If asked who the greatest citizen of your homeland is or was for a given century or period, how would you pick such a person? Would you automatically exclude some people on the basis of gender, political affiliation, or religious affiliation, for example? Would certain sorts of life-time achievements place some individuals at the head of your list of candidates? Would such indicative achievements be in politics, social and economic reform, generation of wealth and economic growth, or artistic and entertainment inspiration?
I suspect that few Englishmen alive today, let alone over the last century, would (have) pick(ed) the person selected by the leading figures of British society and life at the end of the nineteenth century for greatest English/British person of their century. It is likely that many 21st Century British would barely recognize his name, let alone why he was so honoured, both at the time of his death in 1833 and why he was still so remembered and honoured half a century and more later. Here in Canada and elsewhere in the West, outside of some narrow circles this man’s recognition factor would be close to zero. We have made ourselves abysmally parochial despite our ready access to vast quantities of (mis)information which is 99+% of no consequence in making better people of ourselves.
Here is my question for you: “Have you ever heard of William Wilberforce?” If so, I commend your historical knowledge. Next question: “What do you know about his legacy and why he was once and still is considered by some to be the greatest Englishman/British citizen of his time and possible ever?” Greater than Sir Winston Churchill, recognized as the greatest statesman in the world during the 20th Century? Greater than revered Queen Victoria, his contemporary for a short time? Greater than Queen Elizabeth II, our reigning monarch and current “Good Queen Bess”, and the longest reigning monarch in British history? There are no lack of potential “Great Ones” to put on the candidates’ list.
After all the votes are in, it would most likely come down to Wilberforce and Churchill. It would be a tight race. Both of them had an impact far beyond the British Isles, as well as one that has far outlasted their lifetimes.
Churchill himself called Wilberforce a much greater man than he, and perhaps the greatest Parliamentarian and finest Parliamentary orator in British history. As vain as he could be at times, Churchill did not think he should even be on the same podium with Wilberforce. Other great orators of Wilberforce’s own time, including men such as Burke and Fox and the inimitable William Pitt himself, conceded the honours to Wilberforce, who was called “the man with the golden tongue” by his peers. Even his numerous enemies were spellbound by his “golden tongue and angelic voice”. Coming from Churchill, the incarnation of the British bulldog spirit and last truly great master of the spoken English word, naming Wilberforce as his Master in the House [of Commons] is high praise indeed.
Historically literate people around the world are likely to know that Wilberforce played some role in ending African slavery globally, and more specifically the African slave trade in the British Empire and, by extension, around the world. If you know that, you are half-way there.
The second half of his legacy is, to most of us, more obscure if not entirely unknown. To understand it, you would need to look pretty closely at British society (and, by extension, the society of Britain’s vast empire) in about 1790 and then look as closely again a hundred years later. Most of us would rather yawn, but, even superficially, the changes would be (and indeed were) staggering.
The observations we are looking for do not concern Britain’s status as a world super-power or economic prowess. From end to end of those hundred years, Britain was the acknowledged world super-power and a financial and economic powerhouse. What we are really looking for is a sea-change, a paradigm shift, in society itself – its general tenor and temperament. The other notable point is that the United Kingdom was the only major European nation not to undergo violent socio-political revolution or upheaval during all that tumultuous period. By comparison, France, Britain’s traditional main competitor until Germany knocked it off the pedestal in 1870-71, underwent violent upheavals and governmental and social mayhem in 1789-1815, 1830, 1848-53, and 1870-71. Germany was not a united nation until 1871, and only became so through three aggressive wars. Ditto for Italy, 1849-70.
Halévy, a prominent French historian of the 19th Century, fascinated and puzzled by this phenomenon, set out to determine why. After meticulous research and minute analysis, he boiled it down to the great good fortune of the British to forge a moral and ethical revolution coupled with a gradual social and political revolution that forestalled many of the worst grievances of the underclasses. He attributed much of the inspiration and leadership for this extraordinary and singular development to a group of British reformers known as the Clapham Sect, whose acknowledged founder and leader was William Wilberforce. Their foes acidly mocked them as “the Saints” and dubbed them a hypocritical “set of Evangelical fanatics” supposedly in the pocket of the up-and-coming nouveau-riche industrialists and financiers.
