What an Antislavery Giant knew about never giving up


William Wilberforce, (1759-1833), was a politician at heart.

Gallup polls repeatedly show politician is one of the least-trusted professions. It’s right down there with lawyer and used car salesman.

Yet Wilberforce used his profession to achieve “one of the turning events in the history of the world,” according to historian G.M. Trevelyan.

Wilberforce has things to say to us today about how to turn events in our own histories.

At 21, Wilberforce was a Member of Parliament in Britain, and he stayed in that role for a whopping 45 years. He’s best known for leading an antislavery effort that eventually resulted in abolishing the British slave trade and sounded notes for freedom heard around the world.

He’s said to have had profound influence on Harriet Beecher Stowe in her writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, on Abraham Lincoln’s famous emancipation proclamation, on Dr. Martin Luther King, and on Nelson Mandela.

What can we learn from Willberforce’s leadership style?

Consider these 5 principles:


Consider how Wilberforce valued friends. He chose a few strong friends and listened, really listened to them. Their words mattered greatly to him.

John Newton was one of those friends. Newton had been captain of a slave ship, transporting human beings from Africa to ports where human flesh was sold. He later embraced Christianity and wrote “Amazing Grace,” which became one of the best loved hymns in the world.

The reformed Newton became a counselor to his young friend Wilberforce, and at one crucial point in his career persuaded him not to give up politics. It was “for such a time as this” that Wilberforce had been placed in a position of influence.

William Pitt was another friend, although they were not even from the same political party.

Wilberforce sat as an independent in Parliament because he wanted to follow his conscience. Pitt was Tory party leader.

A conversation took place under an oak tree in 1886 that shows the depth of this friendship. Pitt urged his friend to introduce a motion on the slave trade, and not to lose time.

In old age Wilberforce said he could “distinctly remember the very knoll on which I was sitting” where he decided to go ahead.


Once Wilberforce set his course in life, he never lost sight of it.

He kept the unwavering focus that he articulated in a personal mission statement: “God Almighty has placed before me two great objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners,” (an old English term for moral values.)

Although his country was involved in economic upheavals and bloody wars (one with France that lasted 22 years), that could have been highly distracting, he kept his eyes on his particular goal: abolishing slavery.


Achieving the goal didn’t happen overnight.

The slave trade was entrenched in British life and fuelled by the clink of money. British-made goods were carried to Africa to trade for slaves, who were shipped to the West Indies. There they grew sugar, tobacco and cotton that were shipped to Britain. British ships supplied French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and British colonies with slaves and goods.

In 1783 the Quakers’ antislavery committees presented Parliament with the first slave trade petition. It floundered. The next year a book by James Ramsay, a ship’s surgeon, exposed appalling conditions on board slave ships.

Wilberforce was deeply influenced. He studied the issue and was enlisted for the cause. Meanwhile, hundreds of petitions were presented in Parliament with hundreds of thousands of signatures in a relentless human rights campaign.

On April 12, 1796, 10 years after Wilberforce had set his goal before him, his anti-slave trade bill was narrowly defeated in Parliament.

Devastated and dealing with ill health, he continued the campaign. His letters were circulated in Britain, France and America.

Finally another 11 years later, in 1807, a bill was passed to abolish the British slave trade.

Even then the job wasn’t done.

Still Wilberforce continued. The end of the slave trade didn’t mean the end of slavery, and he wanted it completely stamped out.

In 1833 he learned that 800,000 slaves would be freed. Three days later, Wilberforce died, content that his work was finished.


This may be a small point, but it’s notable. Wilberforce used peaceful means to reach his goal. He used the painstaking, often boring, machinery of law-making to change his world. He deliberately did not use force, violence or even sensationalism.

His leadership style could be called gentlemanly persistence.


He must have felt like giving up a thousand times. He must have told himself to just accept the injustices of his culture. After all, he was only one man with one voice and there was nothing more he could do.

Especially after his major defeat, he must have been tempted to fade into the retirement he’d earned. He probably was told that he was beating his head against a brick wall, or flogging a dying horse. But something within him sparked to life again, and he continued with the cause he believed in so deeply.

Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu said in 2005, “Wilberforce showed that each and every one of us can make a difference.”

Wilberforce’s principles about friendship, focus, peace, rising from defeat, and perseverance drove a wedge for freedom through slavery that reached around the world.


Question: What do you most appreciate about Wilberforce’s leadership style? How would you most like to make a difference in the world?


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