and that of 1 Mar. 1799 by 84 to 54. The less ambitious measures introduced by his friends were also frustrated and, while the slave trade limitation bill passed the Commons on 2 May 1799, it was lost in the Lords on 5 July, despite an eager canvass of them by George Canning and the assistance of Lord Grenville. In 1800, he was further disappointed in his hope of a compromise to be arranged by Pitt whereby the West India interest agreed to a suspension of the trade for five years or so.

Wilberforce hoped that peace would be a pretext for an international agreement against the trade and privately urged Addington to secure a convention with France, 2 Jan. 1802; but Addington and Hawkesbury, his Foreign secretary, demurred; he got nowhere during their administration. Even the veto on cultivation of Trinidad by slaves was wrested from Addington by Canning, not by Wilberforce, who gave way to him without combating Canning’s ulterior motive of separating Addington and Pitt on this question, 27 May 1802. Wilberforce tried an abolition motion of his own in June, but gave it up in a thin house. In March 1803 first influenza then war frustrated his intention to repeat the motion, and late that year, when he was eager to secure a compromise with the West India interest for temporary suspension of the trade, Addington blocked it. The return to power of Pitt in May 1804 renewed his hopes. On 30 May he bustled the first reading of an abolition bill through the House by 124 votes to 49, helped by the cultivation of Irish votes and hindered only by Addington; it passed on 27 June, but the Lords adjourned it on 2 July. When Wilberforce suggested to Pitt a Commons resolution against slave supplies to the conquered colonies, Pitt induced him to yield to a royal proclamation instead and took over a year to secure the order in council in question. He never openly impugned Pitt’s procrastination, but resumed the ‘holy war’, only to be discouraged by the defeat of another abolition bill, of which Pitt disliked the timing, at the second reading, 28 Feb. 1805, by 77 votes to 70. Wilberforce was drawn into collaboration with Whig sympathizers led by Lord Henry Petty, and Pitt made amends by securing the order in council he had promised, 13 Sept. 1805.

After Pitt’s death Grenville’s administration collaborated with Wilberforce in completing his campaign for abolition: in May 1806 they carried the prohibition of the supply of slaves to foreign countries and, although they would go no further that session, Wilberforce supported Fox’s resolution in favour of abolition, 10 June, and carried an address in favour of an international agreement the same day. That autumn he wrote an address on the slave trade to promote the cause and on 3 Feb. 1807 the Lords approved the abolition bill; in the Commons the division on the second reading, 23 Feb., was 283 votes to 16 in favour. It received the royal assent on 25 Mar. 1807, the last act of the ministry.

Even without his efforts for the abolition of the slave trade, Wilberforce was a power to be reckoned with in politics: his favourite campaign was inextricably linked with his other political interests, particularly until 1807. Thereafter, although the emancipation of the slaves eventually became his favourite object, his political interventions were more diffuse, his reliance on his allies in Parliament on slavery questions was more marked and his stance that of a champion of Christian statesmanship in general.

Wilberforce’s friendship with and admiration for Pitt survived every test between 1790 and 1806; he was proof against the vanity and ambition it might have inspired in him, but unable to resist giving Pitt ‘a serious word or two’ from time to time, made inevitable by Pitt’s ‘neglect of heavenly things’ and usually a source of pain to both of them. Until the end of 1794, he could be relied on to support Pitt’s measures in general: despite private reservations, he defended the convention with Spain, 13 Dec. 1790, and, briefly, the war in India, 28 Feb. 1791; paired in favour of Pitt’s stand against Russia, 12 Apr.; defended the Quebec bill, 11 May 1791, the pacific intentions of the ministry towards France in the face of Jacobin provocation, 14 Dec. 1792, and the rejection of irregular petitions for parliamentary reform, to which he was a friend provided it was moderate, 2 May 1793. These views he disseminated in Yorkshire.4 His other contributions to debate, affecting the interests of the textile trade in his constituency, in favour of moral rearmament (on behalf of which he had promoted the Society for the Discouragement of Vice in 1787 and produced a remarkable apologetic pamphlet in 1797)5 and in favour of the Christianisation of India, were to him a constant duty. So was the conciliatory role of a Christian in the face of political discord: he wrote of ‘the quarrel between Burke and Fox, which I had endeavoured to prevent’ in May 1791. He was bitterly disappointed when war broke out with France and had intended to express public disapproval, but for a time Pitt managed to keep him quiet. First Jacobinism and now war frustrated his anti-slave trade campaign. In July 1794 he found Pitt reinforced by the Portland Whigs, whose junction was ‘not very pleasant’ to him, they being ‘much too strong for war’: a letter of 3 Nov. 1794 showed him turning against it, though with little hope of peace with the French regime. On 5 Dec. Earl Stanhope wrote him a forceful letter encouraging his stand. His wish was to put a stop to the war without turning out Pitt, and after consultations with his friends Lord Muncaster, Henry Thornton, Henry Bankes, Matthew Montagu and his Yorkshire colleague Duncombe, and short notice to Pitt, he moved an amendment to the address, 30 Dec. 1794, in favour of peace negotiations. He feared it was ‘a very incoherent speech; good arguments, but all in heaps for want of preparation’. The seconder was Duncombe.6

Wilberforce’s amendment was defeated by 246 votes to 73, but the calibre of the minority caused a sensation. Apart from ‘the Methodist connexion’ and Henry Bankes, the minority included four county Members, and about 20 Members joined opposition in all. Pitt was offended, while the King, who was reported as saying, ‘I always told Mr Pitt they were hypocrites and not to be trusted’, cut Wilberforce at the next levee. Windham called him ‘the wicked little fanatical imp Wilberforce ... acting against Pitt, under the forms indeed of friendship, but with all the alacrity of determined opposition’. Sir George Beaumont concluded that ‘Wilberforce has done much mischief by his conduct in Parliament and that it certainly appears as if the solicitation of the dissenters had operated on his mind. His motion could do no good as he was sure to lose it.’ Wilberforce himself was deeply disturbed by the alienation of Pitt and on 2 Jan. 1795 explained in the House that he was in favour of vigorous war, if war must be, and therefore supported supplies, but still thought a bid for peace preferable. After this Canning commented:

Wilberforce does not go on against government—but having discharged his conscience by proposing an attempt at peace (which all the time he allows would probably be an attempt only for he very candidly confessed both in his speech on Tuesday night and afterwards in conversation with me, that he believed all my arguments respecting the insecurity of peace to be perfectly sound)—and that proposition having failed, he returns with most of his followers, to their allegiance—and votes with Pitt in the prosecution of the war.

After this ‘pretended recantation’, Wilberforce duly opposed the repeal of the suspension of habeas corpus on 5 Jan. 1795, but on 26 Jan. when opposition tempted him by advertising Grey’s peace motion, he humoured them so far as to propose an amendment that the form of government in France should be no bar to negotiation, which was lost by 254 votes to 90. Then on 6 Feb., while ‘he did not like to multiply occasions of differing with the executive government’, he felt obliged to vote for Grey’s peace motion. He found that his conduct was disapproved in Yorkshire, where he accordingly discouraged peace petitions. The Sun newspaper slyly hinted on 12 Feb. that ‘Mr Wilberforce, we doubt not, since the settlement of Sierra Leone has been so roughly handled by the French, will be eager for a vigorous prosecution of the war’. A meeting with Pitt, who had meanwhile done his best for the cause of abolition, further embarrassed him, but he remained firm. On 24 Mar., while he opposed Fox’s censure motion and deprecated a change of ministry, he again pressed for peace. He gave early notice of, and on 27 May introduced a peace motion, which was lost by 201 votes to 86, after a fiasco six days before when only 28 MPs were present owing to Epsom races. In it, he contrasted the blessings of peace with the futility of a war in which Britain had no aim likely to succeed. It was combated by Windham, a deserter in future from the cause of abolition. Dundas claimed that this motion ‘was certainly received with much greater coldness than any of the former discussions on the same topics’ and Pitt regarded it as a vote of confidence, though the minority included 24 county Members. When the Prince of Wales’s debts were discussed in May and June 1795, Wilberforce, who wished the heir to the throne to live in ‘dignified simplicity’, supported the smaller public allowance proposed for the Prince, his amendment to that effect being defeated by 141 votes to 38 on 8 June; he urged an inquiry into and regulation of the Prince’s debts to prevent future parliamentary notice of them. Opposition from the royal family on the slave trade question had not endeared them to Wilberforce and privately he approved Pitt’s conduct and disapproved the King’s on the matter of the Prince’s income. Other opponents of his crusade were repaid in kind on 11 June 1795 when he deprecated official relief for West India planters in distress. A week later, writing to Lord Camden, whose replacement of Fitzwilliam as lord lieutenant in Ireland he cordially approved, Wilberforce remarked of recent events:

it is so useful for all the popular humours to be discharged through the vent of the House of Commons (their natural course which so long as they keep to all will be well) that I think good will have been done by the matters not passing through more quietly.

