The Astonishing Legacy of William Wilberforce

You may have seen the movie, Amazing Grace, which told the story of abolitionist William Wilberforce from England during the height of the Empire’s slave trade. But there are some things you might not know about this great man. The following article appeared in a recent Colorado Right to Life Newsletter. It documents the strategies used by William Wilberforce to achieve the abolition of the slave trade in England, and how the lessons learned from his experience can be applied to our fight against abortion today.

The Astonishing legacy of William Wilberforce: proof that incrementalism works?

by Bob Kyffin

William Wilberforce is a hero in the eyes of most of us in the pro-life movement. He’s an inspiration to all of us.

However, his work against slavery in Britain is often cited (by [compromised] incrementalists) as proof that “incrementalism works.” This claim not only mistakes the lesson we should take from his astonishing life, but also denigrates the true values that he held dear – those based upon a conviction in the God-given Rights to Life and Freedom.

The growing Personhood Wing of the pro-life movement holds that “any law which says ‘do this, and then you can kill the baby (or own the slave)’” is an evil regulation Christians should never support. Did Wilberforce support such laws during his nearly half-century of crusading? Yes. Have many sincere pro-lifers done so, even those who now support Personhood? Yes. The problem is not the person – it’s the naïve, emotional position they hold for a time.

Most supporters of Personhood once supported laws such as the Partial Birth Abortion Ban, or waiting periods. Some didn’t, but they are few. The intellectual path from incrementalism to abolitionism is a long, hard one. We can’t condemn someone for not “getting the concept” right away. All we can do is ask them to consider, and to learn.

A study of William Wilberforce shows he always held that slavery was absolutely wrong. He first stated his anti-slavery goal in 1789. “I from this time determined that I would never rest till I had effected its abolition.” Every year, thereafter, for several years, he ran the same bill – an absolute end to the slave trade.

Discouraged (like many pro-lifers), he began trying incremental compromises such as registering slaves, regulating the number of slaves who could be on a slave ship, or prohibiting British slavers from trading with French colonies – laws which implicitly legitimized slaveowning, even while trying to reduce its misery, or prevalence. Was this an improvement? Debatable. Did the reduced misery of slaves, lessen public interest in ending the practice entirely, among some at least? Very likely. The abolitionists had a strong argument – that the slaves were being inhumanely mistreated – yet they reduced its potency through regulation.

In fact, it was often the slaveholders who advocated laws to improve the conditions of slaves! A document on slavery at www.guyana.org reports, “Sugar planters in Guyana and the Caribbean and their political and financial backers in Britain were not yet ready for the final abolition of slavery. They decided that it would be better to support legislation to improve the physical, moral and religious conditions of the slaves.” These bills were called “Amelioration Laws,” yet in reality, they only continued the suffering. Likewise, Wilberforce’s nemesis Henry Dundas stymied the anti-slavery movement by stipulating “gradual abolition,” only prolonging it.

Do we want to “ameliorate” abortion? Or do we want to end it? As the craven interests of the slaveholders proves, these are not one and the same path toward abolition!

We must be discriminating when evaluating whether a measure is “compromised incrementalism” (one step forward, two steps back), or positive incrementalism. If Wilberforce’s limit on the number of slaves per ship had instead simply regulated the number of people on board, then it would have accomplished its goal without tacitly approving of slavery. Similarly, if his registration bill had specified that every laborer, paid or unpaid, must be reported.

An uncompromised law today might make it criminal to perform any surgical treatment on a minor without parental notification, accomplishing one positive goal of pro-lifers without the tragedy of authorizing murder of the innocent in law.

