Perhaps the most telling description ever written of evangelical reformer William Wilberforce comes from writer and philosopher Sir James Mackintosh. "I never saw anyone," Mackintosh wrote in 1830, "who touched life at so many points."
words indeed for the man about whom it was also said: "No Englishman has ever
done more to evoke the conscience of the British people and to elevate and ennoble
These days, William Wilberforce (1759-1833) is a forgotten man for most Americans. But there are many reasons why he deserves to be remembered. Perhaps the most important is that Americans today, as in Wilberforce's day, are crying out for moral leadership.
If we desire principled leaders who inspire trust, Wilberforce's legacy is a potent antidote to the lack of public integrity that seems to surround us today.
When Lord Melville, Wilberforce's friend and colleague, was accused of condoning the misappropriation of funds in 1805, Wilberforce voted for his friend's impeachment because he felt principle demanded it. Many in Parliament insisted the crime was minor and would greatly disrupt the British war effort against Napoleon's France, since Melville was the First Lord of the Admiralty.
"We are now on trial before the moral sense of England," Wilberforce said, explaining his vote. "And if we shrink from it we will deeply regret our conduct later."
Melville was impeached by one vote and resigned his office. Wilberforce was pilloried in the press as a political opportunist. But integrity paid off. Historians agree that Melville's successor, Lord Barham, was instrumental in engineering Admiral Nelson's great victory at Trafalgar, a decisive turning point which set the stage for Napoleon's eventual defeat.
Wilberforce was a great leader because, based on personal principles, he was willing to stand against public opinion and party expectations. He was committed to seeing justice served, even when it was personally inconvenient.
Between 1787 and 1807 Wilberforce campaigned tirelessly for a legislated end to the British slave trade, a part of the economy financially analogous to our defense industry today. He introduced the measure again and again, and repeatedly his "perennial resolution" was defeated by moneyed interests that supported political leaders.
But in 1807, the vote went in his favor 287 to 16, an event historian G. M. Trevelyan called "one of the turning events in the history of the world."
In later decades, Abraham Lincoln remembered Wilberforce, saying he recalled the man who ended the slave trade, but could not name one man who tried to keep it alive.
The vote to abolish the British slave trade led eventually to the abolition of slavery itself throughout Britain's colonies, something we in the United States had to fight a costly and bloody war over.
One of the secrets of Wilberforce's success was his capacity for bridge building. During his career, he often joined with philosophical opponents in pursuit of common goals. Abolition was one such instance; his prison reform work with the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham was another. Wilberforce and Bentham subscribed to very different worldviews, but to Wilberforce this did not preclude the possibility of collaboration. "Measures, not men," was one of his favorite sayings. Bentham deeply respected Wilberforce for this and dedicated an early draft of his famous Essay on the Poor Laws to Wilberforce.
This person-centered view was not only talk. Like many leaders today, Wilberforce was wealthy. He gave freely, lowering his tenants' rent, providing for the poor, and giving away a large percentage of his annual income.
This service, done consistently and without fanfare, gave force to his words and power to his ideas. There was no grandstanding or demagoguery, blaming poverty on an opponent's economic plan. There was no appeal to class envy.
took his responsibility to promote goodness personally, writing in his widely
acclaimed book A Practical View of Christianity, "It is the true duty of
every man to promote the happiness of his fellow creatures to the utmost of his
power." At the heart of Wilberforce's leadership ability was his faith. He believed
that all were equal in God's sight, citing Acts 17:26, "God hath made of one blood
all nations of men." This moved Wilberforce to serve individuals with whom he
had little or nothing in common, though they could offer nothing but thanks in
Wilberforce's contemporaries took note of this. When he died, politicians from both houses of Parliament and from all parties petitioned that he be buried in Westminster Abbey, a rare honor for a commoner. The petition was granted. Memorials were planned. Testimonials were given. The nation genuinely felt his loss. Imagining this happening today in the United States. It is possible.
Wilberforce's day was much like our own. England, then the world's superpower, was struggling with divisive social issues. Public confidence in its system of laws was low, and political scandal was not uncommon. The history of England shows that one man—William Wilberforce—was largely responsible for turning the social tide in a positive direction. This is the power of principled politics.
We should remember the things that make for quality candidates. Is the candidate a truth-teller even when it's personally inconvenient? Does he or she have firm principles that will hold up under pressure? Can they honor with whom those they disagree? Do their words and their actions match up?
In his day, Wilberforce heard the cry for a good leader. He responded.
If we cry out for good leaders, the right persons will be stirred to action. If we focus on the right, good, and true, stipulating that prospective candidates do the same, we will become a better people because we have better leaders. The legacy of William Wilberforce shows that this is possible.
Kevin Belmonte. "Wilberforce Biography." Wilberforce Forum (September, 2003).
Reprinted with permission of the Wilberforce Forum.
Kevin Belmonte is a Wilberforce fellow and director of the William Wilberforce Project at Gordon College. His latest book is called Hero for Humanity: A Biography of William Wilberforce.Copyright © 2003 The Wilberforce Forum
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