He added that he hoped next session to be able ‘to support those, with whom it must ever be painful to me to differ’.7

Wilberforce’s hopes were realized when Pitt made an avowal to him of his intention to seek peace on the eve of the session of 1795-6. Canning reported on 31 Oct. 1795: ‘Wilberforce and his conscientious followers, the effusion-of-human-blood-party, all came back to us’. Two days before he had given his hearty assent to the address. Windham regarded the volte-face as evidence of the influence over Pitt of Wilberforce and his friends ‘who have not only low and narrow notions of things, but their own little private interest to serve’. He went on (with becoming reluctance) in November to defend the legislation against sedition, which he regarded as exemplifying the value of Parliament in checking popular folly, and presented petitions from Leeds and Yorkshire in favour of the two bills, claiming after a dash to rally his constituents on 30 Nov. that a decided majority favoured them. Then, as always, he disliked the application of capital punishment as a deterrent. He was now proof against opposition pressure for instant peace negotiations, which he rebuked on 23 Nov. and 9 Dec. as a party ploy by men who encouraged ‘civil discord’ at home. Having made his peace with Pitt, the King and his constituents, he devoted the remainder of the session to the cause of abolition, apart from a few remarks on the scarcity of grain, a defence of Pitt’s Poor Law scheme as ‘reform’, not ‘innovation’, 4 Mar., and the defence of the Quaker relief bill, 26 Apr. 1796. Privately he urged Pitt to eschew Dundas’s policy of colonial conquest. He was one of only five county Members who voted for Pitt’s inheritance tax in May 1796.8

Spared a contest for Yorkshire in 1796, Wilberforce entered cordially into Pitt’s bid for peace that autumn, hoping that an agreement on the slave trade might form part of it. On 2 Nov. he made an impromptu attack on opposition in defence of the cavalry bill, and on 8 Dec. spoke ‘on the sudden and did good service’ on behalf of the Austrian loan; on 14 Dec. he paid particular tribute to Pitt as a patriot. On 16 Dec. he toned down the opposition motion in favour of the captive General Lafayette into an amendment designed, in Dundas’s phrase, to catch ‘the straggling humanity’ of the House, but was defeated by 132 votes to 50. Pitt induced him to say nothing on the failure of peace negotiations that month. He subscribed £4,000 to the loyalty loan for 1797. He was a member of the secret committee on the Bank, 1 Mar., and defended government’s handling of the Bank stoppage, 1 and 22 Mar., 1 May. The publication of his manifesto of ‘real Christianity’ for the benefit of the worldly shortly before his marriage in May 1797 increased his desire to practise in public life what he preached, and his private urging of Pitt, as his ‘domestic chaplain’, to make a fresh bid for peace seemed vindicated when Austria made a separate treaty. He was disappointed by the failure of Pitt’s second attempt that summer and frustrated, as before, in his abolition campaign, his ensuing plan to make a long speech in favour of moderate parliamentary reform in May, and in his bill to enable Catholics to serve in the militia, introduced on 22 May, carried on 4 July, but thrown out in the Lords because protestant dissenters were included.9

Wilberforce’s adherence to Pitt as ‘the first of natural men’ survived these vicissitudes, and this he demonstrated at the opening of the session of 1797-8 in a fierce impromptu attack on the defeatism of opposition in seceding, 2 Nov. He was not ‘over-well pleased with ministry’, but ‘entertaining daily worse and worse sentiments of opposition’. The sarcasms of the opposition press were devoted to his conduct at this time. Thus the Morning Chronicle alleged, 15 Nov.:

it is amazing that no place has been found for Mr Wilberforce. Something of the mongrel kind, between a clergyman and layman, would be necessary to suit the man whose divinity is laid at the feet of Mr Pitt’s politics. Such a place as lay chaplain to both houses of Parliament would suit him exactly.

Wilberforce had irritated opposition by his exoneration of government from all blame for the failure of the peace bid on 10 Nov. On 15 Dec. he opposed Tierney’s motion alleging government extravagance, though he was eager for economy, and on 18 Dec. supported Pitt’s assessed taxes, for which he twice acted as teller: ‘government must be supported, or there must be an end of us as a people’. He proposed some exemptions, unsuccessfully, on 30 Dec., and on 4 Jan. 1798 admitted that the taxes might have been applied more heavily to the upper classes: he made up for it by a voluntary subscription of an eighth of his income, trying unsuccessfully to rally the moneyed men in the City to collective effort. His ‘asperities towards opposition’ were notable that session: on 21 Feb. he was overruled by Pitt when he proposed to exclude seceding Whigs from the select committee on the public debt. On 27 Mar. he clashed with Tierney, as well as Sir William Pulteney of the ‘armed neutrality’, over the defence bill. Nor was he placated by the attendance of seceding Whigs in support of the slave question on 3 Apr. When, however, Pitt went so far as to fight a duel with Tierney on a Sunday he gave notice of a censure motion on Pitt, 30 May, which he abandoned at the latter’s instigation on 5 June, after Pitt had urged that it courted his removal from power. Wilberforce insisted that his only intention had been to guard against such occurrences in future. His last major speech that session, 19 June, was in defence of the militia volunteering to help quell the Irish rebellion: ‘he had always seen the Irish as barbarous and uncivilized people, nor had he ever seen any efforts made to civilize them till lately’.10

Thanks to his individual brand of independence in Parliament, Wilberforce was liable to abuse on all sides and on 20 Dec. 1798 made a general complaint, which was not endorsed, about the misreporting of speeches and votes in the press; a week later he repeated the complaint when he was falsely accused in The Times of attacking Tierney. The wit and sarcasm of his rebuke of the opposition jester John Courtenay on the alleged ill treatment of state prisoners, 21 Dec. 1798, showed that he might have been a more dangerous opponent in debate than his notions of decorum normally allowed him. His initial doubts about the wisdom of union with Ireland were overcome by Pitt, and by 10 Feb. 1799 he was reconciled to it, but found no opportunity to speak on it. He was of the committee for consultation with the Lords on the Union. Pitt had consulted him on his income tax bill, but he proposed several amendments to it, only one of which was accepted. He was a critic of trades unions, ‘a general disease in our society’, and favoured a Combination Act against them, 9 Apr. 1799. Ever a keen Sabbatarian, he seconded and acted as teller for Belgrave’s bill to gag Sunday newspapers, 27, 30 May 1799.11

A bout of ill health induced Wilberforce to adopt a ‘plan of quiet’ near Bath in the autumn of 1799 and it was Lord Grenville’s summary rejection of Buonaparte’s peace overture at the end of the year that brought him back to public life with a jolt. Pitt won him over and on 7 Feb. 1800, he opposed the Whigs’ pacific amendment to the address; on 17 Feb., he denied that the restoration of the Bourbons was the aim of the war and alleged that the time was not ripe for peace, ‘so as to wear the face of being more warlike than I really was’, he added privately. He also defended the suspension of habeas corpus, 13 Feb. He was subsequently active in combating famine and was an advocate of potato growing, 19 Feb., 24 and 26 Mar., though Pitt did not take up his ideas on emergency relief for the poor, nor heed his protest against a bill to restrict preaching licences, which in fact never materialized. On 25 Apr. he supported and voted with the minority of 34 for Grey’s motion to reduce the proposed number of Irish Members at Westminster, and on 1 May he opposed the Union regulations for the woollen trade on behalf of his constituents; his amendment on the subject was lost by 133 votes to 58, but on 5 May he supported Tierney’s motion to discourage the export of raw wool to Ireland. He was an opponent of bull baiting and a supporter and teller for the adultery bill, 26 May. On 9 July he led the defence of government against Western’s censure motion.12 At the opening of the session of 1800-1, he was a spokesman for measures to deal with popular distress, which was marked in the West Riding of his constituency: on 11 Nov. he justified corn bounties and on 26 Nov. called for government economy, after being a member of the committee on the high price of provisions. In this debate he clashed with Burdett and Tierney and narrowly escaped having his words taken down. He was sympathetic to all proposals for poor relief that did not condone idleness and was a generous contributor out of his own pocket.

