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A Spectacle More Glorious

Kevin Belmonte, Historical Consultant and Author
Remarks to the Secretary's Open Forum
Washington, DC
January 18, 2007

The Secretary’s Open Forum on Wilberforce and the film Amazing Grace. Program honoring the Martin Luther King Jr. National Holiday

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen, honored guests one and all. It is a privilege to speak in the Harry S. Truman Building. President Truman is someone I have long admired—ever since my reading of David McCullough’s classic biography.

My wife Kelly and I are deeply grateful to be with you here in our nation’s capitol. We offer our sincere thanks to Ms. Corazon Sandoval Foley, Chairperson of the Secretary of State’s Open Forum, for her gracious invitation to take part in today’s event. We shall long treasure this experience, and its special association with the holiday that celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. Our lives as Americans have been immeasurably enriched through his life and legacy.

Seldom has biblical language been woven so eloquently into the tapestry of our nation than in the words of Dr. King:

“I have a dream,” he said, “that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” 1

Dr. King spoke these words on August 28, 1963. One hundred and fifty-five summers before, and an ocean away—William Wilberforce wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson. In cadences much like those which evoked Dr. King’s “symphony of brotherhood,” Wilberforce told Jefferson of his desire to see Britain and America enter into a compact that would permit the seizure of any American or British ships that were smuggling slaves.

If this were done, Wilberforce wrote, the two nations might stop what was “perhaps the most destructive scourge that ever afflicted the human race.” Such an agreement, he said, “may lead to similar agreements with other countries, until at length all the civilized nations of the earth shall have come into this concert of benevolence.”3

Two men, two dreams—two visions of the good society. Faith lay at the heart of both—a faith, wrote Wilberforce, that taught the central duty of “following peace…with all men, [of] looking upon them as members of the same family, entitled not only to the debts of justice, but to the…more liberal claims of fraternal kindness.”4 For “God,” as Wilberforce and Dr. King knew so well, “hath made of one blood all nations of men, for to dwell on all the face of the earth.”5

Theirs was a vision of civil life animated by faith.

We need only reflect for the briefest of moments to see how impoverished our world would be were it not for the work of these two men in civil rights and the abolition of the slave trade. America and Britain, as nations, would be profoundly diminished had they not lived.

And how was it that William Wilberforce was called to undertake his life’s work? At the age of 26, he experienced a self-described “great change,”6 or embrace of Christianity. Before this, he had been mired in what he called “an (almost) hell of bad passions”7—consumed by “envy, hatred, jealousy [and] selfishness.”8 He was driven by the ambition to equal or surpass his political rivals. The best friend of William Pitt, the youngest prime minister in British history, Wilberforce himself was the Member of Parliament for the entire County of Yorkshire—one of the most powerful elected posts in the government.

In the autumn of 1784, Wilberforce embarked on a continental tour of Europe. And it was then, as he later wrote, that “God's good providence checked and turned me”9 through a “miracle of mercy.”10 Returning home, he sought counsel from John Newton, the former slave ship captain whose spiritual transformation found expression in the timeless hymn, Amazing Grace.

And it is here that we begin to sense why it was that Wilberforce saw his transformation as a miracle of mercy. For it was Newton, a man guilty of crimes against humanity, whose spiritual counsel set Wilberforce on the path of service to humanity. Neither man ever lost sight of this.

“I am not as I was,” Wilberforce wrote, “[yet] I hope…to become more worthy of the name of Christian.”11

He now took his cue from the parable of the Good Samaritan. “It is evident,” he wrote, that “we are to consider our peculiar situations (whether in public or private life), and in these to do all the good we can….It is my constant prayer,” he concluded, “that God will enable me to serve Him more steadily, and my fellow-creatures more assiduously.”12

One moral imperative now stood out to him above all others—the golden rule—“to do as I would be done by.”13 This mandate informed his abolitionist labors and the scores of other reforms he undertook. “In my whole conduct respecting the abolition of the slave trade,” he stated emphatically, “I have persevered because I am anxious to discharge my duty to my Maker, in doing an act of benevolence to my fellow-creatures.”14

The path Wilberforce walked in life was often beset with difficulty and sacrifice—never more so than in the year 1796. The failure of his motion to abolish the slave trade at this time was the most devastating defeat of the entire twenty-year fight to end the trade.

