« PreviousContinue »
HERE we pause, before entering into the seven years' struggle, which terminated in 1846 with an Act to Repeal the Corn Laws in 1849, and look back upon the miscellaneous Reformers, who, on one subject or other—some on Negro Slavery, some on Parliamentary Reform, some on questions of Civil Disability for religious opinions, others on Indian Mo
nopoly and Misgovernment, and some on Jurisprudence or Industrial Science, had laboured successfully to vindicate Freedom of Opinion, and advance the Civilization of Mankind.
SECTION I. WILLIAM WILBER FORCE AND The SLAVE TRADE.
Although no name is more familiar to the public earthan that of William Wilberforce, and though five volumes of biography have been published by his sons, we have yet no record, except in half a century of Hansard's Debates, on the Journals of the House of Commons, or old files of newspapers, of those public services for which posterity will hold him in estimation. It is not within the scope of the present work to gather his motions, speeches, and votes on the Slave Trade, out of that chaos in which his sons have chosen to leave them. We choose rather to adopt a general review of his character deduced from the volumes of his sons.
William Wilberforce was born at Hull, August 24, in the year 1759. Early in life he lost his father, and was sent to live with his uncle, at Wimbledon, who was a rigid Methodist ; his aunt was a great admirer of Whitfield's preaching, and kept up a friendly connexion with the early Methodists.
The lively affections of his heart, warmed by the kindness of his friends, readily assumed their tone. “It is said that a rare and pleasing character of piety marked even his twelfth year; and his sons gave their opinion that there can be little doubt that the acquaintance with Holy Scripture and habits of devotion which he then acquired, fostered that baptismal seed which though long dormant [?] was destined to produce at last a golden harvest.”
Partly by his residence among some thoughtless companions at College, where he was distinguished for the quickness of his talents and loved for his hospitality and good nature ; partly by the zealous endeavours of his own family to remove the serious impressions which had been formed in his uncle's society—the allurements of worldly pleasure gained the mastery, and he soon entered, without reluctance, into a life of gaiety and amusement. Not only his station in society, and the agreeableness of his manner, secured his reception with the principal inhabitants of the city where he lived; but his taste, the sweetness of his voice, and his musical talents, made him everywhere acceptable—yet he passed through this dangerous passage of his life without any abandonment of his principles or any stain on the purity of his conduct.— His friend, Lord Clarendon, who knew him at this period of his life, says—“He had never, in the smallest degree, a dissolute character, however short his early habits might be of that constant piety and strictness which was soon perfected in his happy disposition.” Before he was of age, he stood for the Representation of Hull, and carried his election against the interest of Lord Rockingham, the most powerful nobleman in this county ; that of Sir G. Saville, its wealthy and respected Representative ; and that of Government, always strong at a sea-port. Previous to this time, he renewed his acquaintance with Mr. Pitt, whom he had known at Cambridge, and whom he afterwards met in the gallery of the House of Commons, and in the same Clubs in Town.
His success in his election threw no small lustre on his entry into public life, and he was welcomed, upon his return to London, into every circle.
He was at once elected a member of all the leading Clubs:
more luxurious than the style of those Clubs. Fox, Sheridan, Fitzpatrick, and all your leading men, frequented them, and associated upon the easiest terms; you chatted, played at cards, or gambled if you pleased.’ Mr. Wilberforce's usual resort, however, was with a more choice and intimate society, of which Pitt was an habitual frequenter. Here their intimacy increased every day: and, indeed, we must say, that this early part of the biography, during which Mr. Wilberforce was living in the most cordial and confidential terms of friendship with Mr. Pitt, is, to our minds, the most pleasing and interesting of the whole. “They were (says one who witnessed their familiar intercourse) exactly like brothers,”—and it is with peculiar regret that we are obliged to omit the very curious and interesting account of their excursions in France. As it is not, however, our purpose to recount the incidents of Mr. Wilberforce's life, but to present a short abstract of his character, and give a general survey of those qualities which he brought into the duties of public and private life, we must pass over much that is interesting during an intercourse of many years between him and that illustrious statesman, to whom was confided the government of his country almost as soon as it could be legally accepted by him. Wilberforce, however, was now beginning to feel other principles than the allurements of society, or temptations of ambition acting on his mind. These had been much confirmed, perhaps altogether awakened, by a familiar intercourse during aforeign tour, with his formerfriend Isaac Milner; they were strengthened by the perusal of Doddridge's well known work on Religion; and they were now assuming a form that was soon to appear as an abiding and paramount system of conduct in life. These views he communicated in confidential intercourse with Mr. Pitt, and soon after made public to the world in his Practical Views of Christianity.— “In the spring of 1786,” say his biographers, “Mr. Wilberforce returned an altered man to the House of Commons.”