Wilberforce admired Pitt’s magnanimous conduct in supporting Addington’s administration from February 1801 and followed Pitt’s line. He eschewed the temptation of honours or office, seeking only ‘an increased power of usefulness’. He was placed on the committee on Irish disaffection; but was in the minority on an Irish question, 19 Mar. 1801. Though he admitted that Addington, an admirable Speaker, seemed ill qualified for his new office and that it was too early to hope for peace, 3 Feb. 1801, he hoped that Addington would make peace and rely on naval defence to maintain it. On 4 Nov. he gave a cordial support to the peace preliminaries, disliking only the retention of Trinidad, in case it gave a new lease of life to the slave trade. He was disappointed in his hope of winning over Addington to this cause and allowed the initiative in the matter to pass to Canning, who wished to make it a pretext for separating Pitt and Addington, but was frustrated by Addington’s reassuring noises. By reference to these, Pitt appeased Wilberforce, who had defended Pitt’s services to the nation on Belgrave’s motion of 7 May and put in a brief appearance at Pitt’s birthday dinner on 28 May. He consoled himself by supporting Sir Robert Peel’s factory apprentices bill, which he wished to see enlarged.13

At the dissolution of 1802 it was rumoured that Wilberforce might give up Yorkshire. Privately he had thought of doing so the preceding session under the heavy pressure of constituency business and from a wish to give more time to humanitarian schemes. Besides, his cousin Lord Carrington had offered him a safe borough seat. But his anxiety about a contest for the county proving chimerical, he was content to resume his seat and more than content with his blessings:

Affluence, without the highest rank. A good understanding and a happy temper. Kind friends, and a greater number than almost any one. Domestic happiness beyond what could have been conceived possible. A situation in life most honourable; and above all, a most favourable situation for eternity.14

In a speech in support of the address that delighted Addington’s government, as well as Fox, 26 Nov. 1802, Wilberforce reiterated the dislike he had expressed on the hustings (12 July) of continental alliances, explaining that he meant at present, not for all time. He deplored speculative schemes of action that were unhinged by events beyond human foresight and reviewed the failure of allied policies to date. The blessings of peace were approved by the middle class, ‘generally speaking ... the best informed’, and government should regard this as the index of public opinion: ‘In one word, our policy was to be watchful and cautious, with regard to others; and, with respect to ourselves, industrious in the improvement of our resources’. On 8 Dec., after being misreported, he clarified his views on continental engagements, denying that he was in favour of blind isolation and explaining that he thought national solidarity in defence more important than military adventures. (Canning thought he ‘half-recanted his errors’.) Wilberforce expanded this last point in his speech of 16 Mar. 1803, in reply to Windham, in defence of the development of the militia as opposed to a standing army: he regarded the militia as more constitutional, more in touch with public opinion. On 7 Apr., however, irked by the minister’s ‘want of energy’ and indifference to his tales of corruption in government departments, as well as by the hiring of British mercantile transports in the expedition to suppress the negroes of St. Domingo, he clashed with Addington, characteristically in opposition to relief for the West India planters. Then, on 24 May, despite a conciliatory speech the day before, he splenetically attacked the minister and voted against him, for being prepared to resume hostilities with France over the retention of Malta. The speech was published. A delighted Whig observer, Thomas Creevey, wrote:

but the galling feature of the night, to the ministers and to Pitt particularly, was the speech that followed [Pitt’s] from Wilberforce; it was an inimitable speech for peace and on grounds the most calculated for popular approbation ... It is said the House of Commons never behaved so ill as in their reception of this speech, they tried over and over again to cough him down but without effect.

On 25 May he suggested that peace might be preserved by Russian mediation. On 3 June he rallied to Pitt in support of the orders of the day to obstruct Patten’s censure motion, against which he also voted. He was tetchy about the abuse of the Russian offer of mediation as a party political manoeuvre, 8 July, and on 4 Aug. criticized the government for reducing the scope of the general muster for their defence plans: he had no liking for reliance on a regular army, 10 Aug. ‘Worse than useless’ as a soldier himself, he had in fact been won over to Pitt’s defence scheme and had also divided with Pitt, 13 July, on an amendment to the budget. He no longer criticized the resumption of war ‘between the two most enlightened nations on earth’, much as he lamented it, from fear of making mischief; but he drew the line at Sunday drilling, which he must needs prevent.15

Wilberforce rallied to the defence of the Irish martial law bill, 5 Dec. 1803, as a necessary evil, though he wished to conciliate Ireland, and endeavoured to regulate courts martial, 7 Dec. His wish to reconcile Pitt with Addington was disappointed, and Pitt’s magnetism proved greater. On 7 Mar. 1804 he was in the minority in support of Wrottesley’s censure of the Irish government and on 15 Mar. he supported, by speech and vote, Pitt’s motion for a naval defence inquiry, which he had long thought necessary. He went on to vote for Fox’s and Pitt’s defence motions of 23 and 25 Apr. that brought down Addington, lamenting the sacrifice of the minister to partisan conspiracy, but reassured by Pitt’s failure to form a new ministry on a comprehensive basis. When the Foxites and Grenvillites were excluded, he wrote, 10 May, ‘I am not sure that this arrangement is not the very best possible’. He was gratified by Pitt’s assistance for his abolition bill that session; and made a fulsome bid for Lord Melville’s in the other House. He welcomed the political reconciliation between Pitt and Addington in December and attended the House at Pitt’s request on the resumption in January 1805; but the defeat of his abolition bill on 28 Feb. soured him, and the part he took against Melville in April caused the prime minister considerable pain. He had strongly supported the commission of naval inquiry from the start and could not condone irregularities for reasons of honour or party, when morality was at stake: he urged Pitt to abandon Melville, whom he had long regarded as Pitt’s âme damnée. His forceful speech in support of Whitbread’s censure motion on 8 Apr. helped to dish Melville: he was said to be able to influence 40 votes. Robert Ward thought him ‘by far the best speaker in my mind during the debate, better even than Fox’. The crux of his argument was, ‘Here is my Lord Melville publicly declaring on his oath, that he has tolerated his dependant in a gross breach of an Act of Parliament, for the purposes of private emolument’: such conduct opened the door to every species of corruption. He rejoiced that government had not support enough to shield Melville. He did not concur, however, in a vendetta against him and, once Melville resigned, disagreed with Whitbread’s proposal to dishonour the man, 10 Apr. On 29 Apr. he supported Bankes’s unsuccessful motion for Melville’s prosecution by the attorney-general and on 2 May tried to mitigate Sheridan’s enthusiastic motion of thanks to the naval commissioners. Pitt’s appointment of his friend Lord Barham to succeed Melville at the Admiralty had his warm approval; some members of government regarded it as yet another instance of his sway over the minister, while Creevey laughed at ‘a superannuated Methodist at the head of the Admiralty; in order to catch the votes of Wilberforce and co. now and then’. On 10 May he concurred in the investigation of St. Vincent’s naval administration, supplying a eulogy of the new first lord. When Melville’s impeachment was debated on 11 June, Wilberforce, who secured an adjournment at 2.30 a.m., felt obliged to declare in favour of the original motion, though he would have preferred Bond’s amendment in favour of criminal prosecution, if acceptable; when it proved acceptable, he voted for it with the majority. He exonerated Pitt from all blame in his dealings with Boyd and Benfield the loan contractors, 14 June. In June and July he was a leading opponent of the Duke of Atholl’s claims for compensation in the Isle of Man. He had voted against Irish Catholic claims, 14 May. In July the Treasury listed him ‘doubtful Pitt’.16

Pitt placated Wilberforce in the autumn of 1805 by granting the order in council to impede the colonial slave trade, and Wilberforce insisted that it was Austerlitz and not the Melville affair that shattered Pitt’s will to live. On 27 Jan. 1806 he was a prominent eulogist of Pitt in the House. He was anxious that Pitt’s friends, not the nation, should pay the minister’s debts, lest it ‘affect his character in the feeling of the middle classes of the community’, as well as to prevent Pitt’s creditors, of whom he was one, from claiming their due. When he was frustrated, he came away from the debate of 3 Feb. at which it was decided that the public should foot the bill. He was a banner bearer at Pitt’s funeral on 22 Feb: no public man ever again held the same sway over him.17

