March 9, 2007


The man who 'murdered' slavery: Two centuries ago, a British backbencher changed an entire way of seeing the world (MARK STEYN, Mar 19, 2007, Macleans)

[T]he costume dramatics and the contemporary emotionalizing [ of Amazing Grace] miss the scale of the abolitionist's achievement. 'What Wilberforce vanquished was something even worse than slavery,' says Metaxas, 'something that was much more fundamental and can hardly be seen from where we stand today: he vanquished the very mindset that made slavery acceptable and allowed it to survive and thrive for millennia. He destroyed an entire way of seeing the world, one that had held sway from the beginning of history, and he replaced it with another way of seeing the world.' Ownership of existing slaves continued in the British West Indies for another quarter-century, and in the United States for another 60 years, and slave trading continued in Turkey until Atatürk abolished it in the twenties and in Saudi Arabia until it was (officially) banned in the sixties, and it persists in Africa and other pockets of the world to this day. But not as a broadly accepted 'human good.'

There was some hard-muscle enforcement that accompanied the new law: the Royal Navy announced that it would regard all slave ships as pirates, and thus they were liable to sinking and their crews to execution. There had been some important court decisions: in the reign of William and Mary, Justice Holt had ruled that 'one may be a villeyn in England, but not a slave,' and in 1803 William Osgoode, chief justice of Lower Canada, ruled that it was not compatible with the principles of British law. But what was decisive was the way Wilberforce 'murdered' (in Metaxas's word) the old acceptance of slavery by the wider society. As he wrote in 1787, 'God almighty has set before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.'

The latter goal we would now formulate as 'changing the culture' -- which is what he did. The film of Amazing Grace shows the Duke of Clarence and other effete toffs reeling under a lot of lame bromides hurled by Wilberforce on behalf of 'the people.' But, in fact, 'the people' were a large part of the problem. Then as now, citizens of advanced democracies are easily distracted. The 18th- century Church of England preached 'a tepid kind of moralism' disconnected both from any serious faith and from the great questions facing the nation. It was a sensualist culture amusing itself to death: Wilberforce goes to a performance of Don Juan, is shocked by a provocative dance, and is then further shocked to discover the rest of the audience is too blasé even to be shocked. The Paris Hilton of the age, the Prince of Wales, was celebrated for having bedded 7,000 women and snipped from each a keepsake hair. Twenty-five per cent of all unmarried females in London were whores; the average age of a prostitute was 16; and many brothels prided themselves on offering only girls under the age of 14.

Many of these features -- weedy faint-hearted mainstream churches, skanky celebs, weary provocations for jaded debauchees -- will strike a chord in our own time. 'There is a deal of ruin in a nation,' remarked Adam Smith. England survived the 18th century, and maybe we will survive the 21st. But the life of William Wilberforce and the bicentennial of his extraordinary achievement remind us that great men don't shirk things because the focus-group numbers look unpromising. What we think of as 'the Victorian era' was, in large part, an invention of Wilberforce which he succeeded in selling to his compatriots. We, children of the 20th century, mock our 19th-century forebears as uptight prudes, moralists and do-gooders. If they were, it's because of Wilberforce. His legacy includes the very notion of a 'social conscience': in the 1790s, a good man could stroll past an 11-year-old prostitute on a London street without feeling a twinge of disgust or outrage; he accepted her as merely a feature of the landscape, like an ugly hill. By the 1890s, there were still child prostitutes, but there were also charities and improvement societies and orphanages. It is amazing to read a letter from Wilberforce and realize that he is, in fact, articulating precisely 220 years ago what New Yorkers came to know in the nineties as the 'broken windows' theory: 'The most effectual way to prevent greater crimes is by punishing the smaller.'

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 9, 2007 4:21 PM

Did you know that just 4-5% of the African slaves imported into the New World came to (what is now) the United States?

While the film doesn't present that startling factoid, it at least makes clear that slavery was not confined to our Southern Colonies. Thanks to Patricia Heaton.

Posted by: ghostcat at March 9, 2007 11:22 PM