Was famous abolitionist William Wilberforce actually an incrementalist?


Recent articles from CARE (1, 2) and secular organisation The Minimise Project (3) have attempted to discredit the abolitionist stance of CBR NI. One common theme in both, however, is that they have attempted to sully the name of one of the greatest abolitionists of all time - William Wilberforce.

Let's fact check some of their claims:

Claim 1 - Wilberforce used an incremental approach

In their article CARE claim that Wilberforce changed the law gradually and through these small changes in order to abolish the slave trade.

'This incrementalist approach was successfully adopted by social reformers such as William Wilberforce, who both advocated for laws to end slavery entirely, as well as supporting Bills which improved the condition of slaves gradually.'

Fact check - False

In 1789, Wilberforce gave a three hour speech against slavery in Parliament. In 1791, Wilberforce presented to the House of Commons another Bill to abolish the slave trade.

He had the support of Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, but the Bill was not passed. It was rejected by 163 votes to 88.

In every year between 1789 and 1806, Wilberforce presented a Bill for the abolition of the slave trade.

A bill to cease the trade was passed by the House of Commons in 1792 . It was, however, hijacked by incrementalists with the amendment that the ban should be 'gradual', which those with an interest in the trade interpreted as 'never'.

In 1804, the House of Commons voted in favour of abolition, but Wilberforce's Bill was rejected by the House of Lords.

In 1806, Wilberforce's friend James Stephen proposed a Bill banning British ships from carrying slaves to French colonies. Pro-slave MPs didn't see the significance of the Bill and let it pass. This stopped two-thirds of the slave trade and made it unprofitable.

In 1807, after a huge campaign, Parliament abolished the slave trade.

Claim 2 - Wilberforce didn't abolish slavery by one single act but by 50 years of incremental change

CARE claim:

'William Wilberforce did not abolish slavery by one single act or repeal but by changing the law, bit by bit, over almost 50 years, in an incrementalist way.'

and in a second article claim:

'Wilberforce publicly advocated for full abolition of the slave trade. However, politically it was a different matter. He never had the opportunity to vote explicitly to abolish the slave trade, so he had to make do with smaller changes to the law that eventually saw the law overturned.'

Fact check - False

In every year between 1789 and 1806, Wilberforce presented a Bill for the abolition of the slave trade before finally having The Slave Trade Act 1807, officially An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, passed into law in 1807.

This process took 18 years, not 50, and abolished the slave trade in the British Colonies in one single act.

However, this was not a vote to abolish slavery as a whole throughout the Empire, just the trade in enslaved people. William Wilberforce continued to work for the abolition of all slavery within the British Colonies but cannot claim credit for the total abolition of slavery that was achieved by others in 1833, just days before Wilberforce's death.

To claim that Wilberforce 'never had the opportunity to vote explicitly to abolish the slave trade, so he had to make do with smaller changes to the law that eventually saw the law overturned' is astonishingly inaccurate. Wilberforce repeatedly put forward bills to abolish the slave trade and voted in favour of these bills.

Claim 3 - Wilberforce voted for bills that improved conditions for slaves, therefore he wasn't an abolitionist

To support their claim that Wilberforce was an incrementalist, CARE point out that

'he supported a Bill that would regulate how many slaves were allowed on a single ship, which improved conditions for slave ships.'

The Minimise Project go one step further by pointing out that

'Absolutists/abolitionists often adopt Wilberforce as a hero in their own cause, yet often overlook the fact that for Wilberforce, the process of abolishing the slave trade included:

-legally improving conditions for slaves;

-limiting the legally permissible number of slave that could be shipped; and

-legally prohibiting the slave trade in certain parts of the world.'

Fact Check - Partially true

The first and most important thing to remember about Wilberforce is that he was a human being and was, therefore, prone to a lack of consistency and persuasion like us all. For example, the bill to limit the number of slaves on ships was a measure that Equiano and others suggested that William Wilberforce support, and on which he capitulated, but was not huge on promoting. Wilberforce wasn't perfect.

There are other flaws with the examples offered by CARE and The Minimise Project.

Legally prohibiting the slave trade in different parts of the world at different times is an example of immediatism, not incrementalism. The American slavery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison thought a state-by-state approach could be done without compromise. In effect we will see the same domino effect start to happen when States and countries start to abolish abortion.

Finally, both CARE and The Minimise Project cite an example of improving conditions for slaves as an example to support their incrementalist approach. This, of course, is a false analogy. In every successful abortion a child is murdered. There is no way to improve the conditions or safety of an abortion for the victim of an abortion.

Rather than judging Wilberforce by one or two moments it makes much more sense to judge him by the entirity of his work and life.

Wilberforce wrote A Letter on the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the months prior to the Slave Trade Act of 1807. This treatise contains a direct answer to the question of whether Wilberforce advocated gradual means to end the slave trade.

Wilberforce entitled a chapter in his book, Immediate abolition preferable to gradual, both in the West Indies and in Africa.

It is a historical fact that Wilberforce himself wrote that gradualist efforts were in opposition to his immediatist efforts. Although he compromised on points early on, he later wrote that proponents for gradualism proposed the compromise only to delay and resist his measures.

But this kind of half measure, however unintentionally, exactly answered the purpose of our enemies ...

Wilberforce explained that some did this to merely assuage their consciences and in time self-deception allowed them to

... feel the complacencies arising from an act of justice and humanity, without paying the price or making the sacrifice which those principles required.

He also graciously wrote that he believed that some of the gradual Abolitionists were sincere.

Yet I cannot believe, that, could they have clearly foreseen what would be the practical effect of their opposition, it would not have been continued for an hour. Let them now, however, remember the grounds and principles on which they resisted our measure; that they themselves only stated the question to be only between two different modes of abolishing the Slave Trade.

In conclusion

Wilberforce, although not perfect, provides Christians with a template for how to biblically end a societal evil. For this reason he is someone that abolitionists have, do and will continue to look up to.

Both CARE and The Minimise Project are keen to point to Wilberforce's 'incrementalist' actions while completely ignoring his yearly abolition bills that eventually brought an end to the slave trade in British Colonies. This can only be in order to argue that abortion should be regulated and we should not attempt to end it immediately.

For further information on how Wiberforce inspires the modern abolitionist movement please see the following interview with T. Russell Hunter on how reading about Wilberforce as a PhD student forces him to take up the abolitionist cause.