William Wilberforce Makes His First Speech Against the Slave Trade, May 12, 1789

On this day in 1789, William Wilberforce rose to his feet in the House of Commons and began what would become his lifelong crusade to abolish the slave trade. An ambitious and gifted young orator, he had spent his first few years in Parliament arguing for peace with the revolting American colonies. After the ascension of his close friend, William Pitt, to the post of Prime Minister, both young men became the nexus of policy for Great Britain in the coming years. Elevated to such a position, Wilberforce’s philanthropist reputation and recent conversion to Christianity made him a prime choice for recruitment by the abolitionist movement.

William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806)

William Wilberforce (1759-1833)

While initially reluctant to remain in politics at all after his conversion, Wilberforce welcomed a surplus of evidence to be regularly presented at his home and office by various members of the movement, mostly churchmen who held a moral objection against the trade. Through their exhaustive and meticulous research, by the summer of 1789 Wilberforce had both facts and resolves fit for Parliament to vote upon.

The House of Commons as it appeared in the days of William Wilberforce

His speech was met by a great clamor of mockery and dissent—logged into the very minutes of its record—and would be shot down easily in the ensuing vote. Undeterred, William Wilberforce would then commit the next forty years of his life to seeing the great evil abolished, weathering personal woes and revolutionary upheaval, presenting his bill yearly with unchecked urgency.

Wilberforce Home and Museum, birthplace of William Wilberforce—Hull, Yorkshire, England

n remembering this, his first speech, it is remarkable to note the very politic reasoning he presented in length to win over his profiteering fellows, and also, his admittance that such was not his own driving motivation. He was compelled by a grieved conscience that such atrocities were being committed in the name of commerce and perpetrated by a Christian country, one that incited those they deemed their lessers to tear themselves apart for earthly gain.

Forty years is a long time. In the end God granted the victory and allowed its staunchest champion to live to see it. As cognizant of his opposition as the young and bold Wilberforce appeared in this first speech, one doubts he knew the full magnitude of labor that would be extracted from him. Today, we remember the day of small beginnings, as the book of Zechariah calls them, and how faithfulness waters and tends the Divine mission without expectancy of seeing victory in one’s lifetime. Such is the characteristic of holy patience.

Barbara Wilberforce (1759-1806), wife of William, about the time of their marriage

William Wilberforce Memorial in his birthplace of Kingston Upon Hull

Below are extracts of the lengthy first speech, taken down by newspaper men as there were no official, full-length Parliamentary records in those times:

When I consider the magnitude of the subject which I am to bring before the House, a subject in which the interests, not of this country nor of Europe alone, but of the whole world and of posterity are involved, and when I think at the same time on the weakness of the advocate who has undertaken this great cause; when these reflections press upon my mind, it is impossible for me not to feel both terrified and concerned at my own inadequacy to such a task.

But when I reflect, however, on the encouragement which I have had, through the whole course of a long and laborious examination of this question, and how much candor I have experienced, and how conviction has increased within my own mind, in proportion as I have advanced in my labors; when I reflect, especially, that however averse any gentleman may now be, yet we shall all be of one opinion in the end; when I turn myself to these thoughts, I take courage. I determine to forget all my other fears, and I march forward with a firmer step in the full assurance that my cause will bear me out, and that I shall be able to justify upon the clearest principles, every resolution in my hand, the avowed end of which is, the total abolition of the slave trade…

For my own part, so clearly am I convinced of the mischiefs inseparable from it, that I should hardly want any further evidence than my own mind would furnish, by the most simple deductions.

Facts, however, are now laid before the House.

A report has been made by His Majesty’s Privy Council, which, I trust, every gentleman has read, and which ascertains the slave trade to be just such in practice as we know, from theory, it must be. What should we suppose must naturally be the consequence of our carrying on a slave trade with Africa? With a country vast in its extent, not utterly barbarous, but civilized in a very small degree? Does any one suppose a slave trade would help their civilization? Is it not plain that she must suffer from it? That civilization must be checked; that her barbarous manners must be made more barbarous; and that the happiness of her millions of inhabitants must be prejudiced with her intercourse with Britain? Does not every one see that a slave trade, carried on around her coasts must carry violence and desolation to her very center?

That in a continent just emerging from barbarism, if a trade in men is established, if her men are all converted into goods, and become commodities that can be bartered, it follows they must be subject to ravage just as goods are; and this, too, at a period of civilization when there is no protecting legislature to defend this their only sort of property, in the same manner as the rights of property are maintained by the legislature of every civilized country.

…Having now disposed of the first part of this subject, I must speak of the transit of the slaves in the West Indies. This I confess, in my own opinion, is the most wretched part of the whole subject. So much misery condensed in so little room is more than the human imagination had ever before conceived.

I verily believe, therefore, if the wretchedness of any one of the many hundred negroes stowed in each ship could be brought before their view, and remain within the sight of the African merchant, that there is no one among them whose heart would bear it. Let any one imagine to himself six or seven hundred of these wretches chained two and two, surrounded with every object that is nauseous and disgusting, diseased, and struggling under every kind of wretchedness! How can we bear to think of such a scene as this? One would think it had been determined to heap on them all the varieties of bodily pain, for the purpose of blunting the feelings of the mind…

It is now to be remarked that all these causes of mortality among the slaves do undoubtedly admit of a remedy, and it is the abolition of the slave trade that will serve as this remedy. When the manager shall know that a fresh importation is not to be had from Africa, and that he cannot retrieve the deaths he occasions by any new purchases, humanity must be introduced; an improvement in the system of treating them will thus infallibly be effected, an assiduous care of their health and of their morals, marriage institutions, and many other things, as yet little thought of, will take place; because they will be absolutely necessary.

…Wherever the sun shines, let us go round the world with him, diffusing our beneficence; but let us not traffic, only that we may set kings against their subjects, subjects against their kings, sowing discord in every village, fear and terror in every family, setting millions of our fellow-creatures a-hunting each other for slaves, creating fairs and markets for human flesh, through one whole continent of the world, and, under the name of policy, concealing from ourselves all the baseness and iniquity of such a traffic…

I trust, therefore, I have shown that upon every ground the total abolition ought to take place. I have urged many things which are not my own leading motives for proposing it, since I have wished to show every description of gentlemen, and particularly the West India planters, who deserve every attention, that the abolition is politic upon their own principles also.

Policy, however, sir, is not my principle, and I am not ashamed to say it. There is a principle above everything that is political; and when I reflect on the command which says, “Thou shalt do no murder,” believing the authority to be Divine, how can I dare to set up any reasonings of my own against it? And, sir, when we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is there in this life that should make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God. Sir, the nature and all the circumstances of this trade are now laid open to us; we can no longer plead ignorance, we cannot evade it, it is now an object placed before us, we cannot pass it. We may spurn it, we may kick it out of our way, but we cannot turn aside so as to avoid seeing it; for it is brought now so directly before our eyes that this House must decide, and must justify to all the world, and to their own consciences, the rectitude of the grounds and principles of their decision.

Read the full speech here