Wilberforce disclaimed formal opposition to Lord Grenville’s administration; nor would he come to any terms with them to facilitate his abolition campaign, though he supported Lord Henry Petty’s candidature at Cambridge University, as Petty was a friend to the cause. He opposed Ellenborough’s having a seat in the cabinet, 3 Mar. 1806, owing to its constitutional impropriety and without reference to personalities or politics, as he was careful to explain. He likewise voted with the minority, 21 Apr., for an investigation of Lord Wellesley’s conduct in India, which he was sure could do no harm to his friend’s reputation. The willingness of the new government to promote abolition of the slave trade so far placated him, however, as to support their repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act, which he thought Pitt himself would have given up. Little as he liked Windham’s military plan, with its emphasis on a regular army at the expense of volunteers, on 6 June he professed himself converted to it by professional opinion and took a stand only against Sunday drilling, 27 June. He proposed several amendments to the property duty bill in May and helped to defeat the iron duty and the tax on private brewing. He was also active on the committee for the inquiry into the woollen trade set up on 14 Mar. 1806 after a petition presented by him. He had a large hand in its report, which gave general satisfaction, except to the West Riding master craftsmen.18

At the dissolution of 1806 it was Wilberforce’s colleague Lascelles and not he who bore the brunt of discontent in Yorkshire. As usual, he refused any coalition and was sure he could have headed the poll, had not Lascelles withdrawn in favour of himself and Fawkes, who both had the ministry’s blessing. In his election address he had made a manifesto of his strict independence, which had tempered his allegiance even to Pitt; but Lord Grenville commended his uniform support of the preesent government. On 15 Dec. he seconded Abbot’s re-election as Speaker; for the remainder of the session his preoccupation was the carrying of the slave trade abolition bill. His pamphlet on the subject, completed in January 1807 was published as A letter on the abolition of the slave trade: addressed to the ... inhabitants of Yorkshire. He received an ovation from the House in response to Romilly’s tribute when the bill passed its second reading, 23 Feb.; its passage, which he attributed to ‘the intermediate interposition of Providence’, caused him to relent in his opposition to relief for the West India planters and to object to the immediate emancipation of the slaves, 17 Mar.19

Despite Wilberforce’s opposition to the Maynooth grant, 4 Mar. 1807, the Grenville ministry hoped that he and his friends, now commonly known as ‘the Saints’, would stand by them when they encountered the royal veto against Catholic relief. They thought they had his assurance of support on 19 Mar. They might have been discouraged by his eulogy of his fellow-abolitionist Perceval when the latter took the Exchequer in the Portland administration, 25 Mar. (though he opposed Perceval’s having the duchy of Lancaster for life), but they tried to temper their conduct by waiving pressure for a short adjournment during the formation of the new government, so as to please Wilberforce and his friends. In this they were disappointed: he was of opinion that ‘they had run upon a rock which was above water’. He was absent through illness on 9 Apr. when opposition divided the House in self-justification, but he would have supported the new ministry if present and intended to give them a fair trial. He alleged, in his next contribution to debate, 20 Apr., that the Irish masses did not care a jot for Catholic emancipation.20

The dissolution of 1807 gave Wilberforce his only uneasy election contest, as he strove to maintain a precarious independence between candidates friendly to the new and outgoing ministries, Lascelles and Lord Milton. A safer seat, such as his old one for Hull or Cambridge University, was suggested for him, but he soldiered on, outmatching the well organized Whig grandee with the goodwill of volunteers, who met his moderate expenses by subscription. Lady Bessborough commented: ‘an honour to the man, and a proper homage to virtue and religion, is Wilberforce, without a sixpence, being at the head of the poll from mere weight of character in such an election as this when money is supposed to do all’. He was teased by the Whigs who, to sway the dissenting clothiers’ vote, insisted that Lascelles (an anti-abolitionist friend of government) and he were in collusion and towards the end of the poll put him so much out of countenance that he took sick leave from the hustings. The Whigs thought it was a political illness, the inevitable consequence of his hypocrisy, and that his popularity was now at an end. But on a platform of ‘measures, not men’, he mustered 11,806 votes and, recovering his aplomb, directed a self-justificatory ‘letter’ to his constituents ‘occasioned by the late election for that county’ to answer Whig charges.21

Wilberforce was not yet secure in his seat. Government, chagrined by Lascelles’s defeat, proposed to unseat Lord Milton under the Treating Act, and Milton, in revenge, threatened to unseat Wilberforce on the same ground. The ministry owed nothing to Wilberforce, but he proceeded to put them in his debt by his support in debate and a compromise ensued whereby government waived the petition against Milton, who in turn dropped his against Wilberforce.22 On 6 July 1807 he had opposed Whitbread’s censure motion, recommending in the course of his speech to ‘the well-wishers of Ireland, the introduction of some general system of education and morality, which ... would do more towards composing that country, than any political measures that could be devised’. Next day he took the government line against Cochrane’s motion critical of places and pensions, disliking a general onslaught on them: he preferred the more moderate proposals of his friend Bankes. He had taken the same line on 10 Feb. 1807 when sinecures were attacked. As a philanthropist, he championed the subsidization of the Sierra Leone Company; the African Institution; popular education, if not compulsory; vaccine inoculation; and the commutation of the tithes in Ireland.

Wilberforce was seriously ill in December 1807. On his return to Parliament he opposed the orders in council, lest they excite anglophobia in France, 24 Feb. 1808, but deprecated Whitbread’s bid for peace by mediation, 29 Feb., thinking it could not yet be securely obtained. His party of ‘Saints’ joined him in voting against it. He had come to regard Buonaparte as a divine instrument, to be discarded in due course. He appeared in the minority on military enlistment, 14 Mar. 1808, but he refused to see any moral lapse by government in the seizure of the Danish fleet, provided it was eventually restored, though he disliked the bombardment of Copenhagen, 29 Mar. He supported Bankes’s offices in reversion bill, 7 Apr., because it tended to reform genuine abuses, and urged a compromise with the Lords to secure it. He criticized the local militia bill as inadequate, 2 May, wishing to see the nation in arms. He preferred the smaller grant to Maynooth College, 5 May, went away on Duigenan’s appointment to the Privy Council, and opposed the reception of the Catholic petition, 25 May; he was not respectfully heard and the gibe of Methodism was raised against him by opposition, to whom he was by now obnoxious. In fact, he was a steady champion of the interests of the established Church. Ironically he had only recently given up his villa at Broomfield, in the domain of the Clapham sect, for Kensington Gore, where he enjoyed ‘domestic publicity’; and he had given up his house in Palace Yard, Westminster, for lodgings on the Terrace, a step further away from the House.23

Regarding himself as at once a foe and a victim of the party system in the House, Wilberforce was eager to expose its inconveniences: the battle over membership of the finance committee, 24 Jan. 1809, enabled him to lecture the House on the subject, to no effect. When he was renamed for the committee on the East India Company, of which he was a stockholder, he declined, 23 Feb., though he was again nominated to it in 1810, 1811 and 1812. ‘Kept up to effervescence by letters from Yorkshire’, he was a prominent critic of the Duke of York’s conduct as commander-in-chief of the army, though he would have preferred inquiry by select committee to avoid public scandal, and on 15 Mar. declared that he could not exonerate the duke from some knowledge of irregularities in patronage and therefore favoured the address of censure to the King concocted by Bankes, Henry Thornton and himself rather than Perceval’s resolution on the subject. He wished the duke’s ‘moral crime’ to be condemned, as well as his ‘political offence’, which did not endear him to the royal family. On 25 Apr. he exonerated Castlereagh from the charge of corruption as ‘it rested in intention, and never was an act’, but felt obliged to support Madocks’s motion of 11 May bringing charges against Perceval and Castlereagh as his moral duty, however painful. On 26 May and 9 June he spoke in favour of Curwen’s electoral reform bill, commending ‘moderate and temperate reform’. A subject on which he changed his mind, however, was the strengthening of the regular army; he henceforward accepted Windham’s ideas, no longer fearing that a standing army raised to fight another would prejudice ‘the most free and happy country in the universe’. He had been an admirer of the Spanish resistance to Buonaparte, from which he had conceived great hopes for the cause of slave trade abolition, and approved the Peninsular war, if proceeded upon with more caution. One subject on which he never changed his mind, as he indicated in a speech on the budget, 12 May 1809 and ever afterwards, was the iniquity of the public lottery, a source of revenue which demoralized the poorer classes. At this time he was reported to be speaking ‘frequently and very well; with as much fluency and effect as formerly’.24

An unmerited gibe of Canning’s on 9 June 1809 to the effect that his stance as an independent Member did not prevent him from applying to ministers for places such as the receiver-generalship of Yorkshire, offended Wilberforce, who had counted on Canning’s support for his endeavours to combat the slave trade in South America. As it was Perceval who placated him, it was the less surprising that Wilberforce rallied to Perceval, whose ‘eminence was not of his own seeking’, when the latter formed a government after the collapse of Portland’s. Wilberforce resented the duel between Canning and Castlereagh which had caused it and disliked the idea of a coalition with the Whigs, though he was favourable to a junction with Lord Grenville. Late in 1809 he was anxious to find common ground with Lord Sidmouth, with a view to ‘a general union of parties’ who conceded that Perceval’s government was entitled to a fair measure of support, as a basis for a stronger administration. Sidmouth was able to report substantial agreement, but was warned that ‘there is more of party feeling respecting [Wilberforce] than there is ... with regard to any other man who has never been in office’.25