The initial signs were promising. On February 18, Wilberforce introduced his motion for a bill to abolish the slave trade. The time stipulated for the bill to take effect was March 1, 1797. Roused by an unusually animated debate, Wilberforce judged he had spoken "warmly and well."

Robert Banks Jenkinson (the future prime minister), professed to join in Wilberforce's condemnation of the slave trade. Yet he made a speech that contributed to the opposite result. "I anxiously wish that the question were postponed at least till the return of peace [with France]," he said in his closing remarks.

Wilberforce rose to reply:

There is something not a little provoking in the dry calm way in which gentlemen are apt to speak of the sufferings of others. The question suspended! Is the desolation of…Africa suspended? Are all the complicated miseries of this atrocious trade—is the work of death suspended? No, sir, I will not delay this motion, and I call upon the House not to insult the forbearance of Heaven by delaying this tardy act of justice.

In response to the charge that the slaves were well fed, Wilberforce cried: "What! are these the only claims of a rational being? Are the feelings of the heart nothing?...So far from thanking the honourable gentleman for the feeding, clothing and lodging of which he boasts, I protest against the way in which he has mentioned them as degrading men to the level of the brutes, and insulting all the higher qualities of our common nature."

When Banastre Tarleton, one of Wilberforce’s most determined foes, made a motion for an adjournment, it was voted down by a majority of 26. Wilberforce felt "surprise and joy in carrying my question."

Wilberforce now worked on the language of his abolition bill and consulted often with his great friend Prime Minister Pitt at 10 Downing Street for that purpose. On Monday, February 22, Wilberforce crossed the street from his home at Number 4 Old Palace Yard to oversee the bill’s further legislative progress. Finding the House in a good state, he brought in his bill without opposition and returned home.

Wilberforce did not continue unopposed for long. March 3 had been fixed for the second reading of his bill. After a morning spent consulting about it at Pitt's, he was dining in Palace Yard with a party of friends from the Commons. Early in the evening a supporter of the slave trade moved the second reading of his bill, hoping by this maneuver to prevent its further progress. Wilberforce defeated this attempt, hurrying from dinner over to the House and speaking until his supporters could arrive. The second reading of his bill was carried 63 to 31.

On March 7, the bill was placed in committee. Wilberforce then got the bill through committee by a majority of 76 to 31.

At its third reading however, his hopes were dashed. A terse diary entry described his devastating defeat. "I dined before [going to the] House," he wrote on March 15, "My Slave Bill was thrown out by 74 to 70….Ten or twelve of those who had supported me [were] absent in the country, or [away] on pleasure. Enough [were] at the Opera to have carried it. [I am] vexed and incensed at our opponents."

Wilberforce was crushed, and it was the callous indifference of his absent supporters that hurt most. His opponents, never ones to miss an opportunity, had given free opera tickets to some whom they knew would support Wilberforce’s abolition bill. A writer for the True Briton wrote on March 16: "A new comic opera was brought forward last night, under the name of I Dui Gobi, the music of which was composed by Portugallo.…There was a large and splendid audience."

Wilberforce's grief now gave way to serious physical illness. He came down with a severe fever, followed by excruciating intestinal pain. On April 12 he wrote that he had "never suffered so much."

Wilberforce’s friend Isaac Milner hurried from Cambridge University to treat him. Slowly, Wilberforce recovered, considering Milner’s treatment instrumental: "He was the means, if not of saving my life, at least of sparing me a long and dangerous fit of sickness."

Describing this period, one biographer has rightly observed, "It says much for Wilberforce's courage that throughout this illness he kept working as best he could." Indeed it does.

On March 5, Wilberforce somehow found the strength to form and implement a scheme for relieving the poverty and distress of emigrant clergy who had fled the terrors of the French revolution—and the guillotine. Unable to sleep at night, he used even these sleepless hours to reflect and draw up his plan. During daylight hours, he interviewed several needy French émigrés. He traveled with his cousin Henry Thornton to solicit the aid of Lady Buckinghamshire and other prominent persons.

