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THE LIFE OF WILLIAM WILBERFORCE.
By his Sons, R. J. Wilberforce, M. A. and S. Wilberforce, M.A. 5 vols.
IF the effect which the perusal of these volumes leaves upon the mind of the reader is not so impressive or agreeable as might have been expected from the very interesting character which they attempt to pourtray, it will be found, we think, to arise, partly from the nature of the materials of which it is composed, and partly from the undue length to which it is extended. Mr. Wilberforce left behind hiin a Diary, in which the daily occurrences of his life were noted down. This extended from 1783 to 1835; also a Journal, begun in 1785 and ending in 1818, devoted exclusively to religious reflections, and principally the work of Sundays. Besides these, there esist. also MS. or conversational memoranda, dictated late in life by Mr. Wilberforce, of which only some small and detached parts are as yet made public by his biographers. From these sources the chief materials of his Life are drawn and delivered in his own words, and the “callida junctura" is supplied by the narration of his sons. The stream of biography, it must be confessed, is thus impeded and broken in its course, and the component parts do not pleasantly assimilate. Secondly,
, we consider the whole work to be too long by two volumes, at the least
Pagina turgescit:"-hut the increase of bulk is derived, first, from the insertion of many letters casually written, without talent or effort, and affording no amusement, and throwing little additional light upon the subjects under discussion ; and secondly, by the publication of much of Mr. Wilberforce's private devotional exercises, his closet prayers, bis pious ejaculations ;-the rebukes of a tender and distrusting conscience, or the warm spontaneous effusions of a grateful and overflowing heart. though with feelings of respect to the filial duty which bas laid then open to public gaze, that we think these commuvings of the spirit, to be a thing too sacred to be submitted to general inspection, or that at least a much more sparing and partial selection of thein might have served to satisfy, if such was the object in view, the reader of the high devotional feeling which was the guiding spirit of their parent's life. However, we have no wish to pause upon the defects, if such they are, of the work, and our only reason for mentioning them, is with the hope of seeing a future edition of the biography presenting us the life of this most interesting person, in such a forin as will give us the full and perfect portrait, without any unnecessary or unbecoming details ; and thus increase our standard stock of biography with tlié history of one whom nature and divine grace had alike gifted, who possessed an union of rich and rare qualities such as are seldom seen in the same individual, and to whom, more than to any other person of the present age, society is indebted for the inculcation of those principles upon which alone it can safely rest, the tendency of which is to harmonise the business of this life with the interests of the next, and to teach men 'to pass through things temporal, so as finally to lose not the things eternal."
We must say,
It is, we think, hardly necessary for us to present a detailed sketch of the events of Mr. Wilberforce's life, and to enumerate the various occurrences and changes in it, which will be better read in the work itself, accompanied, as they are there, with anecdotes and reflections that explain and illustrate the transactions as they proceed. Our object, in the small space we possess, is rather to present a general view of his character, from the original and authentic sources; and, if we can so compress the materials required, to enable our readers at least to know what were the leading features of a mind of no common structure, and to become acquainted with one “ quem homines comiter et benigne salutaverant toy ου προ πολλού σωτήρα και ευεργέτην αυτών γεγενόμενον."
When Mr. Wilberforce, early in life, lost his father, he was sent to live with his uncle at Wimbledon, who was a rigid Methodist : his aunt was a great admirer of Whitfield's preaching, and kept up a friendly connexion with the early Methodists. The lively affections of his heart, warmed by the kindness of his friends, readily assumed their tone. It is said that a rare and pleasing character of piety marked even his twelfth year; and his sons give their opinion “that there can be little doubt that the acquaintance with holy Scripture and habits of devotion, which he then acquired, fostered that baptismal seed which though long dormant (?) was destined to produce at last a golden harvest."