— He had now taken his ground on the very highest principles of human action—the authority of conscience under the influence of real Christianity. These principles he made his constant guide,-not only amid the gentler duties and quiet offices of private life; but he used them as his anchor of safety amidst all the powerful temptations, the arduous rtruggles, and the stormy conflicts of political warfare.— Three times did he positively come into collision with the counsels of Mr. Pitt, on questions of so great importance, as not only deeply to agitate the mind, but even to affect the place and power of the Minister. Once in a most painful and distressing discussion, in which he was opposing one friend, and urging strong accusations against the honour of another, he saw the eye of the minister bent upon him with a look of anxiety, and perhaps of reproach, that nothing could enable him to support, but the still stronger feeling of duty, and the unrelenting demands of conscience. It was a trial that would have broken up and shattered to pieces all the friendship of common and worldly men, cemented by trivial and selfish interest ; yet such was the greatness of Mr. Pitt's mind, and such his perfect conviction of the purity of Mr. Wilberforce's motives, such his knowledge of the commanding influence of the feeling of duty which he dare not disobey, that it did not impair the sincerity of their friendship, nor when the painful occasion was passed, did he, whose political degradation was the result of this pure and patriotic exertion, refuse to forget the momentary pang, and hold out the cordial hand of friendship—so much was this man's motives above all suspicion—so eminently even in this life did his virtues and exalted principles meet with their reward. “God had set before him,” he said, “two great objects; the abolition of the Slave Trade, and the reformation of manners.” How he fulfilled his mission in both instances, we hope is to few unknown. Enough, however, of our own narative :—we shall now, as we have promised, present to our readers a short view of Mr. Wilberforce's character, as it appeared under the different views of public and private life—as seen in his political character, and his devotional duties, in order that it may be known “what manner of man he was;” and this we give fresh as it comes from the communication of those who most intimately knew him— his relatives and friends. As a Speaker in the House of Commons he is thus described :“His place as a mere orator was still among the firstWhen he spoke indeed, on the common subjects of political dispute, the effect of age (his biographer is speaking of the year 1825) were in a degree visible ; but to the very last, when he lighted on a thoroughly congenial subject, , he broke out into those strains which made Romilly esteem him ‘the most efficient speaker of the House of Commons;” and which had long before led Pitt himself to say repeatedly, “of all the men I ever knew, Wilberforce has the greatest natural eloquence.” Mr. Morritt seems to have formed a very accurate conception both of his ordinary powers of speaking, and of that measure of decay which they at last exhibited. vol. II 15
“I find (he says) that I have recorded my own general opinion of his oratory and his parliamentary exertions in terms which, though only intended to commemorate for my own future reflection the more recent impression they made, I extract from their privacy in my drawer, that you may be more sure of their being my genuine and impartial judgment. Wilberforce held a high and conspicuous place in oratory, even at a time when English eloquence rivalled whatever we read of in Athens or Rome. His voice itself, was beautiful, deep, clear, articulate, and flexible. I think his greatest premeditated efforts were made for the abolition of the trade in slaves, and in supporting some of the measures brought forward by Pitt for the more effectual suppression of revolutionary machinations ; but he often rose unprepared in mixed debate on the impulse of the moment, and seldom sat down without having struck into that higher tone of general reasoning and vivid illustration, which left on his hearers the impression of power beyond what the oceasion called forth. He was of course unequal, and I have often heard him confess that he never rose without embarrassment, and always felt for a while that he was languid and speaking feebly, though he warmed as he went on. I have heard the late M. Windham express the same discontent with himself, both probably from the high standard of excellence at which they aimed. I have always felt, and have often heard it remarked by others, that in all his speeches, long or short, there was generally at least from five to ten minutes of brilliance, which even the best orator in the House might have envied. His own unaffected principles of humility, and his equally sincere estimate of the judgment and good intentions of others, which became, in advancing life, more and more predominant, influenced both his line of oratory and his reasoning when not in the House of Commons. He gradually left off the keener weapons of ridicule and sarcasm, however well applied and justly aimed ; but, with the candour that ave what he thought due weight to an adversary's argument, he sometimes, as it seemed to me, with undue diffidence, neglected or hesitated to inforce his own. Sometimes, also, as on the questions involving peace and war, the wishes of his heart were at variance with the conclusions of his understanding, and resolutions of great pith and moment, ‘Were sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought;" and I have more than once remonstrated with him for giving us in his speech the deliberation which passed in his own mind, instead of the result to which it led him, thus furnishing his opponents with better weapons than their own