I despised William Wilberforce when I served as a Member of Parliament.
I was not Peter Porcupine then, but William Cobbett, Gentleman, and I could not understand or sympathize with his decades of obsession to end slavery.
When a young man, Wilberforce had fallen under the influence of an elderly reprobate turned pastor named John Newton, who wrote a hymn called Amazing Grace between 1760 and 1770, while working as an evangelical pastor. Son of the commander of a merchant ship, run away to sea at the age of 11, Newton was captain of a slave ship for many years, until he underwent a dramatic religious conversion while steering his vessel through a storm. Repenting and regretting the misery he had inflicted on the thousands of human cargo he had transported across the Middle Passage for many years, he devoted his life to the Church. In 1780 Newton left Olney to become rector of St. Mary Woolnoth, St. Mary Woolchurch, in London. Among the large congregations drawn to his eloquence was William Wilberforce. Newton continued to preach until the last year of life, although he was blind by that time. Newton died in London December 21, 1807.
Ironically, even earlier, before I was elected as a Member of Parliament myself, I used the power of my Political Register to publish Wilberforce's speeches, believeing that none would find them compelling (link HERE). In doing so, I helped bring Wilberforce before the public eye and preserved his oratory for all time.
Why could I not see the evils of slavery? Because my concern was with the farmers and working men of England, starving under our noses, not with blacks across the sea in other lands. I took his religiousity to be pious cant when he supported measures which kept the people in their places, failing to realize that in his attitude towards class distinctions and rank Wilberforce was a child of his time. He not only believed in the rightness of class distinctions but also that, although everything should be done for the poor, the poor must not be given the power to do it for themselves. In fact, he tended to see a Christian virtue in material poverty - for poor white men. I, on the other hand, while recognizing the natural distinction between labourer and gentry, wanted to educate and enable the rural poor, not distant sad blackamoors.
On December 18 1823, Wilberforce's arguments were met with a resounding counterblast from my Cobbett's Political Register, the story of what I believed happened in San Domingo in the 1790's after the slaves there were emancipated:
And what has been the result?...The consequence as to the wretched negroes themselves. This consequence has been a series of massacres, continuing, with little intermission, for one-and thirty years and put a stop to, from time to time, only by a system of slavery ten times harder than that which existed before; and which system of slavery and that alone has prevented the complete extermination of the wretched beings to whom Santhonax and Polverel gave, what they had the infamy to call, freedom.Many of my articles about the inherent inequality of the races were quoted in the years leading up to your Civil War. Indeed, most of my writings from this era bring a blush to the cheek, as I simply did not believe that these were fellow men and women, but sub-human laborers, destined to take bread from the mouths of the honest yeoman I spent my political career defending. Indeed, it strikes me that much of the political and economic argument then mirrors the controversy sweeping around the issue of illegal immigration now, the loss of jobs, the insecurity over the effect that introducing 'the other' into our society, and so on and that I was rather the Howie Carr of my day - albeit without the sound effects.
Parliament outlawed British participation in the slave trade in 1807, but did not finally outlaw slavery until the Emancipation Bill gathered support and received its final commons reading on July 26, 1833. Slavery would be abolished, but the planters would be heavily compensated. 'Thank God', said Wilberforce, 'that I have lived to witness a day in which England is willing to give twenty millions sterling for the Abolition of Slavery'. Three days later, on July 29, 1833, he died.
Why tell this story? Because today, a film will be brought to the public called 'Amazing Grace', a biography of William Wilberforce and his epic struggle to end the slave trade and his unfinished battle to end human slavery in the world where 27 million still live in slavery. Please consider his historic and unfinished endeavor, and allow me to promote and endorse the ideal of ending human slavery as my own way of making amends.
Yr. Obedient Servant,
William Cobbett, Gentleman