William Wilberforce Biography

William Wilberforce was an English politician, philanthropist, and leader of the movement to abolish the slave trade. Explore this biography to learn more about his profile, childhood, life and timeline.

William Wilberforce

Quick Facts

Gender: Male
Birthday: 24 August 1759
Died: 29 July 1833
Nationality: British
Sun Sign: Virgo
Spouse/Ex-: Barbara Spooner Wilberforce
Children: Samuel Wilberforce, Robert Isaac Wilberforce, Henry William Wilberforce, William Wilberforce
Education: St John's College

This native of Kingston upon Hull took on the cause of abolition when it was not a very popular thing for a young MP to do. For twenty six years, he waged an unrelenting battle against the powers that be, i.e., traders and politicians steeped in avarice and lack of humanity. At a time when religious enthusiasm was generally regarded as a social transgression and was stigmatised in polite society, he struck a balance between his commitment to his country and his faith. He handled with grace and poise the distrust and hostility of progressive politicians and their inherent dislike which stemmed from their apprehension about his conservatism. Deeply convinced of the importance of morality, religion, and education, he set several reform wheels in motion. These campaigns, though perceived as socially repressive at home, set the stage for a more genteel Victorian period of custom and behaviour. This humanitarian reformer’s significant contribution to political and social attitudes now resonates—centuries later—in the human rights acts and reforms today. A deeply committed Christian, this statesman is often cited as the only politician who followed through on his conviction and faith. Scroll further to read more about this visionary statesman and humanitarian.

Childhood & Early Life

William Wilberforce was born to Robert Wilberforce, a wealthy merchant, and his wife Elizabeth Bird. His grandfather William had made the family fortune in the maritime trade with Baltic countries, and had been elected mayor of Hull, twice.
When he was nine, he was sent to live with his Aunt Hannah who encouraged his interest in evangelical Christianity. In 1771, he returned to continue his studies at Pocklington School.
In 1776, he went up to St John's College, Cambridge, where he was more interested in partying than studying; the future Prime Minister William Pitt was in his close circle.
Despite his lack of interest, he graduated with an MA in 1788.

Career

Encouraged by Pitt, the young student was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Kingston upon Hull. His resolve to be ‘no party man’ was met with criticism for inconsistency, ashe supported both Tory and Whig governments according to his conscience.
In 1783, when Pitt became Prime Minister he did not offer the young MP a ministerial position due to the latter’s wish to remain an independent MP.
In 1784, when the parliament was dissolved, the young MP returned as MP for Yorkshire at the age of twenty-four.
In 1786, he began to advocate reform by introducing a Registration Bill, proposing limited changes to parliamentary election procedures, and a bill to extend the measures regarding the dissection after execution of criminals and reduction of sentences for women; both bills were defeated.
By 1783, 80 percent of Great Britain's foreign income was from slave sugar colonies; about 1.4 million slaves died during the voyage. Ramsay’s essay on the treatment and conversion of African slaves, the Quaker’s antislavery committees and the testonites had set the stage for humanitarian reform.
In 1787, the young MP soon met Thomas Clarkson to build the case for abolition in the House of Commons. During a meeting with William Pitt and William Grenville under ‘the Wilberforce Oak’, the MP made his decision
In 1790, he delivered his first speech on the abolition, moved 12 resolutions condemning the slave trade. The following year, he successfully gained approval for a select committee to go through the accumulated first-hand evidence of the treatment of slaves.
In 1791, the young MP introduced first parliamentary bill to abolish the slave trade, which was easily defeated. Later that year, he officially joined the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade which had started to campaign against the slave trade rather than slavery itself.
In 1792, the Clapham Sect (of which he was an important member) established a free colony in Sierra Leone and the Sierra Leone Company. A bill calling for abolition resulted in a compromise solution of gradual abolition over a number of years.
In the early 19th century, following Pitt’s death, the radical MP introduced the Foreign Slave Trade Bill which banned British subjects from aiding or participating in the slave trade. In 1807, the bills was passed 283 votes to 16 even as tears streamed down this battle-weary MP’s face.
From 1816, he introduced a series of bills which would require the compulsory registration of slaves.
In the 1820s he became a figurehead for the abolitionist movement.
In 1823, the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery (later the Anti-Slavery Society) was founded; the MP continued to appeal on behalf of the slaves in the West Indies. The following year, he made his last speech in the Commons.
Due to ill health he declined a peerage, resigned his seat in Parliament, and moved to a modest property in 1826. Due to losses from his son’s business ventures, he was left with little income and was obliged to let his home.
In 1833, on the heels of a severe attack of influenza, he delivered his final anti-slavery speech due to which The Bill for the Abolition of Slavery was passed, formally saluting Wilberforce in the process was passed. He died early on the morning of 29 July and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Major Works

In addition to the various bills he proposed, he wrote a definitive 400-page Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1806, which formed the basis for the final phase of the campaign against the slave trade.
In 1832, he founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (later the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).

Awards & Achievements

The Slavery Abolition Act passed by the House of Lords abolished slavery in most of the British Empire from August 1834. Children younger than six were fully emancipated while apprenticeship required other enslaved peoples to work for their former masters. 800,00 slaves were freed.

Personal Life & Legacy

Although the young politician had shown little interest in women, he was smitten with twenty-year-old Barbara Ann Spooner. Following an eight-day whirlwind romance, he proposed. The couple were largely seen as completely devoted to each other.
Over a span of ten years, they had six children: William (b. 1798), Barbara (b. 1799), Elizabeth (b. 1801), Robert Isaac Wilberforce (b. 1802), Samuel Wilberforce (b. 1805) and Henry William Wilberforce (b. 1807).
This distinguished MP often came under attack for his hyprocrisy, as British workers still lived in terrible conditions at home.
He is commemorated in the liturgical calendars of various Anglican churches.
A generous man, he gave away thousands of pounds to poor parishes, paid off the debts of others, supported education and missions, and gave to charity more than his own yearly income.

Citation Information

Article Title

William Wilberforce Biography

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Last Updated

June 14, 2019

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