Wilberforce had misgivings about the Scheldt expedition from the start and on 26 Jan. 1810 he spoke and voted with ‘the whole calendar of Saints’ in favour of inquiry into its failure; he was of the secret committee, though Perceval would have preferred a nominee of his own. On 29 Jan. he complained that his name appeared on neither side in the newspaper division lists after he had voted for the address on the first night of the session: he provoked laughter when he remarked that ‘as he belonged to no party nobody took care of him but he did not wish his constituents to think he was absent’. On 15 Feb. he favoured an investigation of naval abuses, speaking as a friend of Barham, whose record he subsequently defended. Next day he spoke in commendation of the reward offered to Wellington for his Peninsular services. He voted against government on Lord Chatham’s self-exculpatory memorandum, 23 Feb. and 5 Mar., but helped thwart Whitbread’s motion for a representation to the King and on 30 Mar. rallied to government when he found the opposition censure on the Scheldt expedition too strong; though he still thought its planning dubious, and favoured Canning’s amendment in his disapproval of Perceval’s management of the question. He advised against haste on the question of Burdett’s breach of privilege, 28 Mar., and on 5 Apr. said he would have preferred ‘a cooler moment’ to adjudicate, but while acknowledging the breach, voted for a reprimand and against committal to the Tower. He was one of the committee of privilege in question and the decision to detain Burdett pained him. On 16 Apr. he and his friends voted for the discharge of the radical Gale Jones: Canning commented: ‘our hypocritical candour took in Wilberforce to vote with us’ (i.e. against government). On the other hand he objected, in a speech that gave him some satisfaction, to the Middlesex petition for the release of Burdett, 3 May, and, after sleeping on it, in a speech found ‘useful’ by ministry, to the London petition, 9 May: their abuse of the constitution was his warrant.26

Wilberforce spoke and voted with the minority in favour of Irish tithe commutation on 13 Apr. 1810. On 1 May he was able to express his support of Romilly’s campaign to reduce capital punishment; illness had prevented him on 9 Feb., though he had previously done so on 18 May 1808, pointing out that the plan had been intended by Pitt. He subsequently remained staunch. On 9 May and 5 June 1810, he was a spokesman in favour of penitentiaries: he deplored the existing prisons and convict colonies alike and thought solitary confinement ‘a medicine to the mind’. On 14 May he was in the minority on the Duke of Brunswick’s annuity bill, and on 17 and 31 May he supported his friend Bankes’s proposal to abolish sinecure offices, which he stated to be a public duty. While he had discouraged a Yorkshire meeting in favour of parliamentary reform that month, he voted silently in favour of Brand’s motion for it on 21 May; and on 20 June, though unwell, presented a Sheffield petition favouring moderate reform and stressing the need for economical reform. He felt a ‘calmer season’ was needed for parliamentary reform. This he thought a ‘useful parting admonition’ to the House and he felt tempted to address a letter to his constituents on the question, from the standpoint of ‘one of the most moderate of all reformers’. It is not surprising that the Whigs were ‘doubtful’ of him in their analysis of the House earlier that session. Yet in February, Robert Ward, a ministerialist admirer of Perceval, had noted:

Wilberforce with all his conscience would beat [Perceval] as a manager of the House by the simple want of what Perceval possesses so much of, ingenuousness ... I fear Bankes and Wilberforce infinitely more than Burdett, or even Cobbett. I firmly believe they wish (I am sure they attempt) to convert the House into the executive of the state.27

Wilberforce supported the ministerial tactic of adjournment on the King’s illness, 15 and 29 Nov. 1810, and was of the committee to examine the royal physicians: on 21 Dec. he favoured Pitt’s Regency plan of 1788. On 31 Dec. he was still backing ministers, but next day, while rebuking Romilly with ‘many candid compliments’ for an attack on Pitt’s reputation, he supported the opposition majority for Lord Gower’s amendment thwarting the Queen’s control over the royal household. Perceval had tried to prevent this and almost succeeded, but Canning swayed Wilberforce; nor did Wilberforce support Perceval’s remodelling of the proposal next day. He regretted it: ‘I really fear it may hurt our good old King. Yet I acted from a sense of duty.’ On 23 Jan. 1811, on the third reading of the Regency bill, when challenged by Daniel Giles* about his voting for this amendment but supporting the rest of the bill, he justified himself by reference to what the King’s feelings must be. Opposition seemed to think that Wilberforce’s influence would cause Perceval to restrict the Regency to six months instead of 12, but Perceval was not swayed by Wilberforce’s advice, as the latter’s critical speech of 17 Jan. demonstrated.28

Wilberforce continued to promote the cause of the slaves, but he allowed the initiative to pass to younger men: on 5 Mar. 1811 he boosted Brougham’s motion for a bill to render the abolition of the slave trade more effective. He did not oppose Joseph Foster Barham’s proposal to supply the West Indies with imported free labour, 4 Apr. He continued to gloss over the difficulties of the Sierra Leone Company: if it was a failure, it compensated Africa for past iniquity. He also defended missionary activity among the slaves in the West Indies by Methodists and others, and that summer he pleaded with Sidmouth against his proposed bill to restrict the licensing of dissenting ministers, which was a blow to the Methodists.29

Wilberforce at first had reservations about the scope of the bullion committee, but on 9 May 1811 he concurred in his friend Thornton’s critique of the Bank directorate and on 15 May urged a more efficient management of commercial credit. On the gold coin and bank-note bill, 19 July 1812, he contrived to be for and against and neither, but concluded by supporting the bill ‘as far as it went’: in a digression he expressed his fear of war with the USA which, as children of the same family, the two countries should avert. He had voted with the minority for Williams Wynn’s election bribery bill, 25 Mar. 1811, in which month he was approached unavailingly by the Friends of Constitutional Reform; against the reinstatement of the Duke of York as commander-in-chief of the army, 6 June, and in favour of Irish tithe commutation, 11 June. On 1 Apr. he credited himself with carrying ‘many votes’ on the Wakefield railway bill, a hotly contested private bill. Another aspect of his conscientiousness arose that session in the debate of 25 Feb. on Whitbread’s charges against Lords Eldon and Sidmouth of exploiting politically the King’s illness of 1804. Wilberforce missed much of the debate and came away without voting. He afterwards thought he would have voted against Whitbread and commented, ‘I know how unpopular this is in the House; but it was the path of duty and conscience, for it was in truth as if I had not been present. But very middling in health just now.’30

Such anxiety about his health and evidence of failing memory, as well as his concern for the welfare of his growing family, the lambs of the evangelical fold, caused Wilberforce to broach among his intimate friends in August 1811 the notion of giving up Yorkshire in favour of a quiet borough seat. He prided himself on having been an assiduous and conscientious Member, ‘so generally put on the public committees’, and on having given up everything for the sake of his parliamentary duties, without advantage to himself or family. It might be a blow to his vanity to be ‘out of the dramatis personae’, and he thought he had so far recovered his prestige in Yorkshire to come in unopposed, but he opted for a compromise in not retiring altogether. Of his advisers, Thomas Babington and James Stephen recommended his giving up Yorkshire, the former urging retirement and the latter a borough seat, while Henry Thornton and Charles Grant advised against his giving up the county and the Speaker the same, with a caveat against complete retirement. Wilberforce’s fears for the cause of religion ‘at home and abroad’ were enough to reconcile him to the notion of coming in for Bramber on the interest of his wife’s relation Lord Calthorpe: the idea of coming in for Calthorpe’s other, less reputable, borough of Hindon would not have appealed to him.31

Wilberforce was absent ill on the resumption of Parliament in January 1812, but on 13 Feb. spoke for 20 minutes against Whitbread’s motion for papers on negotiations with the USA, the discussion of which could only prejudice a perilous state of affairs: a more conciliatory attitude towards the USA would be needed to avert war. ‘All our set voted with me’, he noted, though his ‘healing and balsamic expressions’ were misreported. On 27 Feb. he voted, as did all his friends and the other splinter groups, against Turton’s censure motion. On 3 Mar., unlike other ‘neutrals’ and despite Perceval’s bid to catch his vote, he supported Brougham, with whom he had been collaborating on the project of a slave registry bill, in his critical motion against the orders in council; he had always had reservations about them, despite his brother-in-law James Stephen’s obdurate championship of them, and as long ago as 26 Jan. 1810 had criticized the licensed export trade. Perceval claimed to be influenced by Wilberforce in conceding a committee of inquiry on 28 Apr. Having on 24 Feb. spoken and voted against Col. McMahon’s sinecure appointment, he did not join opposition in attempting to veto McMahon’s appointment as private secretary to the Regent on 14 Apr., though he wished his salary to be paid out of the privy purse: he admitted ‘he had often been joked about his doubts as to his vote’. He was, moreover, ‘vilely abused’ in the press for his unwillingness to come out against flogging in the army, 13 Mar. and 15 Apr. On 4 May he was in the majority against government on Bankes’s sinecure offices bill, which as a member of the committee on sinecures since January 1811 he had helped to prepare. He elected to remain silent on parliamentary reform that week, though still a moderate supporter of it.