Partly by his residence among some thoughtless companions at college, where he was distinguished for the quickness of his talents, and loved for his hospitality and good-nature, partly by the zealous endeavours of his own family to remove the serious impressions which had been formed in his uncle's society,—the allurements of worldly pleasure gained the mastery, and he soon entered, without reluctance, into a life of gaiety and amusement, Not only his station in society, and the agreeableness of his manners, secured his reception with the principal inhabitants of the city where he lived, but his taste, the sweetness of his voice, and his musical talents, made him everywhere acceptable.f
Yet he passed through this dangerous part of the passage of life without any abandonment of his principles or any stain on the purity of his conduct. His friend Lord Clarendon, who knew him at this period of his life, says, “ He had never, in the smallest degree, a dissolute character, however short his early babits might be of that constant piety and strictness which was soon perfected in his happy disposition.” Before he was of age, he stood for the representation of Hull, and carried his election against the interest of Lord Rockingham, the most powerful nobleman in the county ; that of Sir G. Saville, its wealthy and respected representative ; and that of Government, always strong at a sea-port. Previous to this time, he renewed his acquaintance with Mr. Pitt, whom he had known at Cambridge, and whom he afterwards met in the gallery of the House of Commons, and in some clubs in Town).
• “ Billy,” said his grandfather, "shall travel with Milner as soon as he is of age : but if Billy turn Methodist, he shall not have a sixpence of mine." He was soon removed from his uncle's by his mother.
+ He was also an admirable mimic, and until reclaimed by the kind severity of the old Lord Camden, would often set the table in a roar, by his perfect imitation of Lord North. “Mimicry," he said, "is but a vulgar accomplishment.” vid. vol. i. p. 27. “ Wilberforce, we must have you again. The Prince says he will come at any time to hear you sing," was the flattery he received after his first meeting with the Prince of Wales in 1782, at the luxurious soirées of Devonshire House." i. 29.
His success in his election threw no small lustre on his entry into public life, and he was welcomed, upon his return to London, into every circle, He was at once elected a member of all the leading clubs : "fruiturqne deorum colloquio."—“When I left the University," he says, “ so little did I know of general society, that I came up to London stored with arguments to prove the authenticity of Rowley's Poems. And now I was at once immersed in politics and fashion. The very first time I went to Boodle's, I won twenty-five guineas of the D. of Norfolk. I belonged to five clubs, The first time I was at Brookes's, scarcely knowing any one, I joined, in mere shyness, in play at the bank of the faro-table, when G. Selwyn kept bank. A friend who knew my inexperience, and regarded me as a victim decked out for sacrifice, called to me, 'What, Wilberforce ! is that you ?' Selwyn quite resented the interference, and, turning to him said, in his most expressive tone, 'Oh, sir, don't interrupt Mr. Wilberforce, he could not be better employed.' Nothing could be more luxurious than the style of those clubs. 'Fox, Sheridan, Fitzpatrick, and all your leading men, frequented there, and associated upon the easiest terms : you chatted, played at cards, or gambled if you pleased." Mr. Wilberforce's usual resort, however, was with a more choice and intimate society, of which Pitt was an habitual frequenter. Here their intimacy increased every day: and indeed we must say, that this early part of the biography, during which Mr. Wilberforce was living in the most cordial and confidential terms of friendship with Mr. Pitt, is, to our minds, the most pleasing and interesting of the whole.* “They were (says one who witnessed their familiar intercourse) exactly like brothers," and it is with peculiar regret that we are obliged to omit the very curious and interesting account of their excursion in France. As it is not, however, our purpose to recount the incidents of Mr. Wilberforce's life, but to present a short abstract of liis character, and give a general survey of those qualities which he brought into the duties of public and private life, we must pass over much that is interesting during an intercourse of many years between him and that illustrious statesman, to whom was confided the government of his couutry almost as soon as it could be legally accepted by him. Wilberforce, however, was now beginning to feel other principles than the allurements of society, or temptations of ambition, acting on his mind. These had been much confirmed, perhaps altogether awakened, by a familiar intercourse, during a foreign tour, with his former friend Isaac Milner ; they were strengthened by the perasal of Doddridge's well-known work on Religion ; and they were now assuming a form that was soon to appear as an abiding and paramount system of conduct in life.t These views he communicated in confidential intercourse with Mr. Pitt, and soon after made public to the world in his Practical View of Christianity. “In the spring of 1786," say his biographers, “Mr. Wilberforce returned an altered man to the House of Commons." He had now taken his ground on the very highest
As it is our intention in the next number to extract the portraits of his friends, and other characters which Mr. Wilberforce met with in the intercourse of private and political life, we pass over them in our present article.
