WILBERFORCE, WILLIAM (1739-1833), English philanthropist whose name is chiefly associated with the abolition of the slave trade, was descended from a Yorkshire family which possessed the manor of Wilberfoss in the East Riding from the time of Henry II. till the middle of the 18th century. He was the only son of Robert Wilberforce, member of a commercial house at Hull, by his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Bird of Barton, Oxon, and was born at Hull on the 24th of August 1759. It was from his mother that he inherited both his feeble frame and his many rich mental endowments. He was not a diligent scholar, but at the grammar school of Hull his skill in elocution attracted the attention of the master. Before he had completed his tenth year he lost his father and was transferred to the care of a paternal uncle at Wimbledon; but in his twelfth year he returned to Hull, and soon afterwards was placed under the care of the master of the endowed school of Pocklington. Here his love of social pleasures made him neglectful of his studies, but he entered St John's College, Cambridge, in October 1766. Left by the death of his grandfather and uncle the possessor of an independent fortune under his mother's sole guardianship, he was somewhat idle at the university, though he acquitted himself in the examinations with credit; but in his serious years he " could not look back without unfeigned remorse " on the opportunities he had then neglected. In 1780 he was elected to the House of Commons for his native town, his success being due to his personal popularity and his lavish expenditure. He soon found his way into the fast political society of London, and at the club at Goosetrees renewed an acquaintance begun at Cambridge with Pitt, which ripened into a friendship of the closest kind. In the autumn of 1783 he set out with Pitt on a tour in France; and after his return his eloquence proved of great assistance to Pitt in his struggle against the majority of the House of Commons. In 1784 Wilberforce was elected for both Hull and Yorkshire, and took his seat for the latter constituency.
A journey to Nice in the autumn of the same year with his friend Dr Isaac Milner (1750-1820), who had been a master at Hull grammar school when Wilberforce was there as a boy, and had since made a reputation as a mathematician, and afterwards became president of Queens' College, Cambridge, and dean of Carlisle, led to his conversion to Evangelical Christianity and the adoption of more serious views of life. The change had a marked effect on his public conduct. In the beginning of 1787 he busied himself with the establishment of a society for the reformation of manners. About the same time he made the acquaintance of Thomas Clarkson, and began the agitation against the slave trade. Pitt entered heartily into their plans, and recommended Wilberforce to undertake the guidance of the project as a subject suited to his character and talents. While Clarkson conducted the agitation throughout the country, Wilberforce took every opportunity in the House of Commons of exposing the evils and horrors of the trade. In 1788, however, a serious illness compelled him to retire for some months from public life, and the introduction of the subject in parliament therefore devolved on Pitt, whose representations were so far successful that an act was passed providing that the number of slaves carried in ships should be in proportion to the tonnage. On the 12th of May of the following year Wilberforce, in co- operation with Pitt, brought the subject of abolition again before the House of Commons; but the friends of the planters succeeded in getting the matter deferred. On the 27th of January following Wilberforce carried a motion for referring to a special commit ten the further examination of witnesses, but after full inquiry the motion for abolition in April 1791 was lost by 163 votes to 88. In the following April he carried a motion for gradual abolition by 238 to 85 votes; but in the House of Lords the discussion was finally postponed till the following session. Notwithstanding his unremitting labours in educating public opinion and annual motions in the House of Commons, it was not till 1807, the year following Pitt's death, that the first great step towards the abolition of slavery was accomplished. When the anti-slavery society was formed in 1823, Wilberforce and Clarkson became vice-presidents; but before their aim was accomplished Wilberforce had retired from public life, and the Emancipation Bill was not passed till August 1833, a month after his death.
In 1797 Wilberforce published A Pratical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes of this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity, which within half a year went through five editions and was afterwards translated into French, Italian, Dutch and German. In the same year (May 1797) he married Barbara Ann Spooner and took a house at Clapham, where he became one of the leaders of what was known as the " Clapham Sect " of Evangelicals, including Henry Thornton, Charles Grant, E. J. Eliot, Zacchary Macaulay and James Stephen. It was in connexion with this group that he then occupied himself with a plan for a religious periodical which should admit " a moderate degree of political and common intelligence," the result being the appearance in January 1801 of the Christian Observer. He also interested himself in a variety of schemes for the advancement of the social and religious welfare of the community, including the establishment of the Association for the Better Observance of Sunday, the foundation, with Hannah More (q.v.), of schools at Cheddar, Somersetshire, a project for opening a school in every parish for the religious instruction of children, a plan for the education of the children of the lower classes, a bill for securing better salaries to curates, and a method for disseminating, by government help, Christianity in India. In parliament he was a supporter of parliamentary reform and of Roman Catholic emancipation. In 1812, on account of failing health, he exchanged the representation of Yorkshire for that of a constituency which would make less demands on his time, and was returned for Bramber, Sussex. In 1825 he retired from the House of Commons, and the following year settled at Highwood Hill, near Mill Hill, "just beyond the disk of the metropolis." He died at London on the 2Qth of July 1833, and was buried in Westminster Abbey close to Pitt, Fox and Canning. In Westminster Abbey a statue was erected to his memory, and in Yorkshire a county asylum for the blind was founded in his honour. A column was also erected to him by his townsmen of Hull. Wilberforce left four sons, two of whom, Samuel and Robert Isaac, are noticed separately. The youngest, Henry William Wilberforce (1807-1873), was educated at Oriel College, Oxford, and was president of the Oxford Union. He took orders in the English Church, but in 1850 became a Roman Catholic. He was an active journalist and edited the Catholic Standard.
The chief authorities of the career of William Wilberforce are his Life (5 vols., 1838) by his sons, Robert Isaac and Samuel, and his Correspondence (1840) also published by his sons A smaller edition of the Life was published by Samuel Wilberforce in 1868. See also The private papers of William Wilberforce, edited by A. M. Wilberforce (1807) ; Sir James Stephen, Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography (1849) ; j. C. Colquhoun, Wilberforce, His Friends and Times (1866); John Stoughton, William Wtlbtrforce (1880); I. J. Gurney, Familiar Sketch of Wilberforce (1838); and J. S. Hartford, Recollections of W. Wilberforce (1864).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)