Good causes rarely advance easily. Some of the greatest accomplishments of civilization required perseverance and enormous sacrifice on the part of men and women who saw what was right and had the courage to work for it against all odds.
I can hardly recommend a more fitting example of this than William Wilberforce, who with anti-slavery crusader Thomas Clarkson and a band of uncompromising activists brought an end to slavery throughout the British empire. If you didn’t see the magnificent film "Amazing Grace" in a theatre earlier this year, you can now watch it on DVD; Wilberforce is the central character.
Born in 1759, Wilberforce never had the physical presence one would hope to possess in 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 age 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. Disgusted by the hideous barbarity of the worldwide slave trade, 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 — and fundamentally racist — intellectual justification. The trade was lucrative for British slavers, but it 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 parliamentary 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.
But what once seemed 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."
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. 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.