+ Mr. Wilberforce's views as to the society in which religious persons should mix, are thus given :-" The Christians who wish to maintain the spiritual life in vigor and efficacy, fervent (Seóvtis) in spirit, serving the Lord,' may, without injury, mix with and associate with worldly people for the transaction of business, yet they cannot for recreation, still less for intimate society and friendship.” Mr. w. was decidedly hostile to Calvinistic principles, which he considered unscriptural.
principles of human action—the authority of conscience under the influence of real Christianity. These principles he made his constant guide,-not only amid the gentler duties and quiet offices of private life; but he used them as his anchor of safety amidst all the powerful temptations, the arduous struggles, and the stormy conflicts of political warfare. Three times* did he positively come into collision with the counsels of Mr. Pitt, on questions of so great importance, as not only deeply to agitate the mind, but even to affect the place and power of the minister. Once in a most painful and distressing discussion, in which lie was opposing one friend, and urging strong accusations against the honour of another, he saw the eye of the minister bent upon him with a look of anxiety, and perhaps of reproach, that nothing could enable him to support, but the still stronger feeling of duty, and the unrelenting demands of conscience.
It was a trial that would have broken up and shattered to pieces all the friendships of common and worldly men, cemented by trivial and selfish interests ;. yet such was the greatness of Mr. Pitt's mind, and such his perfect couviction of the purity of Mr. Wilberforce's motives, such his knowledge of the commanding influence of the feeling of duty which he dared not disobey, that it did not impair the sincerity of their friendship, nor, when the painful occasion was passed, did he, whose political degradation was the result of this pure and patriotic exertion, refuse to forget the momentary pang, and hold out the cordial hand of friendship : :-So much was this man's motives above all suspicion,-so eminently even in this life did bis virtues and exalted principles meet with their reward.
“ God had set before him," he said, “two great objects ; the abolition of the slave-trade, and the reformation of manners." How he fulfilled his mission in both instances, we hope is to few unknown. Enougl, however, of our own narrative:
:-we shall now, as we have promised, present to our readers a short view of Mr. Wilberfore's character, as it appeared under the different views of public and private life-as seen in his political character, and his devotional duties, in order that it may be known “ what inanner of man he was ;" and this we give fresh as it comes from the coinmunication of those who most intimately knew him,-bis relatives and friends.
As a speaker in the House of Commons he is thus described :
“ His place as a mere orator was still * I find (he says) that I have recorded my among the first.
When he spoke, in- own general opinion of his oratory and deed, on the common subjects of political his Parliamentary exertions in terms dispute, the effects of age (his biographer which, though only intended to commeis speaking of the year 1825) were in a morate for my own future reflection the degree visible; but to the very last, when more recent impression they made, I exhe lighted on a thoroughly congenial tract from their privacy in my drawer, subject, he broke out into those strains that you may be more sure of their being which made Romilly estcem him the my genuine and impartial judgment. most efficient speaker of the House of Wilberforce held a high and conspicuous Commons;' and which had long before place in oratory, even at a time when led Pitt himself to say, repeatedly, of English eloquence rivalled whatever we all the men I ever knew, Wilberforce has read of in Athens or Rome. His voice the greatest natural eloquence. Mr. itself was beautiful, deep, clear, articuMorrittt seems to have formed a very ac. late, and flexible. I think his greatest curate conception both of his ordinary premeditated efforts were made for the powers of speaking, and of that measure abolition of the trade in slaves, and in of decay which they at last exhibited. supporting some of the measures brought
* Once on the motion for a Peace with France; once on Mr. Pitt's duel with Mr. Tierney ; once on the impeachment of Lord Melville.
