Good causes are rarely advanced quickly and easily. Some of the greatest accomplishments of civilization required perseverance and enormous sacrifice on the part of men and women who possessed the vision to see what’s right and the courage to work against all odds.
I can hardly recommend a more fitting example of this than William Wilberforce, the man who more than any other single individual was responsible for ending slavery throughout the British Empire.
Born in 1759, Wilberforce never had the physical presence one would hope to possess for purposes of waging a momentous struggle. The British biographer Thomas Boswell called him a “shrimp.” Thin and short, Wilberforce compensated for his diminutive physical stature with a powerful vision, an appealing eloquence, and an indomitable will.
Elected to Parliament in 1780 at the age of 21, Wilberforce spoke out against the war with America in no uncertain terms, labeling it “cruel, bloody and impractical.” But he drifted from issue to issue without a central focus until a religious conversion sparked what would become a lifelong calling. Revolted by the hideous barbarity of the slave trade then prevalent in the world, he determined in October 1787 to work for its abolition.
Abolitionism was a tall order in the late 1700s. Viewed widely at the time as vital to British naval and commercial success, slavery was big business. It enjoyed broad political support, as well as widespread (though essentially racist) intellectual justification. For 75 years before Wilberforce set about to end the trade in slaves, and ultimately slavery itself, Britain enjoyed the sole right by treaty to supply Spanish colonies with captured Africans. Such trade, lucrative for British slavers, brought untold suffering to millions of victims.
Wilberforce labored relentlessly for his cause, forming and assisting organizations to spread the word about the inhumanity of one man owning another. “Our motto must continue to be perseverance,” he once told followers. And what a model of perseverance he was! He endured and overcame just about every obstacle imaginable, including ill health, derision from his colleagues, threats on his life, and defeats almost too numerous to count.
He rose in the House of Commons to give his first abolition speech in 1789, not knowing that it would take another 18 years before British law would end the slave trade. Every year he introduced an abolition measure and every year it went nowhere. At least once, some of his own allies deserted him when the opposition gave them free tickets to attend the theatre during a crucial vote. He was often ridiculed and condemned as a traitorous rabble-rouser.
Once in 1805, after yet another defeat in Parliament, Wilberforce was advised by a clerk of the Commons to give up the fight. He replied with the air of undying optimism that had come to characterize his stance on the issue: “I do expect to carry it.”
Indeed, what seemed once to be an impossible dream became reality on Feb. 23, 1807. Abolition of the slave trade won Parliament’s overwhelming approval. Biographer David J. Vaughan reports that “as the attorney general, Sir Samuel Romilly, stood and praised the perseverance of Wilberforce, the House rose to its feet and broke out in cheers. Wilberforce was so overcome with emotion that he sat head in hand, tears streaming down his face.”
The trade in slaves was officially over, but ending slavery itself remained the ultimate prize. To bring it about, Wilberforce worked for another 26 years, even after leaving behind nearly a half-century of service in Parliament in 1825. The great day finally came on July 26, 1833, when Britain became the world’s first major power to unshackle an entire race within its jurisdiction. Hailed as the hero who made it happen, Wilberforce died three days later.
Be persistent and passionate about noble causes. Maintain an optimism worthy of the goal itself, and do all within your character and power to rally others to the cause. Those are the lessons of the life of William Wilberforce, and they continue to inspire men and women of goodwill the world over.
(Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. More information is available at www.mackinac.org. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.)