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Thoughts on William Wilberforce

Here is a website for the film Amazing Grace, due for release soon. It centres on the life of William Wilberforce, friend of great British Prime Minister William Pitt, and the man most people will associate with the abolitionist movement. The campaign to end slavery lasted for years before eventually succeeding in the first decade of the 19th Century, although it lingered as an institution in the colonies for many years before ending in the conflagration of the US civil war. I have no idea whether this new film will be any good and what sort of “point” it will make, but if there is a point worth making on a libertarian blog like this, it is that slavery in all its forms is an abomination, a stain on humanity and should be resisted. Furthermore, man since ancient times has known that slavery is an evil but for many centuries was either resigned to the institution, or was cowed into thinking that it was part of the natural order of things. I have read comments on this blog – by an individual who thankfully no longer bothers us – that slavery was a product of its economic times and it would be quite wrong for us to “lord it over” our ancestors by condemning the practice. This is moral relativism, pure and simple.

Some people have tried to argue that the British slave trade proves the wickedness possible through capitalism, although I think it demonstrates a quite different point. Kidnapping people from their homes and then forcing them to work in conditions as appalling as a plantation has not, as far as I know, got anything to do with consensual acts of commerce as classical liberals might understand it. Quite the reverse. What slavery shows is that trade without respect for the rights of individuals is in fact a form of thuggery.

Here is an article I wrote over a year ago about a less well known opponent of slavery, Thomas Clarkson. On the 200th anniversary of Britain’s outlawing the slave trade, let’s celebrate what these men achieved.

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10 comments to Thoughts on William Wilberforce

  • Nick M

    Kidnapping people from their homes and then forcing them to work in conditions as appalling as a plantation has not, as far as I know, got anything to do with consensual acts of commerce as classical liberals might understand it.

    Quite, Jonathan. It seems much more in line with the actions of Comrade Stalin and the Dear Leader – especially if you replace “plantation” with “gulag”.

    Apologies to the commentariat if I’m stating the bleeding obvious but I’ve had a lot of work on this weekend.

  • lucklucky

    The Secret History of the Dismal Science, by David M. Levy and Sandra J. Peart

    Economics, Religion and Race in XIX Century:


  • I saw the film at a screening her in NYC. It was pretty good, a lot of it was the usual beautiful English countryside and loveable eccentric aristocrat (or semi Artistocrat) stuff that we see on Masterpiece Theater over here.

    On the other hand it did deal honestly with the way that good men must fight hard and suffer if they want to achieve great things. Wilberforce used every trick in the book to gain his objective. He also suffered with a spectacular collection of illnesses that makes one thankful again for modern medicine. The film makes it clear that he was an opium addict.

    My buddy Eric Metaxas wrote the biography of Wilberforce that goes along with the film, Its geared towards an American readership, but it does tell the great story of the man and his accomplsihment.

    Britain should be proud of the way this man fought for a noble cause and of the political and religious freedoms that allowed him to win.

  • James of England

    What was evil about the slave trade was the slavery, not the trade. The abuse was intrinsic to the institution of slavery and not intrinsic to the transfer of ownership. It is surprisingly common to hear people, conservatives even, talk as if the slave trade was a trade problem. As if the Burmese slavery was a problem because UNOCAL were involved. As if Greek and Roman slavery was a problem because… OK, as if it wasn’t a problem. As if the slavery you’re talking about as a perpetual economic fact of life only became one under capitalism, or perhaps viewing capitalism as extending back to the Sumerians and beyond.

    Slavery is, and was, an evil. Always and everywhere. One of the primary benefits of industrialisation and trade has been the collapse of this evil into a marginal, backwater, affair. It is not neo-cons who would see slavery resurface, but non-interventionist libertarians, protectionists, and greens. It should not be a point of shame for this blog, but of pride.

  • guy herbert

    It is surprisingly common to hear people, conservatives even, talk as if the slave trade was a trade problem.

