Urgent: The Victims of Hurricane Ian Need Your Help!

The Legacy of Wilberforce, Part 2

Regis Nicoll
Regis Nicoll
2012 27 Jan

As discussed in Part 1, it took nearly a half-century of dedicated advocacy by William Wilberforce and his Clapham friends before emancipation became reality in the British Empire. It was a frustratingly long time, but across the Atlantic, the prize took much longer to achieve and exacted a much higher price.

In the United States, the end of slavery came after a hundred years of abolitionism culminated in a war that claimed over 600,000 lives. While Britain was able to unite the nation around a shared vision of morality and justice, the United States was torn asunder by a bloody conflict that left scars felt for generations afterward.

Which raises the question: “What made the difference?” How did Great Britain achieve the same goal in half the time and without major violence? In his essay “Jefferson and Wilberforce: Leaders Who Shaped Their Times,” Ray Blunt of the Washington Institute suggests that it was a difference in worldview -- one was based on Christian principles, and the other on Enlightenment ideals.

A conflicted advocate

Among the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson was the best poised to champion the cause of abolition. His natural eloquence and unrivaled passion for liberty landed him the authorship of the Declaration of Independence, in which he penned the enduring phrase, “all men are created equal.”

Throughout his tenure as a Virginia statesman, a U.S. Secretary of State, Vice President, and a two-term President, Jefferson was a stanch supporter of abolition. He advocated emancipation in Virginia, denounced Britain’s slave trade, banned slavery in the Northwest Territories, and signed a bill outlawing international slave trade just days after Parliament passed a corresponding act in Britain.

Yet during all of this, even until his death, Jefferson was a slave owner. Benjamin Banneker, a black mathematician at the time, challenged Jefferson to explain how his lofty ideal of “created equal” squared with the practice of “detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren.” Jefferson replied, assuring Banneker of his commitment to the equality of American blacks.

But for Jefferson, equality meant something different than it did to those like Banneker who took the Declaration at face value. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote, “This unfortunate difference in colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.”

Why did Jefferson see a “powerful obstacle” to emancipation? Was it because he was a plantation owner with huge debts who could see no way to free his own slaves? Did he fear, as he expressed in Notes, that “the slave, when free, might mix with . . . the blood of his master”? Or was it because one of his slaves was allegedly a mistress who, according to Virginia law, would have had to leave the state once freed?

While we may never know for sure, Jefferson’s proposal that emancipation should be contingent upon expatriation to Africa was doomed from the get-go. Not only did few slaves desire to return to their native land, the numbers involved (over half a million at the time) made it impractical.

It seemed that when the time for action was due, Jefferson’s vision was strangely at odds with the principles he enshrined in the Declaration. Continue reading here.