Was Wilberforce an incrementalist because he wanted to end the slave trade first, and slavery itself later? No. In a letter from 1797, Wilberforce urged Prime Minister William Pitt to revoke a contract requiring Britain to provide Spain with African slaves. This highlights the point that the slave trade and slave ownership were different parts of the same problem. Even had Wilberforce successfully banned slave ownership in British territories, he would have had to ban the slave trade too, to prevent massive British involvement in promoting slavery elsewhere. Therefore, he cannot be blamed for not trying to simultaneously ban both. Taking on one or the other was commendable. Furthermore, there is nothing inherently wrong with banning the slave trade as an isolated goal because, like banning taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood, a law which would end such trade or funding would not necessarily affirm any rights to do evil, and therefore would not either promote the murder or ownership of people, nor undermine the argument that all men deserve life and freedom.

Did slavery, which persisted for 26 years after the end of the British slave trade, linger because abolitionists had fought the brutality of the trade, rather than focusing on teaching people that slavery is inherently wrong? Wilberforce became convinced it was so. In Eric Metaxas’ Wilberforce biography, Amazing Grace, he notes that Wilberforce became disenchanted with the incremental method, feeling it was counterproductive. He had hoped incremental improvements would lead inherently to emancipation. “But now, in 1818, it could be seen that this hope had been naïve. So once again, the course was clear: immediate emancipation by political means.”

Today, we have the benefit of this lesson, and similar lessons from the United States’ abolition movement, to show us the superiority of principle over compromise. We must not reject these lessons of history!

The ultimate proof of Wilberforce’s commitment is his stand on abolition in the United States. Near the end of his life, an incremental anti-slavery society (a “colonization” faction) was able to secure Wilberforce’s endorsement by leading him to believe they were for an absolute end to slavery in America. However, the American absolutist William Lloyd Garrison arrived in England soon after, and explained the relative positions of anti-slavery societies to Wilberforce. He was greatly angered, revoked his earlier statement, and publicized an endorsement of Garrison instead.

Lest someone argue that Wilberforce’s chosen strategy for America was due to greater prospects of success, it is a fact that slavery remained strong in the United States, and was nowhere near abolition at that time (1833). There were many U.S. anti-slavery groups whose positions were less absolute than Garrison’s. But, no matter the difficulty of the road, at the end of his life Wilberforce preferred principle over compromise.

Surely, it can be argued that Wilberforce was an incrementalist at times. Wilberforce was led by his heart, and supported measures that would regulate slavery. We all face this temptation with regard to abortion.

By the end of his life, Wilberforce had become a staunch absolute abolitionist. Arguments that he is the poster boy of the “compromised incrementalist” movement are specious and unfair. When, with all his experience, Wilberforce had a chance to do it over again, he counseled against compromise. He preferred absolute abolition in the United States, not an incremental strategy.

Isn’t that interesting? The very argument used by compromised incrementalists who point to William Wilberforce to justify their concession backfires when examined closely. When asked, Wilberforce’s answer to the fear that immediate abolition of slavery would cause an insurrection in the West Indian islands, he replied: “I shall never sacrifice this cause to motives of political convenience or personal feeling.” Wilberforce realized that sacrificing principle for political expediency is unacceptable.

When Wilberforce’s great-great-grandson, Gerard Wilberforce, heard about Personhood he said, “Yes, that is just the way William Wilberforce would have done it.” He sent this statement of encouragement:

Screen Shot 2014-03-27 at 8.26.20 PMTwo hundred years ago William Wilberforce campaigned on behalf of slaves who were not treated as human beings. Today society does not treat the beginnings of human life as persons who demand our respect. Abortion is widespread because people do not consider the unborn to be worthy of legal protection.

Those who are working for the rights of the unborn could therefore look to the example of the abolitionists and take heart. It may not come immediately but good people will eventually change the law. People will then look back and ask how it was that abortions were ever committed. in the same way we look back in horror at the evils of slavery. God bless all of you who work for no reward only to see justice prevail for those last able to defend themselves.

I am encouraged by the brave life of William Wilberforce, and the legacy that he has left all of us who would fight against injustice towards human beings that deserve the acknowledgement of their existence as persons.

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The Astonishing Legacy of William Wilberforce
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