On Apri1 17, Wilberforce had written in his diary that he had been gravely ill "for ten days and have had my head a good deal weakened." What is most significant about this diary entry, however, is its last sentence: "I have lately felt and now feel a sort of terror on reentering the world."

The years of constant struggle, physical assaults, death threats, and the weight of often-disappointed hopes concerning abolition had taken their toll.

Gravely ill, exhausted, and emotionally spent, Wilberforce suffered what appears to have been a nervous breakdown. Any thought of reentering the political fray, which had dealt him so many setbacks and blows, filled him with anxiety.

When he was twenty-five and a recently elected MP for Yorkshire, Wilberforce had brimmed with self-confidence. No cloud of political or personal discord darkened his horizon. He championed no unpopular causes and had enjoyed wide political support. But after his great change in 1786, he had chosen a road less traveled by. It had proven a very difficult road to travel.

On July 21, 1796, he wrote to John Newton stating his willingness to consider retirement from public life. Newton’s reply demonstrates why so many valued his pastoral counsel. Urging his friend to carry on, Newton once again proved pivotal in keeping Wilberforce in political life. If he had agreed with Wilberforce’s inclination to retire, Wilberforce very likely would have. Newton wrote:

If, after taking the proper steps to secure your continuance in Parliament, you had been excluded, it would not have greatly grieved you. You would have…considered it as a providential intimation that the Lord had no farther occasion for you there. And in this view, I think you would have received your [dismissal] with thankfulness.

But I hope it is a token for good that He has not yet dismissed you. Some…people may be emphatically said not to live to themselves. May it not be said of you?...

You meet with many things which weary and disgust you…but then they are inseparably connected with your path of duty; and though you cannot do all the good you wish for, some good is done….

It costs you something…and exposes you to many [things] from which you would gladly be exempted; but if, upon the whole, you are thereby instrumental in promoting the cause of God and the public good, you will have no reason [for] regret….

Nor is it possible at present to calculate all the advantages that may result from your having a seat in the House at such a time as this…

You have not, as yet, fully succeeded in your persevering endeavours to abolish the slave trade…[but] you have not laboured in vain.

It is true that you live in the midst of difficulties and snares, and you need a double guard of watchfulness and prayer. But since you know both your need of help, and where to look for it, I may say to you as Darius to Daniel. "Thy God whom thou servest continually is able to preserve and deliver you."

Daniel, likewise, was a public man, and in critical circumstances; but he trusted in the Lord; was faithful in his department, and therefore though he had enemies, they could not prevail against him.

Indeed the great point for our comfort in life is to have a well-grounded persuasion that we are, where, all things considered, we ought to be. Then it is no great matter whether we are in public or in private life, in a city or a village, in a palace or a cottage. The promise, "My grace is sufficient for thee," is necessary to support us in the smoothest scenes, and is equally able to support us in the most difficult.

Happy the man who has a deep impression of our Lord's words, "Without Me you can do nothing"—who feels with the Apostle…likewise a heartfelt dependence upon the Saviour, through whom we can both do and bear all things that are [part of] the post allotted us.

He is always near. He knows our wants, our dangers, our feelings, and our fears. By looking to him we are enlightened and made strong out of weakness. With his wisdom for our guide, his power for our protection, his fullness for our supply…we shall be able to "withstand in the evil day, and having done all to stand."

….May the Lord bless you my dear Sir.

Such an appeal could not fail to strike a chord in Wilberforce’s heart. Newton wisely reminded him that he had already accomplished a great deal—something often lost on those who strive for great things—only to find that their progress is incremental at best.

Newton also added his voice to that of John Wesley, who wrote just days before his death in 1791 to Wilberforce, commending his abolitionist labors: "Unless God has raised you up for this very thing," Wesley had written, "you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils; but if God be for you, who can be against you?"

Wilberforce resolved to carry on. If nothing else, Newton's letter—as with Wesley’s—reminded him that he had many good friends—friends who had been and would be there for him in the years ahead.

