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Definition: Wilberforce from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

William Wilberforce 1759–1833 Eng. philanthropist & abolitionist

Summary Article: Wilberforce, William
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

English reformer. He was instrumental in abolishing slavery in the British Empire. He entered Parliament in 1780. In 1807 his bill banning the trade in slaves from the West Indies was passed, and by 1833 further acts had eradicated slavery throughout the empire. He died shortly before the Slavery Abolition Act was passed.

Wilberforce was a member of a humanitarian group called the Clapham Sect, which exercised considerable influence on public policy, being closely identified with Sunday schools and the British and Foreign Bible Society, as well as the issue of slavery. His work illustrates how the efforts of individuals affected the cause of abolitionism.

Wilberforce was born in Hull and attended Cambridge University before becoming MP for Hull in 1779. His conversion to the antislavery cause followed his discovery of Evangelical Christianity in 1784. He became deeply involved in the work of the Society of Friends (Quakers) and the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and made numerous unsuccessful attempts to get the slave trade banned between 1791 and 1805. During this period, however, he gained the support of Whig party leaders such as William Grenville and Charles Fox, and when Grenville formed a government in 1806 he introduced the Abolition of the Slave Trade Bill. The bill was passed in 1807.

Wilberforce was responsible for leading the bill through the House of Commons, and convincing other members of Parliament to support the measure. This collaboration between a campaigning group and the British government achieved the complete abolition of slavery in the British Empire during the next 30 years. Although Wilberforce played little part in the 1825 and 1833 acts that brought slavery to an end, he had shown how popular pressure, religious belief, and parliamentary power could achieve success for the abolitionists.


Wilberforce, William


British Parliament: Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies


Anti-Slavery Campaign in Britain

Slave Trade

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