William Wilberforce by Michael Hennell
The men who were the Directors of the Sierra Leone Company, the founders of the Church Missionary Society and the most active members of the Abolitionist Committee, belonged to a group nicked-named by Sidney Smith “The Clapham Sect”. The name, which has stuck, was unfortunate, for it suggested to Thackeray and to many others since that they were a new denomination. This is untrue. All were Churchmen except William Smith, who was a Unitarian. It is true, however, that most of them lived at Clapham. In 1792 John Thornton's youngest son, Henry, took a house called Battersea Rise on Clapham Common and invited Wilberforce to live with him there. Within two years the house on one side was occupied by Edward Eliot, Pitt's brother-in-law, and on the other by Charles Grant, the most influential of the Directors of the East India Company; while about the same time John Venn became Rector of Clapham and the initial group was formed. Granville Sharp and William Smith both lived at Clapham, but were a little removed from the inner circle which grew with the addition of Zachary Macaulay, the Governor of Sierra Leone and father of the historian, James Stephen, a lawyer from the West Indies, and Lord Teignmouth, a rather unsuccessful Governor-General of India. Most of them were members of Parliament and several were experts in various fields, Thornton in banking, Stephen in law, Grant in Indian affairs and Macaulay in literature. Their meetings at Battersea Rise were frequently enlarged by the presence of Simeon from Cambridge, Milner from Carlisle, Hannah More from Cheddar, Gisborne from Staffordshire, and Thomas Babington from Rothley Temple in Leicestershire: all of whom might expect to find themselves hosts in their own homes to any members of the group who might be travelling in their part of the country with their families. Living mostly in one village and working in London they were able to think, talk and eat together with a minimum need of correspondence and formality. On social and moral questions they came to be of one mind, even though on political questions they frequently differed among themselves. Their very homogeneity and singleness of purpose made them a greater force in English political and social life than any other body before or since.
When the friends reassembled at Battersea Rise after the second reading of the Bill for Abolition had passed the Commons by a huge majority, Wilberforce turned to Thornton and said, “Well, Henry! What shall we abolish now?” Thornton solemnly replied, “The Lottery, I think.” Eventually owing to the efforts of this group the Lottery did go, but Wilberforce's “reformation of manners” embraced far more than that. One has only to contrast the picture of eighteenth-century society as given at the beginning of this essay with the sobriety and high moral standards of early Victorian England to realize that a great transformation had taken place, and had taken place within an even shorter period than is usually recognized. In 1829, Francis Place, who was no friend to Evangelical religion, wrote:
“I am certain I risk nothing when I assert that more good has been done to the people in the last thirty years than in the three preceding centuries; that during this period they have become wiser, better, more frugal, more honest, more respectable, more virtuous than they ever were before.”
For this transformation Wesley was partly responsible, and Wilberforce and his friends built on Wesley's foundations, bringing their influence to bear in circles which the Methodists could never hope to reach.
They began with Parliament here they became by-words of integrity and thus earned for themselves the nickname of “the Saints”. Wilberforce himself was a persistent worker for Parliamentary Reform; he constantly protested against the corrupt system under which members were elected. He was the most regular of all M.P.s in his attendance in the House, and no man served on more committees than he. As time went on, he became the keeper of the nation's conscience and a speech was expected from him on almost every motion, for men believed him to be above party. Newton's hope that the example and presence of a consistent character would have an effect on his fellow-members was realized. On one occasion Sheridan, hearing a rumour that Wilberforce was about to retire from politics, stopped him and said: “Though you and I have not much agreed in our votes in the House of Commons, yet I thought the independent part you acted would render your retirement a public loss.”
Independent Wilberforce's political position indeed was. He was tied to no party, and while he would side with Pitt and Sidmouth in their repression of what he considered disorder, his principal political allies were Radicals, most of whom were Utilitarians in their philosophy and agnostics in their religion. Bentham, Brougham, Romilly and Mackintosh were all allies and friends. Bentham once wrote: “If to be an anti-slavist is to be a Saint, saintship for me.” But the men who misunderstood him and maligned him were those like Cobbett and Hazlitt, who thought his religion pious cant when he supported measures which kept the people in their places. What they, and their sympathizers to-day, have failed to realize is that in his attitude to class distinctions and rank Wilberforce was a child of his time. He not only believed (as Cobbett did) in the rightness of class distinctions but also that, although everything should be done for the poor, the poor must not be given the power to do it for themselves. In fact, he tended to see a Christian virtue in material poverty. It was the Christian Socialists, two generations later, who saw that Christian reformers must not only work for the poor but with them. That Wilberforce failed to see it is mainly due to the fact that he was born in 1759 and not in 1805 (the date of F. D. Maurice's birth).