William Wilberforce, M.P. (1759 1833.)

William Wilberforce, M.P. (1759-1833).

A great meeting was held in London to agitate for the complete abolition of Slavery throughout all the British Colonies. Brougham brought on the whole question in the House of Commons and introduced a motion on the general subject of Slavery. Fowell Buxton did the same thing in the following session, and at last the Government began to feel that they must give way, and when Parliament met in 1833 there was a new man in the office of Secretary for the Colonies, Lord Stanley, the eloquent Lord Stanley as he may be described, who was afterwards the Earl of Derby. Lord Stanley was a man of generous emotions and of great parliamentary capacity. Macaulay said of him, that "with Stanley the mastery of parliamentary debate was an instinct." Short of the very highest gift of oratory, he brought everything to a great parliamentary debate which could claim success. He had a fine voice, a magnificent gift of language, and in especial that gift of phrase-making which has such a captivation for the House of Commons. Some of us can still remember him as Lord Derby in the House of Lords, and can remember that in that House he had, after Brougham's death, no superior; while in the two Houses of Parliament taken together he had no superior, and indeed no equal, except alone Gladstone and Bright. Lord Stanley was entrusted with the task of expounding to the House of Commons the policy of the Government with regard to the question of Slavery, and of proposing for the acceptance of the House certain resolutions in which that policy was to be embodied.

He rose to his task with splendid effect, and no advocate could have better pleaded his cause; but the policy of the Government was not yet strong enough to satisfy the feeling of the country. Lord Stanley had five resolutions to propose - resolutions well worthy of being recorded, although in somewhat abbreviated form, if only to show that the high-water level of the Government policy was as yet but the lowwater level of the popular demand. The first resolution declared the opinion of the House, that "immediate and effectual measures be taken for the entire abolition of slavery throughout the Colonies, under such provisions for regulating the condition of the negroes as may combine their welfare with the interests of the proprietors." The second resolution proposed that " all children born after the passing of an Act of Parliament for this purpose, or who should be under the age of six years at that time, should be declared free, subject nevertheless to such temporary restrictions as may be deemed necessary for their support and maintenance." The third resolution started a new principle of compromise which found little favour in the eyes of the more advanced abolitionists. This resolution declared that "all persons then slaves should be entitled to be registered as apprenticed labourers, and to acquire thereby all the rights and privileges of free men, subject to the restriction of labouring, under conditions and for a time to be fixed by Parliament, for their present owners." The fourth resolution authorised the Government to advance, by way of loan, a sum not exceeding 15,000,000 sterling to provide against any loss which the owners of slaves might suffer by the abolition of the slave system. The fifth resolution merely gave authority to the Crown to establish a staff of stipendiary magistrates in the Colonies, and to provide for the religious and moral education of the negroes who were to enter into a sort of conditional freedom. The first and second resolutions passed easily enough, but the third became, as might be expected, a subject of much discussion.

Mr. Buxton condemned the compromise contained in the resolution, and argued, with much ability, that the proposed interval of qualified servitude would do nothing whatever to render the negroes more fit to be entrusted with full and final freedom. Mr. Buxton received the powerful support of Lord Howick. Some of us can still remember Lord Howick when, as Earl Grey, he sat in the House of Lords, and was remarkable at once for his sterling abilities and for a certain independence of character which often made it difficult for him to submit to the restraint of official position. He was the son of the famous Lord Grey, Charles Earl Grey, the leader of the Reform movement in England, and by whom the Reform Bill of 1830 had been introduced into the House of Lords. Lord Howick, just before he spoke against Lord Stanley's third resolution, had given proof of his independence of character. He had been appointed Under-Secretary for the Colonies, and had resigned that position because he could not support or sanction the dilatory compromise recommended by Lord Stanley's third resolution. The Government had the powerful support of Mr. Thomas Babington Macaulay, afterwards famous as essayist and historian, son of the Zachary Macaulay who, as we have already seen, did more than almost any other man for the abolition of slavery. The younger Macaulay's arguments merely went to the effect that the transition from actual slavery to the condition of apprenticeship was at all events a decided step in advance, that it made absolute emancipation merely a question of a few defined years, and that it was probably about as far as the Government could, with safety to the very interests which they were striving to promote, venture to go just at that time. One interesting fact for all modern readers is that, in the course of the debates on the slavery question, Mr. Gladstone was heard for the first time in the House of Commons, which he had but lately entered. Mr. Gladstone declared himself in favour of emancipation, and had nothing to say in support of any slave system; but he was of opinion that slave emancipation must be accomplished gradually, that the slave must be educated and stimulated to spontaneous industry, and that the owners must be fairly compensated for the loss which the State was about to impose on them. Mr. Gladstone had not then risen to the high level of opinion on all questions concerning any manner of slavery to which he rose in his maturer years.