on 9 August 2007
William Hague follows up his debut biography of Pitt the Younger with Pitt's best friend and tireless slave-trade campaigner. It is the perfect sophomore effort. Similar era; one of the closest friendships in politics, yet, some great differences between the two great men. Pitt, the son of the great Chatham; by no means wealthy; eager for ministerial power. Wilberforce: from a very wealthy mercantile background; advocating the abolition of the slave-trade as an `Independent' constituent for Yorkshire.
I too disagree with a previous reviewer who seems to criticise Hague's book on his own personal dislike of Wilberforce, not on the merits of the book itself. I have to say that Hague paints a very fair and unbiased account of Wilberforce. Wilberforce considered himself an `Independent', not a Tory. He could be rightly called one of `Pitt's friends' but famously turned against Pitt in opposition to the Revolutionary War; he managed to remain on friendly terms with Fox and Grenville as a matter of fact. Hague does point to certain faults: his licentious youth, his frequent inability to commit to one side of an argument; his complete naivety on military affairs. The biography as a whole however is favourable to what emerges as a brilliant man; Hague quite rightly makes great use of contemporary descriptions of Wilberforce and offers a succinct argument for his policies.
For anyone who believes politics are boring, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Hague's description of the various machinations building up to the 1807 act is about as dramatic and exiting as it gets. Those were certainly exiting times in politics: two Revolution and two subsequent wars; Irish Union; reform; the trial of Warren Hastings; Catholic emancipation; the slave-trade etc.. Some of the greatest orators of all time graced the Commons' floor: Pitt, Burke, Fox, Sheridan and of course Wilberforce. Later Canning and Castlereagh would be added to that long list of luminaries. It puts our own politics to shame if truth be told.
Hague occasionally juxtaposes his own modern political world with the politics of that era yet never goes overboard while doing it. He instead draws out the eccentricities and bustle of the 18thc election; the lack of a party machine; the greater reliance on debate etc.. It frequently is reminiscent of an early satirical scene in A Pickwick Papers.
Christian Evangelicalism of course was hugely important to Wilberforce. In fairness he never imposed his Christianity though he sometimes despaired of Pitt's relevant lack of religion. Instead he offered guidance to any of his friends so inclined. It's significant that once he went through his dramatic conversion he still remained something of a social animal (despite his best efforts). Wilberforce has an amazing knack of remaining friends with rivals; contemporaries describe him as humorous, amiable and the soul of the party. He saw his own religion as enlightened, benevolent and uplifting; in stark contrast to Methodism which influenced him. Wilberforce never withdrew from life, his own Christianity reinvigorated it.
Hague's book is wonderfully presented with numerous plates; particularly brilliant are the many (nothing less than scathing will do) Gillray sketches. His research and use of sources is impeccable; his prose informative and accessible. All in all, Hague is turning into the new-Roy Jenkins. I like the fact that he seems to specialise in a era; an era I am very interested in as it happens. How about a Charles James Fox book William?
on 27 December 2008
Relased to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807, this detailed and engaging biography really makes clear the moral conviction, determination and no small degree of political skill that enabled Wilberforce (1759 - 1833) to lead the campaign against first the slave trade, and then slavery itself, for so many years. In so doing, it provides well-reasoned answers to questions like: Why did Wilberforce first campaign against the slave trade, and not slavery itself? Was abolition inevitable for purely economic factors? How strong was his influence in advancing the cause of abolition outside of the British Empire?
This book also shows how the aforementioned qualities combined to make Wilberforce perhaps the last and greatest truly independent British politician, from his election to the House of Commons in 1780 to his retirement in 1826. A close friend of William Pitt (the younger) from a young age, and often instinctively socially conservative, Wilberforce nevertheless was not afraid to oppose Pitt and his Tory government on issues as serious as war with France. When there was a constitutional crisis over the divorce of Prince George (the future George IV) and Caroline of Brunswick, Wilberforce's political independence made him the ideal mediator in many people's eyes at the time.
Hague makes no attempt to play down the importance of a profound (Evangelical) Christian faith to Wilberforce's work. After a time spent with a Methodist aunt and uncle as a teenager, and conversations with Isaac Milner later, Wilberforce gave his life to Christ in 1785. Pitt was surprised, but convinced his friend that his Christian convictions would be best served by continuing in public life. After meeting leading abolitisionists in 1787, and encouraged by John Newton and John Wesley, Wilberforce took up the leadership of the parliamentary campaign for abolition. His Christian faith also led him to support a myriad of charities and to campaign for the opening up of India to missionaries.
Overall, this is a sympathetic but not sycophantic account of a truly remarkable life from a very able author who on the one hand obviously admires his subject's politcal abilities, and on the other understands his Yorkshire roots. If Hague is nevertheless occasionally bemused by Wilberforce's Evangelical Christianity, that is to his loss, but not the reader's. Recommended.
on 18 December 2015
We can be so bogged down by the struggle and pressure of our daily life that we forget our current generation is a continuation of the past. The society that we have inherited did not just come into existence from nowhere but was built up by the continual lifework of many and shaped by distinguishable people in the past. Even among the distinguishable people of the past, I think Wilberforce stood out as someone special because not only his lifework was commendable but his private life and thoughts were equally inspiring. He was a person who was genuine, open, honest and consistent in both his private and public life. He was one who boldly brought his faith into his public life, and because of his consistency and perseverance, over time, he earned reverence not ridicule from the majority of people. This was no mean feat for someone who had sailed through many controversies in his time.
