In 1785 William Wilberforce underwent a spiritual encounter which he described as a conversion experience. He resolved to commit his future life and work wholly in the service of God, and one of the people he received advice from was John Newton, the leading evangelical Anglican clergyman. All those he sought advice from, including Pitt, counselled him to remain in politics.
In April 1791 Wilberforce introduced the first Parliamentary Bill to abolish the slave trade, which was easily defeated by 163 votes to 88. As Wilberforce continued to bring the issue of the slave trade before parliament, Clarkson continued to travel and write. Between them, Clarkson and Wilberforce were responsible for generating and sustaining a national movement which mobilised public opinion as never before.
This was the beginning of a protracted parliamentary campaign, during which Wilberforce introduced a motion in favour of abolition during every session of parliament. He took every possible opportunity to bring the subject of the slave trade before the Commons, and moved bills for its abolition again in April 1792 and February 1793. Parliament, however, refused to pass the bill.
Wilberforce began to collaborate more with the Whigs and the abolitionists within that party and gave general support to the Grenville-Fox administration of February 1806 after the death of [Prime Minister] Pitt. Wilberforce and Charles James Fox thus led the campaign in the House of Commons, with Lord Grenville seeking to persuade the House of Lords to support the measure.
A change of tactics was advised by maritime lawyer James Stephen, at whose suggestion in early 1806 he supported a bill to ban British subjects from aiding or participating in the slave trade to the French colonies.
The death of Fox in September 1806 was a further blow for the abolitionists. Wilberforce was again re-elected for Yorkshire after Grenville called a general election and spent the latter part of the year writing A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, an apologetic essay in which he summarised the huge volume of evidence against the trade that he and Clarkson had accumulated over two decades. It was published on 31 January 1807, and formed the basis for the final phase of the campaign.
Lord Grenville had introduced an Abolition Bill in the House of Lords, and made an impassioned speech, during which he criticised fellow members for "not having abolished the trade long ago," and argued that the trade was "contrary to the principles of justice, humanity and sound policy." When a final vote was taken the bill was passed in the House of Lords by the unexpectedly large margin of 41 votes to 20. Sensing that this was at last the breakthrough that had been long anticipated, Charles Grey (now Viscount Howick) moved its second reading in the Commons on 23 February. As tributes were made to Wilberforce, who had laboured for the cause during the preceding twenty years, the bill was carried by 283 votes to 16 and the Slave Trade Act received the royal assent on 25 March, 1807.
By 1833 his health had begun to decline, and he suffered a severe attack of influenza, from which he never fully recovered. On 26 July 1833 he heard, with much rejoicing, that the bill for the abolition of slavery had finally passed its third reading in the Commons. On the following day he grew much weaker, and died early on the morning of 29 July.
One month later, Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act that gave all slaves in the British Empire their freedom.
Here are some thoughts on the anniversary from Scott Horton:
Wilberforce mustered many powerful arguments against the slave trade. At first, he avoided denunciations of the slave traders, and instead appealed to their humanity and inherent sense of justice. Throughout the Napoleonic Wars, Wilberforce was also a persistent advocate of the doctrine of humane warfare and raised his powerful voice repeatedly for the humane treatment of all prisoners taken in time of war. He also mobilized the emerging humanitarian law doctrine of protection for prisoners to oppose the slave trade. A large part of the West Africans impressed into bondage and shipped across the sea to be sold were, he pointed out, actually prisoners taken in warfare on the African continent. As such, he argued, they were entitled to humane treatment which could not be squared with the revolting conditions found on board of the slave trading ships. This shows the close, mutually reinforcing relationship between humanitarian law and human rights law that has continued to this day.
For Wilberforce's campaign, opposition to torture was the critical element. Given Biblical texts which explicitly or implicitly condoned the Peculiar Institution, it was difficult to frame a theological attack on slavery per se. But torture was another matter. The cruel abuse of a human being held in captivity was accepted by Wilberforce and most of his colleagues as an offense against Divine Law. Consequently the slave trade was thought a far more vulnerable target than slavery itself. In Wilberforce's great opening speech of 1789, frequently cited as the most important parliamentary address delivered in that memorable era, he dwelt heavily on the physical conditions of the slave ships: how slaves were stripped naked, bound and shackled, packed into the holds of the ship like sardines in a can, subjected to unbearable fluctuations of heat and cold, given inadequate water and food, deprived of sanitation. In such conditions the slaves screamed in agony, many calling out to be killed to put an end to their misery. And very many, by some reckonings most, expired in the process. Wilberforce's contemporaries readily accepted this thesis: that torture could not be permitted, even torture of slaves whose humanity was doubted. It is curious that today, two centuries later, the notion of slavery is a nonstarter, but torture seems to be accepted as fair grounds for debate. There can be no doubt that William Wilberforce would be appalled to make this discovery.
Andrew Sullivan expounds on this:
Torture was necessary to maintain slavery. It was integral to slavery. You cannot have slavery without some torture or the threat of torture; and you cannot have torture without slavery. You cannot imprison a free man for ever unless you have broken him; and you can only forcibly break a man's soul by torturing it out of him. Slavery dehumanizes; torture dehumanizes in exactly the same way. The torture of human beings who have no freedom and no recourse to the courts is slavery.
Torture, like slavery, is the anti-freedom; it is the negation of freedom. George Washington was right when he defined the meaning of America in part by his radical, unconditional and absolute disavowal of such a practice. I find it telling that Wilberforce's peers were more troubled by torture than they were by slavery itself. Today, slavery is unthinkable. But torture? It's just "coercive interrogation."
This is surely Lincoln's and Wilberforce's lesson for us: an America that includes torture is no less a self-refutation than an America that includes slavery. There are political causes and there are moral causes that leave mere politics behind. The end of torture is now one of these causes, just as the end of slavery once was.
There are those who would justify and rationalize torture, just as there were those who could justify and rationalize slavery. And yet both are an insult to human dignity and freedom. Today, as in Wilberforce's time, there are men and women who understand this and refuse to accept the travesty that is legalized torture, just as Wilberforce and his allies refused to accept the travesy that was slavery. His example is an example to us all.