William Wilberforce (1759-1833)

leading abolitionist, social reformer, and politician.

WILBERFORCE was born into a wealthy merchant family in Hull and received a BA and MA at St. John’s College at Cambridge, where he became close friends with William Pitt the Younger. He was elected MP for Hull as an independent at the age of twenty one. Four years later, he converted to evangelical Christianity and briefly contemplated renouncing politics for the church, but instead refocused his political efforts on social reform, forming a group within the Parliament known affectionately as ‘The Saints’. Outside Parliament, he allied himself with leading abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson, Charles Middleton, and Hannah More. He presented his first speech opposing the slave trade on 12 May 1789, and continued to press for the abolition of the slave trade until the bill’s final passage on 23 February 1807. His other political efforts focused on education, prison and capital punishment reform, improvements in working conditions, and moral reform. Wilberforce retired from Parliament due to poor health in 1825 and died on 29 July 1833, three days after learning that Parliament would fully abolish slavery.

The Edinburgh Review frequently came out in support of the abolition of the slave trade against its equally frequent defence, puzzling over ‘the temerity of the slave traders in venturing upon another round, where the odds are so stacked against them’ (ER 8:358). Wilberforce himself contributed a review of one such defence in 1804 (ER 5:209-41).

Brian Robert Wall, IASH, University of Edinburgh


David Brion Davis, ‘The Preservation of English Liberty, I’, in The Antislavery Debate, ed. Thomas Bender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

Seymour Drescher, ‘Public Opinion and Parliament in the Abolition of the British Slave Trade’,” in The British Slave Trade: Abolition, Parliament and People, ed. Stephen Farrell, Melanie Unwin, and James Walvin (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2007).

William Hague, William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner (London: Harper Press, 2007).

Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce by his Sons (London: John Murray, 1838).


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