By September 7, 1796, Wilberforce was able to place his grievous defeat in perspective. He concluded: "It is Thou, O Lord, that hast given the very small increase there has been, and that must give all if there be more."

Wilberforce had no way of knowing it, but eleven long years lay ahead in the fight to end the slave trade. Yet whatever lay ahead, his strength—and his faith—had been renewed. It would prove the anchor that held him through all “my tossings during my long and stormy voyage in the sea of politics.”

It is here that I would to take a few moments and share something of great respect and regard in which Wilberforce was held by many early Americans.

America and Britain have always shared a special relationship, one of which Wilberforce was well aware. They are, as he saw it, “two nations, who are children of the same family, and brothers in the same inheritance of common liberty.”

And, in return, America’s indebtedness to Wilberforce has been eloquently expressed by many of our presidents—most notably John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln—whose statue graces Parliament Square.

Adams wrote of the “subjects so interesting to humanity” upon which [Wilberforce’s] exertions” had “been so long and so earnestly employed.” Wilberforce and his Clapham circle colleagues had, Adams said, pursued these humanitarian efforts “with the ardour and perseverance of saints.” In 1858 Lincoln—America’s Great Emancipator—said he had never allowed himself to forget Wilberforce’s role in bringing the slave trade to an end.

For me, however, the most moving tribute to Wilberforce was penned by Benjamin Hughes, the gifted orator and educator who delivered a funeral address for Wilberforce at the request of the African-American community in New York City on October 22, 1833. I would like to take you back to that special occasion and share with you something of the events and the words that surrounded Hughes’ eulogy.

On September 16, 1833, a special public meeting was held in New York City. Those in attendance had assembled at the Colored Presbyterian Church at the behest of the Officers of the Convention for the Improvement of the Free People of Color in the United States.

It was a singular event. For they were met together to consider how they ought to mark the passing of Wilberforce who, for nearly fifty years, had been “the friend of Africa.” For twenty years, Wilberforce had led the fight to abolish the British slave trade—a victory achieved in 1807. Twenty-six years later and just days before his death in late July 1833, Wilberforce had learned that slavery itself would be abolished throughout Britain’s colonies. News of this great human rights victory had just reached America’s shores, as had the news of Wilberforce’s passing.

And so sons and daughters of Africa met in New York to consider how they ought to pay tribute to Wilberforce’s memory. During that September meeting several resolutions were unanimously adopted. A committee was also appointed to draft resolutions “expressive of the sentiments of regret felt by the people of color for the death of the Honorable William Wilberforce.” It was their considered opinion that “the most extensive manifestations of feeling be recommended to the people of color throughout the United States.”

The other resolutions adopted included a request that “colored freemen throughout the United States” be requested to wear a badge of mourning for thirty days. Pastors of the African-American churches in New York City were asked “to deliver discourses in the several Churches, as soon as practicable, descriptive of the life and virtues of the late William Wilberforce.” Lastly a committee of five was appointed “to select a suitable person to deliver an Eulogy on the Life and Character of the distinguished Philanthropist whose death we so much lament.” Soon afterward, this committee reported “that they had selected Mr. Benjamin F. Hughes, Principal of the Free School.”

Hughes’ delivered his eulogy on October 22, 1833. Marked by passages of great eloquence, the address was eventually published and widely distributed. It is now considered a classic work of African-American literature.

Perhaps no portion of Hughes’ oration was more powerful than the one in which he compared Wilberforce and Napoleon. “Napoleon,” Hughes said, “and the band the preceded him in ambition’s lawless strife have ceased to breathe…the Corsican is no more; and with him sleep those vast designs, which convulsed the world in bloody contest for empire.”

Hughes then posed an arresting question. Why is it, he wondered aloud, that “there is a charm that attracts the admiration of men to their destroyers; a propensity to applaud those very acts that bring misery on the human race; and on the other hand to pass by unheeded, the placid and even tenor of the real benefactors of their species?”