As to that charge, there has never been any credible evidence to substantiate it. Some of them, Wilberforce among them, were wealthy, and a few very wealthy. But, to a man (and woman) they were what was termed in those days “liberal to a fault” with their money. Wilberforce never gave away less than half his annual income, and in his bachelor years, his charity sometimes hit the 80-90% bracket. His best friend and far wealthier Henry Thornton imitated his example. Their profligate generosity was imitated by most of the others.
“The Saints” denied that they were any kind of “sect”. They accepted with humour the title “Saints”, knowing full well their own and the others’ numerous faults. As to saintliness, they worked very hard to find and do what they believed to be God’s will. They were not above being angry and failing to act equitably at times. But they were also not above asking forgiveness and publicly admitting their wrongs.
They remained within the Anglican Communion, with a few exceptions who were mostly Quakers. All were anti-slavery and committed to reforming British society and civil life from the ground up. This meant raising the poor and oppressed out of the worst aspects of their desperate circumstances. Thus, their program was two-fold.
Many of them were more heavily involved with the slavery issue because it remained the most publicly visible part of their mission through four decades of constant campaigning. But all were committed to the general goal and vision of transforming British society from “base and brutish” to one where normal life was carried on with courtesy and an understanding of and considerable commitment to what moral living entails.
It would be a very long tale to recount how such a lofty goal could be approached, let alone, by and large, achieved to a point far beyond any level the numerous scoffers (like the vituperous William Cobbett) ever conceived could happen. We speak of the 19th Century as “Victorian” in tone and tenor, in Britain and its Empire, and even, to some extent, in the USA and some European states. Extending a degree of “righteousness” to civil life across the Empire was already a huge achievement. The Empire encompassed one quarter of the world and its population.
We who enjoy the benefits of liberal democratic and parliamentary government today largely take it for granted. The expectation that morality should play an important part in public and private life is a gift of this quiet revolution. (Sadly, this expectation is now eroding rapidly.) The “Saints” set their sights on changing the expectations of what being a statesman should mean. They eventually successfully moved the bar of acceptable behaviour among “men of state” and “gentlemen” from forming rival cliques of unscrupulous opportunists to one of becoming people of personal integrity and probity. Political life changed from a road to gain advantage for oneself and others willing to “scratch one another’s backs” in the game to an ideal of “public service for the general welfare of the commonwealth”.
The whole notion of “being a proper gentleman” which we find in the literature of the era (from Jane Austen to Charles Dickens, where it was often mocked) emerged from the campaign of Wilberforce and the Saints, supported by King George III and Sir William Pitt, Jr. This quiet “revolution in manners”, as Wilberforce described it, was waged relentlessly for thirty years by targeted legislation, by Royal Proclamation regarding the unabashed licentiousness of the nobility bringing shame upon all those purporting to lead the nation and teach the underclasses to respect “their betters”, and by educational reform and innovation, including the beginnings of publicly funded education. Wilberforce reinforced this campaign with one of the all-time best-selling English books ever. Its shortened title is A Practical View. It appeared in 1797 and was an immediate surprise sell-out. It remained a best-seller into the mid-19th Century as a sort of manual on how to live, think, and work as a Christian gentleman.
Even the Church of England came within the reform purview. Numbers of the Lords-Bishops were brought into the campaign to create a clergy that was not just time-serving and living by patronage (Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice anyone?), but truly living as examples and conscientiously pastoring their parishes. Absentee holding of benefices was abolished.
Even as Wilberforce aged and retired, the next generation of committed reformers took up the torch to finish the job against slavery and further political and social reforms, often against serious opposition. (Wilberforce had written in A Practical View that it was the duty of a Christian politician to further social reform.) Wilberforce had never endorsed the notion of “equalizing” society, but the forces he unleashed and ideas he inspired naturally crossed the boundaries to aim at the full liberation of the labouring classes from the shackles of poverty, debt-slavery, oppressive social laws, and disenfranchisement. Many of the earliest Labour leaders were back-door disciples of the principles first expounded by the Claphamites, applying them to the generalization of full rights for all males and, eventually, women.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert played a part in reinforcing rather than creating the impetus already well under way to remake the face and reform the soul of the United Kingdom.
The one who broke the dam was William Wilberforce, greatest Englishman of the 19th Century.