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The Anti-Slavery Activism of William Wilberforce


This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. William Wilberforce was an abolitionist, a legislator, friend of the mighty and foe of powerful forces. He was also the life of the party, the genial host, and evangelical in the time when bringing religion into politics made many suspicious.

William Wilberforce used his political skills, as well as his principles, to move the mighty British Empire to not only ban the slave trade but enlisted the Royal Navy, then the strongest military force on earth, to enforce it. A new biography of Wilberforce has just been published. The author's also been a famous legislator for most of his life, perhaps once again rumored to be a future prime minister.

William Hague from Yorkshire, like William Wilberforce, is now the shadow foreign secretary of Britain's Conservative Party and was once head of this party and a famous boy orator in politics. Mr. Hague's new book is "William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner." He joined us from New York last week when my voice was a little under the weather. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. WILLIAM HAGUE (Shadow Foreign Secretary, Britain's Conservative Party; Author, "William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner"): It's a huge pleasure, thank you.

SCOTT: What intrigued you about Wilberforce? Well, we should explain, you did a previous biography about his good friend, William Pitt.

Mr. HAGUE: Well, that was where I started off, really. I wrote the book on William Pitt, the youngest ever British prime minister. He was prime minister at the age of 24 and of course, when you write about someone, you meet their friends, you feel as if you meet their friends. And one of his great friends was this man, William Wilberforce.

Pitt became the ultimate career politician, prime minister most of his adult life. And he worked and worried and drank himself to death in his 40s. Wilberforce never became prime minister and never became a minister of any kind. But arguably, as a - what we call a "back bench" member of Parliament, a junior member of Parliament, exercised more influence on history than almost any other British politician in the last few hundred years.

SCOTT: Why was he attracted to politics?

Mr. HAGUE: He was drawn to politics, I think, partly because some of his friends were going into politics and partly because great events were happening at the time. Because when he was in his late teens the American Revolution was under way and then a change of government in Britain. And there he was in Parliament not knowing what to do with his seat in Parliament at the age of 21, having effectively bought his way into Parliament. So then, how he was going to use his position in Parliament? And that was what he turned to next.

SCOTT: Describe for us please the steel and the animation of his religious principles that made him an evangelical because it's certainly at the center of his story.

Mr. HAGUE: It is at the center. It was really his conversion at the age of 25 to evangelical Christianity, a spiritual and mental experience of enormous power that convinced him he had to use his life for some productive purpose. And that led him to take up with the abolition of the slave trade, which many Christian forces have been gathering together to oppose in the previous decades.

SCOTT: I gather in your account that Wilberforce's religious conversion, his becoming an evangelical Christian, broadened and deepened his interest and his commitment, his sense of conviction in life. But he still remained the life of the party, didn't he? This guy was considered scintillating company.

Mr. HAGUE: You could easily form the impression that he was a rather over-moralizing, interfering busybody. You know, not only was he taking up all these causes but he was always thinking about how to turn other people to religion, thinking how to get them to pray. And yet, he was saved from being an insufferable bore about all of this by being such vivacious company. And he was happy to talk to anyone, from the kings of the time, who - certainly, George IV, would later seek his company, to the prime minister, William Pitt, to anyone who happened to be in his home, which was always thronged with visitors who he was too kind to turn away.

SCOTT: Mr. Hague, you're a pretty famous orator yourself. I remember you were said to be Margaret Thatcher's favorite orator. But what were Wilberforce's gifts when he spoke in Parliament?

Mr. HAGUE: He spoke in the great age of eloquence in Parliament. You know, these days, whether it be in the U.S. Congress or the British Parliament, the outcome of votes is often known well in advance and so there is no call for eloquence. But in those days, there were many independent MPs. They could change their minds. So an MP really had to try to win the argument. And this brought forth these brilliantly eloquent speakers - Pitt, Fox, Burke and Wilberforce.

And I go through in one of the chapters of my book, I analyzed one of his speeches and show how he used eight different oratorical techniques in his first great opening oration on the slave trade in 1789, flattering the audience, cunning and presenting the argument, trying to get the audience to come to its own conclusions so they don't think that you have forced it on them, they have worked it out for themselves. All of these techniques of the good orator are there in this textbook example of a good speech.

SCOTT: As you noted as we began to speak, Mr. Hague, William Wilberforce never became prime minister but it would be hard to name more than two or three prime ministers who accomplished more.

Mr. HAGUE: Well, that is right and this is - well, the usual saying is that all political careers end in failure. That's one thing that all British politicians are taught and indeed, it's usually true. But that's only if you think about it in terms of holding power. They're bound to end in failure if you only want to be in power, in government.

The great thing and inspiring thing, one of the inspiring things about William Wilberforce, is that as someone who never held executive power but was an active legislator, with the goal of entrenching for centuries to come certain values and certain enactments, he went to his grave knowing that he had succeeded in doing so, far more fulfilled than the run-of-the-mill politician.

And it's that and his ability to live life as he preached it to others that really make him stand out among the ranks of politicians and make his life one that we should all know about. Abraham Lincoln said everyone should know about Wilberforce. And so I hope, now my book is published in America, that Americans will obey that injunction.

SCOTT: I have to ask. You've done biographies, Mr. Hague, both Pitt, who became prime minister, and Wilberforce, who didn't. How do you see yourself?

Mr. HAGUE: I don't see myself as becoming prime minister. I stood for that office in 2001 against Tony Blair. Everyone will remember that he was re-elected. And then I left the frontline of politics for a few years, which is where I got going on the writing and on many other things I've always wanted to do.

And I have come back now into frontline politics, really to support the new leader of my party, David Cameron, who I hope will be the next British Prime Minister and to be his Foreign Affairs spokesman and hopefully, to serve in government with him after the next election in Britain.

SCOTT: Mr. Hague, so nice to talk to you.

Mr. HAGUE: Thank you.

SCOTT: William Hague, former head of Britain's Conservative Party. His new book is "William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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