On Perceval’s assassination, Wilberforce paid public tribute to his uprightness and advocated a frank, warm, unanimous but smaller compensation than that proposed for his family, with a monument at Westminster for good measure. He obtained unanimity, but had to acquiesce in the larger grant. As a champion of ‘the old-fashioned principles of the constitution’, he spoke and voted, evidently to the surprise of opposition, against Stuart Wortley’s motion for a stronger administration, which infringed the royal prerogative of choosing ministers, 21 May 1812. He had declined an interview with Lord Liverpool that day. He would have liked to see Speaker Abbot become premier; as it was, he despised the opposition leaders’ refusal to come to terms with the precarious ministry and only the memory of past and the hope of future services to the abolition cause prevented him from saying so publicly, 11 June. Nor did he think Liverpool started well in failing to procure Canning, who was in Wilberforce’s confidence, for his administration, though he did not wish to see Canning replace Vansittart as chancellor of the Exchequer. In the debate on Brougham’s motion for the repeal of the orders in council, 16 June, he urged government to repeal unconditionally, without waiting for American concessions: ‘we ought not to steer a middle course’. He was a well-wisher to Brougham’s peace bid: ‘so unpartylike or rather con-partylike a step would of itself be a strong recommendation to me’. He was in the minority on the Admiralty registrars bill, 19 June, the Irish tithe commutation, 23 June, and against the leather tax, 1 July. He was of the secret committee to examine the industrial unrest in the Midlands and failed to secure some clauses he proposed to insert to deal with the trouble immediately and mildly; but defended the preservation of the peace bill against Whitbread on 10 and 13 July, as a remedy against the spread of a disease ‘of a political nature’. At the same time he patronized an Association for the Relief of the Manufacturing and Labouring Poor.32

Warned by Sidmouth of the ensuing dissolution and by Henry Thornton that Lascelles meant to stand for Yorkshire, Wilberforce, though professing no fear of a contest against a ministerial opponent, penned his farewell address on 21 Sept., with a view to coming in for Bramber. Hearing a rumour that Lascelles did not mean to offer, he was prey to ‘a secret wish that I may be forced still to be Member in order to keep the peace of the county’. His advertisement was construed as a wish to avoid a contest and he had to issue another to make his decision final. He was hailed ‘Friend of Man’ by constituents whose acquiescence in his unconventional behaviour as knight of the shire never ceased to amaze him. Avoiding temptations to offer himself for constituencies as various as Westminster, Warwickshire, Lewes and Dover, he came in for Calthorpe’s close borough for the remainder of his parliamentary career, which he expected to be in a quieter key. He admitted to Brougham, who had offered to muster Whig support for him if he stood for Yorkshire, that he disliked sacrificing the independence of the county to a ‘noble coalition’ (i.e. Lords Fitzwilliam and Harewood), but he could not presume to offer on condition of less constant attendance. Commenting on his independence in a quaint and courteous letter to Lord Milton, 21 Nov. 1812, he wrote, ‘I do not so entirely foreswear all party connection as you may perhaps suppose from my general and unqualified language’, but went on to explain that, regarding national morals as more precious than party, he could not but observe that systematic opposition bred its own species of corruption. It cannot be said that he was markedly less prominent in Parliament after retiring from the representation of his county; free of some of his taxing duties, he was, if anything, more diffuse in debate, particularly in defence of humanitarian causes; and he was heard out with respect. He lamented the decay of oratory, but welcomed the general improvement in moral tone, in and out of Parliament, since he had first entered it.33

Wilberforce supported the address and deprecated Whitbread’s pressure for peace negotiations as premature, 1 Dec. 1812: he complained that he was reported as being ‘far more warlike’ than he in fact was. He supported Catholic relief, with particular reference to admission to Parliament, throughout March-May 1813, with a view to the pacification of Ireland. It was, he said on 9 Mar., ‘a sort of golden opportunity which might never return if they now lost it’. Canning introduced clauses in the bill ‘merely to please Wilberforce’. On 22 Mar. 1813, and at greater length on 22 June, by which time he had government favour, he introduced another cause which he had been obliged to put by in 1793 in favour of slave trade abolition: the conversion of India to Christianity. He had made known his views on this before, notably to Perceval, but the renewal of the East India Company charter now presented an occasion for a set piece, probably his best preserved speech, exposing the anomalies of the Hindu religion. He had hoped the established Church would have taken the lead in proselytizing, but finding the dissenters more enterprising he supported their missions too. He carried his point by 89 votes to 36. On 1 July 1813 he vindicated the case for the missionaries by 54 votes to 22. He used the same tactics as he had in the slave trade question, but this time found less apparent opposition and government paid heed to him. He was now reckoned a friend by them. At the end of that session he also paved the way for an international agreement on the slave trade, though Portugal alone was the object of his solicitous address, 14 July 1813. ‘The present ministry’, he informed Hannah More, 9 Apr. 1814, ‘has clearly been more favourable than most others to true religion.’ That year he did not draw attention to himself in Parliament until 2 May, when he moved for an international convention to promote slave trade abolition in such pious terms as had not been used in a Commons address in living memory; with official support, he carried it nem. con. He returned the compliment by supporting government on the blockade of Norway, 12 May, and when Castlereagh brought in the Treaty of Paris on 6 June, assured him that it was only the failure to secure an international agreement against the slave trade that prevented him from joining in the ovation it received. He addressed letters to the Emperor of Russia and to Talleyrand to the same effect. Castlereagh soothed Wilberforce, particularly when on 27 June, after a flood of 800 petitions, he concurred in Wilberforce’s long address calling for a European convention and protesting at the moratorium of five years conceded to France by the treaty. On 29 June Wilberforce ratified the peace treaty with the proviso of a unanimously carried amendment calling for the speedy abolition of the international slave traffic. His only other comments on the treaty were pleas against aggressive alliances in future and for the restoration of Polish independence. He found himself an international celebrity, courted by visiting royalty and voted by Madame de Staël ‘the wittiest man in England’. Ironically, although the allies formally declared in favour of abolition on 8 Feb. 1815, it was the restored Buonaparte who quashed the slave trade in France.34

Wilberforce opposed revision of the Corn Laws until 10 Mar. 1815, but thenceforward accepted the measure, obtaining military protection for his house against the mob. He thought the price fixed a little high, but not too high to pay for the likelihood (though he could not get an assurance from government) of support for other causes on the credit of his support for this one. Opposition critics sensed this and found it shabby: the ‘Saints’ seemed to cling more closely to ministers in proportion to their weakness and inefficiency. But Wilberforce voted with the minority on the Spanish Liberal refugees, 1 Mar., and on Tierney’s civil list motion, 8 May 1815. He admitted that he now neglected ‘general politics’, but ‘indecisively’ opposed Whitbread’s motion for an understanding with Buonaparte on 28 Apr. He felt tempted to support it, but his friends warned him off opposition, as the stalemate of Buonaparte’s restoration made it incumbent on Wilberforce to bring in the proposal for a statutory registry of slaves in the British colonies, already imposed in Trinidad by order in council in 1812, as part of the campaign to prevent evasion of abolition, 13 June. Unlike James Stephen, he disliked pressing government, but leave was given and the bill brought in on 5 July and then postponed; the defeat of Buonaparte again gave priority to an international convention for abolition. He applauded the Duke of Wellington, who had been a promoter of abolition at Paris the previous year, 29 June, and made amends to Whitbread in an obituary tribute, 11 July. On 29 June and 3 July he opposed, or as he put it, withheld support from the Duke of Cumberland’s establishment bill, because the Queen’s disapproval of her son’s choice of a wife was common knowledge. He had opposed Lord Rosebery’s divorce bill on 19 June ‘religionis causa’.35