    As did the British Empire for a while. The slave trade was abolished in 1807, but chattel-slavery continued in the colonies for decades, and debt bondage, tied labour, and other quasi-slave statuses for much longer.

  • lucklucky

    Strange, a post of mine got in limbo to be reviewed but in a thread below i could comment without probs.
    Lets see if this is posted now:

    A very interesting article:

    The Secret History of Dismal Science
    Economics, Religion and Race in the 19th Century.


    editors note: warning, attempts to circumvent the spam defences will result in a permanent ban

  • chuck

    How is it that William Wilberforce’s religious convictions are overlooked in this discussion? Religion played a strong role in motivating John Brown and the other American Abolitionists as well. So I am curious as to how the movie treats the issue?

  • If anyone wants a roster of various individuals involved in the abolition of slavery in the UK, I have a list of ’em on my other blog, home of the irregularly-awarded Henderson Prize for the Advancement of Liberty. The “award” (the prize is nothing more than getting mentioned on a blog) was given on the anniversary of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1933.

    (That award also covers another advance for liberty – the Reform Act of 1832. The Slavery Abolition Act wouldn’t have been passed without weeding out the rotten boroughs.)

  • Paul Marks

    Religion was indeed a common motivation for opponents of slavery (although many Christians also tried to defend it).

    The first American attack on slavery (“Selling Joseph” 1700) was written by a highly religious man – Judge Sewall (and before any one jumps in – yes I know he was one of the judges at the Salem witch trials, this does not refute the point).

    However, there were also nonreligious arguments aganst slavery.

    Even the Romans held that slavery was against natural law – although most held that it was upheld by “the law of all peoples” which trumped natural law in practical life (Pliny the Elder was one of the Romans who doubted this – pointing to Ceylon as an example of a place where the institution was said not to exist).

    A long line of European scholastic thinkers and British Common Law judges questioned slavery – but it is true that the first ruling that really struck home was that of Judge Mansfield in (of memory serves) 1774.

    The campaign against the slaver trade was held up by the war in America and then by the wars with Revolutionary France – Guy is quite correct to point out that it was not banned till 1807.

    Then there was the long struggle, against powerful interests to, to free slaves in the colonies. It was not till 1833 that such a bill was passed.

    Nearly all nations managed (in one way or another) to get rid of slavery without a vast tide of blood. Brazil in a late example – there a single state stopped enforcing slavery, so slaves fled to that state. The Imperial government (Brazil was an Empire at the time) had the choice of cracking down or not – and (it is said under the influence of a Princess) decided to let slavery die.

    If President Lincoln had wanted to he could have said “if a State wishes to leave the Union let it do so, but then we will be under no obligation to return slaves who flee that State – let the Slave States try and police a border many hundreds of miles long if they can”), however that is not the way he tended to think.

    So the United States was one of the very few nations where the institution of slavery was a big factor in covering the nation in blood.

    However, the United States is also the place where “slavery” was best described by a leading person. Salmon P. Chase (Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary and later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) had been known (in private practice) as the “slaves’ lawyer” known for carefully explaining how “slavery” is simply a series of Common Law crimes (false imprisonment, assault, and so on) and how only the laws of States could claim to legalize what was by nature unlawful.

    In this he not only followed the Common lawyers, but also the Roman Law lawyers – but he added the very strong point that, even if it was in the power of a government to legalize what is by nature unlawful, that is something that a government SHOULD NOT DO.

    After all, would one say that such things as robbery, murder and rape were “lawful” if a State legislature or Congress itself duely passed statutes saying that they were?

    If so, this simply proves that “the law” (as in “positive law”) is a nonsense.

  • lucklucky

    This a private place so i should have been more respectful tough at time i didnt even think about it and was a sort of experimentation but now yeah!! i just feel like a successful Chinese blogger circumventing those nasty Commie-Multinational alliance, thank God they are not good ;-) yet…