Hughes understood what the proper response to such a question should be. “There is a spectacle,” he declared,

“more glorious and venerable than the transient blaze of a meteor; or the triumphant entry of a conqueror. It is the benign manifestation of those nobler feelings of our nature in behalf of the oppressed…it is that species of love to man, designated philanthropy. It is not circumscribed within the narrow precincts of country, restricted to religion or party;—it is co-extensive with the world. Hence, of all men, it is to the Philanthropist that we are chiefly indebted; it is upon his disinterested deeds that we are to stare;—and his is the memory for which we should cherish the fondest recollections.”

Hughes concluded by saying that for himself and for his fellow African-Americans, Wilberforce was a man of “unrivalled worth”—the “Hercules of Abolition.”

To be sure, Wilberforce’s labors as an abolitionist dominate the landscape of his legacy, but there are many other compelling and important facets of his life and character. Throughout his life, he championed some 70 different philanthropic initiatives. He was an advocate of child labor laws and ardently supported the education of the blind and the deaf. He funded hospitals and schools with his own money, and was a founder of organizations as diverse as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (the R.S.P.C.A.) and the National Gallery (of Art). “Good causes,” it has been said, “stuck to him like pins to a magnet.”

Wedded to his numerous public and private philanthropies was a personality that captivated nearly everyone he met and won over many whom at one time or another opposed him. The philosopher and novelist Madame de Stael, who for many years had hosted the greatest minds of Europe in her Paris salon, considered Wilberforce “the best converser I have met with” and “the wittiest man in England.” In an age where personal and partisan differences were often so sharp that duels were commonplace, he possessed a unique ability to come alongside philosophical opposites and work together with them. Edmund Burke thought Wilberforce’s parliamentary eloquence was surpassed only by the greatest orators of ancient Greece. High praise from a man considered by many to be the leading orator of his day. Wilberforce was a man whose life and legacy had touched the lives of kings, presidents and the downtrodden throughout the world—a fact as well known in the United States in his day as in the courts of Europe. Lincoln, no less, had written that every schoolboy was familiar with Wilberforce’s story. One prime minister, Lord Grenville, said during Wilberforce's lifetime: “Millions unborn will bless his memory.”

Wilberforce’s steadfast dedication to fostering cultural renewal and seeking social justice flowed from a Christian faith commitment as all-consuming and seminal as that which had transformed Pascal, whose writings he deeply admired and read for hours at a time. Where Dr. King, as stated above, had spoken in his timeless “I Have a Dream” speech of “a beautiful symphony of brotherhood”—Wilberforce had, 155 years before, written of a “concert of benevolence” in an abolition letter to President Jefferson. In words Dr. King would have understood well, Wilberforce had also written: “in the Scriptures no national crime is condemned so frequently, and few so strongly, as oppression and cruelty, and the not using our best endeavours to deliver our fellow-creatures from them.”

Wilberforce has been called “the greatest reformer in history.” In my biography of him, I have sought to chronicle the life of a man who was also one of the great souls of history. It has been a profoundly rewarding task. Thank you—thank you very much.

1 This citation is taken from Martin Luther King, Jr: The Peaceful Warrior, (New York: Pocket Books, 1968).

2 Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 3, (London: John Murray, 1838), p. 374.

3 Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 3, (London: John Murray, 1838), p. 374.

4 William Wilberforce, A Practical View of Christianity, ed., Kevin Belmonte, (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), p. 203.

5 A citation of Acts 17:26 taken from the title page of Wilberforce’s Letter to the Freeholders of Yorkshire, (London: T. Cadell, 1807).

6 A.M. Wilberforce, The Private Papers of William Wilberforce, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1897), pp. 176-177.

7 Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 4, (London: John Murray, 1838), p. 344.

8 Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 4, (London: John Murray, 1838), p. 344.

9 Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 4, (London: John Murray, 1838), p. 344.

10 Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 4, (London: John Murray, 1838), p. 344.

11 Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 1, (London: John Murray, 1838), p. 108.

12 Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 1, (London: John Murray, 1838), p. 106.

13 Robert and Samuel Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce, vol. 3, (London: John Murray, 1838), p. 504.

14 Taken from one of Wilberforce’s most celebrated speeches against the slave trade. See Hansard, 27 April 1792.


For comments on this and other Open Forum programs, please email the Chairperson of the Secretary’s Open Forum Corazon Sandoval Foley at foleycs@state.gov.



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