+ Mr. Morritt of Rokeby Park, Yorkshire.
forward by Pitt- for the more effectual reasoning when not in the House of Comsuppression of revolutionary machina
He gradually left off the keener tions; but he often rose unprepared in weapons of ridicule and sarcasm, how. mixed debate on the impulse of the mo- ever well applied and justly aimed; but, ment, and seldom sat down without hav. with the candour that gave what he ing struck into that higher tone of ge- thought due weight to an adversary's arneral reasoning and vivid illustration, gument, he sometimes, as it seemed to which left on his hearers the impression me, with undue diffidence, neglected or of power beyond what the occasion had hesitated to enforce his own. Somecalled forth. He was of course unequal, times, also, as on the questions involving and I have often heard him confess that peace and war, the wishes of his heart he never rose without embarrassment, and were at variance with the conclusions of always felt for a while that he was lan- his understanding, and resolutions of great guid and speaking feebly, though he pith and moment, warmed as he went on, I have heard the Were sicklied o'er with the pale cast of late Mr. Windham express the same dis- thought ; content with himself, both probably from and I have more than once remonstrated the high standard of excellence at which with him for giving us in his speech the they aimed. I have always felt, and have deliberation which passed in his own often heard it remarked by others, that mind, instead of the result to which it in all his speeches, long or short, there led him, thus furnishing his opponents was generally at least from five to ten with better weapons than their own arminutes of brilliance,* which even the senal could supply. Of course this led best orator in the House might have en- to many an imputation of inconsistency vied. His own unaffected principles of from those who loved him not, which humility, and his equally sincere esti- those who knew him not received ; but mate of the judgment and good intentions the real difference was between the of others, which became, in advancing manly decision of his conduct, and his life, more and more predominant, influ- unfeigned distrust and diffidence of his own enced both his line of oratory and his
We now come to the description of his habits of private life, and the charms of his domestic circle :
!“ His house was continually open to
or with whom, for any of his many plans an influx of men of all conditions. Mr. of usefulness, he wished to become perJames Grenville said, 'you must always sonally acquainted. He took a lively inexpect to be scrambled for; the land- terest in the Elland Society, and beowner, the manufacturer, the canal-man, sides subscribing to its funds 1001. per the turnpike-man, and the iron-man, will annum,
under four anonymous entries, to each have a pull in his turn.' Pitt and avoid notice, he invited to his house the his other parliamentary friends might be young men under education, that he might found there at dinner before the House. be able to distribute them in proper situSo constant was their resort that it was ations. No one eyer entered more reaasserted, not a little to his disadvantage, dily into sterling merit, though concealed in Yorkshire, that he received a pension under a rough exterior, yet no one had a for entertaining the partisans of the mi- keener and more humourous perception nister. Once every week the slave com- of the shades of character. Mention mittee dined with him. Messrs. Clark- when you write next,' says the postscript son, Dickson, &c. jocularly named by Mr. of a letter to Mr. Hey, on the anPitt his · White Negroes,' were his con- nouncement of a new candidate for edustant inmates, and were employed in cation, the length of his mane and tail :' classing, revising, and abridging under and he would repeat with full apprecihis own eye. 'I cannot invite you here,' ation of its humour the answer of his he writes to a friend who was about to Lincolnshire footman to an inquiry as to visit London for advice, ‘for, during the the appearance of a recruit who had presitting of Parliament, my house is a mere sented himself in Palace-yard. • What hotel. His breakfast-table was thronged sort of a person is he?'Oh, Sir, he by those who came to him on business, is a rough one !' The circumstances of
* “Boswell, describing Wilberforce's speech at the County Meeting at York, happily describes it : 'I saw what appeared a mere shrimp muunt upon the table, but as I listened, he grew and grew, till at length the shrimp became a whale."