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.
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.
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.