In March 1816 Wilberforce called and voted for a reduction of the army estimates, regarding the navy as the defence bulwark and reverting to his old dislike of a standing army, the expense of which was now a burden. He was the last speaker in the debate on the renewal of the property tax, which he opposed amid clamour for a division. He voted silently for Catholic relief on 21 May 1816 (and again on 9 May 1817). He continued to put pressure on Castlereagh to promote an international agreement on the slave trade: on 26 Mar. 1816 Castlereagh informed him that Bourbon France conceded abolition. He was thus able to renew agitation for the slave registry bill, though he postponed it, 22 May. On 19 June he reviewed the evidence which made a registry bill desirable, denying accusations of Methodism and fanaticism from his new generation of opponents, one of whom, Joseph Marryat*, had attacked him in a pamphlet. He was in the minority on the Austrian loan, 28 May, and in three others in June, most predictably that on state lotteries which he described as vicious, 13 June, and again opposed on 18 Mar. and 19 May 1817 and 4 May 1819.36

Wilberforce wrote, during the session of 1817, ‘though my resigning my seat for Yorkshire has given me in some degree the choice of any business, it has not at all lessened it’. On the contrary, he was more in demand than ever as a ‘chamber counsel’ and unable to take up all the humanitarian causes for which his services were canvassed. Until 1810 he had employed a secretary and in his heyday he allegedly paid £200 p.a. for postage above his daily franks: now he had to husband his energies. On 7 Feb. 1817 he questioned the practicability of the select committee on public income and expenditure, which would take too long to be useful. He objected, as he had done in the past, to the nomination of placemen to a committee dedicated to retrenchment, a symptom of the growth of the influence of the state rather than of the crown, and jolted ministers by greeting their nominations with calls of ‘absurd’. On the other hand he had no objection to Lord Camden’s sinecure of tellership of the Exchequer as a reward for public services and praised his sacrifice of it, 12 Feb. The same day he was an outspoken critic of the Game Laws. He voted with ministers on Admiralty salaries, 17 Feb., but against them for a committee on the Bank, 19 Feb. He was one of the secret committee on sedition that month, but was prevented by illness from attending its report; overcoming his scruples about offending opposition friends to the slave cause, he defended the seditious meetings bill on his return, while voting for an adjournment of it, 28 Mar. 1817; and voted ‘most unwillingly’, but ‘from a strict sense of duty’, for the habeas corpus suspension bill in June, despite Burdett’s rebuke of his allowing Englishmen to be treated like slaves, which stung him into a well-received retort, 27 June. He countered the opposition motion for the abolition of the third secretaryship of state, 29 Apr., by suggesting that it would be a false economy if the colonies were neglected. On 2 June he supported Charles Williams Wynn for Speaker. At the end of the session, 9 July, he carried a long address in favour of a negotiated international abolition of the slave trade, with particular reference to Spain; this object was obtained that autumn and on 9 Feb. 1818 Wilberforce approved the treaty with Spain in the House.37

While he favoured a ballot for the secret committee renewed on 6 Feb. 1818, Wilberforce opposed the investigation of government employment of spies and informers, though he had scant regard for them, 11 Feb., and denied tales of oppression of state prisoners in some instances of which he had knowledge, 17 Feb. Again opposing the investigation, 5 Mar., and after a mild reply to Tierney’s taunt as to the vacillation of his much courted vote, his view was, ‘never did I give a clearer vote’. But his vote was thought inexplicable then and was even less clear on 16 Mar. on the navy estimates, when he came into the House as a division was called and, the question being read to him, he was for the Ayes, but took his seat among the Noes. He then stated that he meant to vote No in any case and this was allowed; he thus sided with government against Ridley’s motion. This episode epitomized Wilberforce’s indecision on questions he had not pondered: the only thing he ever rationally repented the morning after was his vote of the night before. His brother-in-law Stephen had pointed out to him in 1811 that his ‘peculiar’ position in Parliament made it advisable for him to absent himself more often than he did on divisions which necessitated such painful decisions.38

In February 1818 Wilberforce supported the Election Laws amendment bill and Sir Robert Peel’s cotton factories bill, having long believed that cotton mills were ‘destructive of morals’, though on 17 Apr. he proposed an amendment. On 14 Apr. he paid tribute to Romilly’s efforts to reform the penal code. He voted silently (to avoid the imputation of revenge for the duke’s hostility to abolition) with the majority against the additional grant to the Duke of Clarence, 15 Apr., and next day favoured a smaller grant to the Duke of Cambridge, again with the majority. On 22 Apr. he spoke ‘long but not well’, he thought, in favour of a slave registry bill and for the rest of the session supported Romilly’s motions against the ill treatment of slaves in the West Indies, though ‘very indifferently’ in his own view.

Wilberforce must have had thoughts of retirement, for before the election of 1818 he noted: ‘Determined to come in again for Bramber, at least for two years, under some strange circumstances. Thus Providence seems to fashion my ways.’ But he was not noticeably less active in the Parliament of 1818, speaking on a wide range of subjects. He voted silently, after sitting on the select committee, against the Windsor establishment bill, 22 Feb. 1819. He endorsed Mackintosh’s assumption of Romilly’s mantle in the reform of criminal law, 2 Mar. On 18 Mar. he voted for Ridley’s critical motion on the junior lords of the Admiralty and next day likewise with the minority on the royal household bill. He favoured the reform of the Scottish burghs, 1 Apr., and approved the Game Laws amendment bill, 14 May. He unexpectedly sided with government against the repeal of the Irish window tax, 5 May, and voted against Tierney’s censure motion of 18 May. On 8 June he concurred in the official sponsorship of the slave registry bill, which had made such slow progress in his hands and had been referred to the colonial assemblies, but himself moved another address for an international agreement on the slave trade, carried nem. con. on 27 July.

He would not be drawn into sympathy with the clamour out of doors following the Peterloo disaster and resisted it, despite his wish not to lose opposition support on slave questions, in his speech in favour of the address, 23 Nov. 1819. He did call for tax relief, however, and had recently opposed a wool tax on behalf of his ex-constituents. Owing to misreporting, he felt obliged to clarify his views on 26 Nov. He supported the seditious meetings prevention bill, 6 Dec., and went on to lament the prevalence of blasphemy and disaffection in the manufacturing districts, 9 Dec. In short, he approved the repressive legislation of that month as a temporary necessity, while hoping for some means to relieve popular distress: not, however, such irreligious plans as Robert Owen’s, 16 Dec. He was reported to fear despotism more than radicalism. ‘Why then vote for the bills?’, he was asked. ‘Oh,’ was his reply ‘... that is another affair.’ John Cam Hobhouse, reporting this, added that he supposed Wilberforce’s interlocutor ‘was a fool and therefore Wilberforce talked nonsense to him’. It was remarked of Wilberforce in 1812 that the Whigs were inclined to overrate his goodwill towards them, ‘to whom he has never been really friendly’. Indeed his name was mentioned in 1819 as a possible government sponsored candidate for Westminster.39

Wilberforce weathered one more Parliament: his ‘healing and balsamic’ urge reached its climax in his mediatory role in the Commons in the quarrel between George IV and his consort when it became a party question, but he failed to achieve a reconciliation. Party politics, which he so disliked, proved resilient and his weight was far greater in public opinion, particularly among the middle class to whom he had always appealed, than in Parliament, which was readier to watch the ascent of a balloon than listen to his farewell speech; just as 30 years before the opera had been preferred to his abolitionist oratory, melodious though his voice by all accounts was. He had become ‘the noisiest Member of the House’ and he left it with this complacent reflexion on the strength of God’s spies there: ‘We never before were so strong in the House of Commons since the early days when Pitt and Fox were our advocates, and we have a support from popular opinion now which we then wanted’. Canning was the obvious successor to his political mantle, but it fell on Brougham and, as far as the slave question alone was concerned, on Thomas Fowell Buxton*. He wished his sons not to be politicians.40

‘The honourable and religious gentleman’, as Wilberforce was dubbed by Burdett (27 June 1817) left the stamp of a unique personality on English public life. Regarding the House of Commons as the only school for public virtue, he thought it must degenerate into a school for scandal unless Members were guided by ‘moral compulsion’ rather than by partisan zeal; and this detachment could only be acquired by seeing affairs ‘through a scriptural medium’. He often counted the blessings that enabled him to make his stand: ‘What a mercy to have been born an Englishman, in the eighteenth century, of decently religious parents, with a fortune, talents, etc.’. Thus endowed with privilege, effortless patriotism, freedom of action, a ‘high relish of religion’ and the means to promote philanthropy and to shine in Parliament, where ‘if I had time, and would cultivate my powers, I might speak better than any in the House but two or three’, he regarded his public life as a stewardship; the Providence that unfolded in his career was his guide as he hovered between the division lobbies. There were disadvantages: he was a queer saint. His orthodoxy was suspect: his views on the Trinity were ‘absurd’ and he was sure there was no real faith without good works. Robert Ward reported a discussion on Wilberforce’s character ‘in which the majority seemed to think him honest, but extremely unfair, run away with by the attractions of any popular butterfly, and so undecided as to be no authority on any subject’. As Brougham pointed out, he had ‘an exquisite sense of the ludicrous, the foundation of humour, as well as the perception of remote resemblances, of wit’. But he could assume a ‘solemnly awful voice’ and Pitt and Perceval found they had more to fear from his admonitory friendship than from their foes. Of his performance on 26 Jan. 1810, it was reported: ‘Wilberforce as usual gave the finishing stroke to his friends in distress’. A man who admitted that fondness for distinction was his ‘constitutional vice’ was open, when he ‘mixed religion too much with his subject’, to the accusation of bringing ‘too much of self’ to it.41 This peripatetic social sovereign, ‘hideous but agreeable’, emitting radiance and magnetism, fled the gay world he seemed born to charm from retreat to retreat, putting lakes and seaside resorts on the fashionable map in his wake, and returned to proselytize society like an abbé mondain with ‘a Testament which had not the common dress of one on purpose’ and a recipe for ‘launching’ conversation in the direction of divinity. In a less polished and sensitive environment this ‘little spirit running about without a body’ would have been of no account: his manner

resembled the action of a bird which hops from sprig to sprig, touches, and goes. He talks, reads, is grave, sprightly, playful, absorbed, light and free in such quick succession that unless something of moment fixes his attention, his changes are so rapid that no hold can be had of him.42

Had he been less volatile, he would scarcely have so impressed the improved and improving society to the sanctification of which he and the pressure group of whom he was the acknowledged leader applied all the resources of propaganda that were to be used by publicists for more secular lobbies thereafter. He died emancipator of the national conscience, 29 July 1833.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne

Notes

  • 1. Pope of Holland House ed. Lady Seymour, 230; R. I. and S. Wilberforce, Life of Wilberforce (1838), i. 108, 248, 274, 290, 308, 317, 326, 383-4; ii. 25; iii. 286; iv. 69; Teignmouth, Reminiscences, i. 246; Wilberforce Corresp. ed. R. I. and S. Wilberforce, i. 288; ii. 1, 47; PRO 30/70/4/216; M. D. George, Cat. Pol. and Personal Satires, vii. 8637; Wilberforce mss, Wilberforce to Smith, 5 Feb. [1825].
  • 2. Life, i. 349; iii. 182; R. Furneaux, Wilberforce, chs. 6, 7, pp. 239, 256-9.
  • 3. For a ‘Tabular View of the Abolition of Slavery and the Slave Trade’, see Life, ii. preface.
  • 4. Life, i. 285; ii. 14; Leeds Intelligencer, 17 May; Morning Chron. 13 May 1791; N. Riding RO, Wyvill mss ZFW7/2/74/13, 25-28.
  • 5. A practical view of the prevailing religious system of professed Christians, in the higher and middle classes in this country contrasted with real Christianity (London, 1797). It reached its 15th edition in 1824.
  • 6. Life, i. 300; ii. 10, 58, 62, 67, 70; Wilberforce Corresp. i. 103, 107; Kent AO, Stanhope mss 731/11, Wilberforce to Eliot, 22 Dec. [1794].
  • 7. Cornwallis Corresp. ii. 282; Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1180, 1198, 1247, 1250; Add. 51799, Fitzpatrick to Holland, 1 Jan. 1795; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F31/36; Minto, ii. 385n; Farington Diary (Yale ed.), ii. 302; Harewood mss, Canning to Mrs Leigh, 4 Jan. 1795; Camden mss C106/1; C267/1; C269/1.
  • 8. Life, ii. 110, 147; Harewood mss, Canning to Mrs Leigh, 31 Oct. 1795; Windham Diary, 336; Morning Chron. 12 May 1796.
  • 9. Life, ii. 185, 186, 202; Morning Chron. 10 May 1797.
  • 10. Life, ii. 238, 242, 245-50, 267, 281; Morning Chron. 9 Aug., 13, 15, 17 Nov., 21 Dec. 1797.
  • 11. Leveson Gower, i. 197-8; Life, ii. 326-7.
  • 12. Life, ii. 332, 353, 356; Windham Diary, 424.
  • 13. Life, iii. 2, 12, 21, 28; Wellesley Pprs. i. 145-9; Wilberforce Pprs. 31.
  • 14. Life, iii. 51-56, 61.
  • 15. Add. 35395, f. 277; Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 126, 145; Creevey mss, Creevey to Currie, 24 May 1803 (cf. Creevey Pprs. ed Maxwell, i. 15); Pellew, Sidmouth, ii. 184; Life, ii. 88, 99, 103, 109, 139; Wilberforce Corresp. i. 258, 262, 265, 274, 277.
  • 16. Life, iii. 90, 93, 141, 146, 149, 154, 161, 208, 211, 218, 220, 226, 229; SRO GD51/1/435; Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lowther, 9 Apr. 1805; Ward, Letters to ‘Ivy’, 27; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 15 June 1805; Horner Mems. i. 300; Creevey Pprs. i. 36; Add. 35718, f. 91.
  • 17. Life, iii. 246; Add. 37309, f. 83; Rose Diaries, ii. 208-10, 237-8.
  • 18. Life, iii. 256-7, 264-7; Wilberforce Corresp. ii. 70; E. A. Smith, ‘The Yorks. Elections of 1806 and 1807’, Northern Hist. ii. (1967), 68.
  • 19. Fortescue mss, Wilberforce to Grenville, 1 Nov., Grenville to Carlisle, 28 Aug., Thornton to Grenville, 7 Nov. 1806; Harrowby mss, Ryder to Harrowby, 27 Feb. 1807.
  • 20. Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 224, 228; Colchester, ii. 110; Life, iii. 307; Grey mss, Temple to Howick, Wed. [25 Mar.], 1 Apr., Grenville to same, 26 Mar.; Lonsdale mss, Camden to Lowther, 3 Apr. 1807; Buckingham, Court and Cabinets, iv. 164, 197.
  • 21. Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F36/33; Life, iii. 317; Leveson Gower, ii. 251; Add. 52178, Brougham to Allen [6 June 1807].
  • 22. Add. 51917, unsigned memo on Yorks. election (?by Brougham).
  • 23. Life, iii. 354, 365, 388, 392; Whitbread mss W1/4185; Add. 51549, Lady Holland to Grey, Fri. [27 May 1808]; Horner mss 3, f. 246.
  • 24. Horner mss 4, f. 44; Farington, v. 188; Add. 37309, f. 287.
  • 25. Life, iii. 409, 426, 431-2, 437; Add. 38737, f. 321; Wilberforce Corresp. ii. 166, 169; Sidmouth mss, Sidmouth to Addington, 27 Sept., 29 Dec., to Bragge Bathurst, 29 Dec. 1809, De Dunstanville to Sidmouth, 3 Jan., Vansittart to same, 6 Jan. 1810; Pellew, iii. 18.
  • 26. Jnl. of Holland, ii. 253; Life, iii. 439, 442; NLI, Richmond mss 73/1745; PRO 30/8/368, f. 159; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 1, 17 Apr. 1810; Geo. III Corresp. v. 4138, 4156.
  • 27. Life, iii. 440, 445, 451; Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lonsdale, 3 Feb. 1810.
  • 28. HMC Fortescue, x. 88; Rose Diaries, ii. 464; Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lonsdale, 1 Jan. 1811; Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. i. 300, 301, 310; Malmesbury mss, FitzHarris to Malmesbury, 2, 3 Jan. 1811.
  • 29. Pellew, iii. 59; Life, iii. 508.
  • 30. Life, iii. 500, 517.
  • 31. Ibid. 497, 524-33; Wilberforce Corresp. ii. 209; Wilberforce mss diary, 4 Aug., Wilberforce to Butterworth, 1 Oct.; PRO 30/9/16, Wilberforce to Abbot, 22 Aug. 1811.
  • 32. Life, iv. 6, 8, 17, 23, 28, 34; Phipps, i. 437, 451; Add. 34458, f. 339; Romil