The life of Wilberforce is bigger than what this book contains. As the title suggests, Hague focuses on Wilberforce as the great anti-slave trade campaigner, and treats the subject matter with skills and insight, tracing the endeavour from its precipitation to its conclusion in a coherent and very readable manner. There must be an enormous volume of papers, letters and diary entries that will help one sketch a portrait of Wilberforce and Hague has done well in piecing his selections of excerpts into a coherent story for us to read. Furthermore, to fully appreciate the resistant forces to Wilberforce's cause, and in turn the mammoth struggle that the campaign turned out to be requires the context of the historical setting. Hague handles this balance well, giving reader enough of the historical backdrop of the time without losing sight of the subject matter that he is illuminating. I feel I have learnt a lot about the period, albeit in broad brush - and what a historical dramatic period it was! In assessing Wilberforce's actions, Hague is mindful to put it into the context of the society some 200 years ago, and invites reader to be sympathetic to the limitations posed by the time. Overall, Hague succeeds in highlighting how Wilberforce drove and managed the campaign at every single turn of the events.
Wilberforce as the anti-slave trade campaigner operated from his capacity as a parliamentarian. As such, Hague brings us a close view of how the government was run, the importance of friendships and being in good terms with colleagues, and how to run an election campaign. I gain a sense that the electoral system was different from now but how exactly is not clearly laid out - probably this would have been a substantial digression. The intensity of the anti-slave trade campaign had its ebb and flow but Wilberforce was never idle as a parliamentarian. His dedication to his duty and his constituency was exemplary and set a high bar for the public figures, past and present to be measured against. I have more appreciation how consuming the demands are on a politician driven by a conscience governed by his Christian beliefs.It is not just physically draining - with all the correspondence, sittings at the House and reading around the issues; it is also mentally draining as one weighs up the arguments and constraints, and morally taxing at times. No wonder internal struggles and deliberation were a commonplace in Wilberforce's life. The workload and the pressure was massive. In reflection on the news of a colleague (the Foreign Secretary at the time) committing suicide in addition to two of similar fate, Wilberforce wrote that the incident had 'strongly enforced on my mind the unspeakable benefit of the institution of the Lord's Day ... I am persuaded that to withdraw the mind one day in seven from its ordinary trains of thought and passion, and to occupy it in contemplating subjects of a higher order, which by their magnitude make worldly interests shrink into littleness, has the happiest effect on the intellectual and moral system. It gives us back on the Monday to the contemplation of our week-day business cooled and quieted, and it is to be hoped with resentments abated and prejudices softened.' (p.476) This was how Wilberforce kept himself balanced, cheerful and sane - by the discipline he imposed on his life to ringfence time to consider things of a higher order.
No one can fully understand Wilberforce - his drive, his deliberation, his vision, his resilience, his temperament, his decision, his lifestyle, his passion,. his action - without an understanding of his faith. Every aspect of his life, including his most private thoughts, was an outworking of his faith. The constant self-examination and discipline was Wilberforce's safeguard to walk closely with his God, heeding anxiously the warnings of the Bible how easily one could fall away and how dangerous temptations could be. This I think is where Hague may not be equipped to illuminate with precision what faith was to Wilberforce. For example, the account of Wilberforce's conversion based on "The Psychology of Religion" is farcical to me, 'identify[ing] mental attributes of a full-blown conversion crisis' with the conclusion that 'Such internal conflict.... eventually produces a mental breaking point, resulting in conversion, retreat or collapse.' (p. 82, p.83) This account is simply not accurate to the process of conversion, and I would say he probably has turned to the wrong source for enlightenment on this matter! His summary of Wilberforce's A Practical View in Chapter 11 seems also missing the main points. A Practical View was like Wilberforce's manifesto. Because his beliefs governed how he conducted himself in his public life, he felt an urge to explain it in a systematic manner to the electorate or any reader. As such, it underpinned Wilberforce's action. A Practical View shows Wilberforce as someone who thought through big issues deeply, which laid bare the framework of how he deliberated on difficult issues. Potentially one way of assessing Wilberforce is how he matched up against A Practical View. Similarly Hague shows little insight into the significance of A Practical View as a piece of work on Christianity. This may be outside the object of the book, but Hague is not clear about that on his assessment.
After reading the book, I feel that there is more about Wilberforce than covered by this book to be known. His domestic life is very scantly covered. As he was someone who thought through everything, I trust he would have reflected upon his roles as a father, a son, a husband beyond being a friend and philanthropist to many people. His influence on the Christian world at the time probably is also worth our attention. I suspect that there can be many angles to write a biography on Wilberforce, as he was a man so serious in his endeavours in life, so rich in his knowledge and so deep in his faith and thinking. Towards the end of the book, Hague sketches a life in joy and peace for Wilberforce even in face of adversities. His faith was truly tested in many ways. Providence was a key theme in his life, a theme that comes through the book, and he was always grateful for his provisions. His constitution was delicate from birth and he suffered a cocktail of chronic ailments, which combined to confine him to bed periodically. Even so, his heart was full of gratitude. His resilience in his last years of life, when he faced many losses in deaths of friends and family members and in his fortunes, and his decline to any offer of titles and peerage simply inspire people's admiration - not because of the quality of human fortitude but because he was true to his words and his God. I think Hague has presented him well in his twilight years for reader to echo 'I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith' (2 timothy 4.:7) upon Wilberforce's end of life.
I wonder how Wilberforce would assess our state of politics now. Two quotations shed a light: On national lottery, Wilberforce's reflection was that he could 'never reconcile his mind to the existence of a law for the toleration of that which was obviously wrong.' (p.389) For Wilberforce, the worst aspect of revolution as practised in France, and radical reform as advocated in Britain, was that it was utterly divorced from Christianity. Radicals, he wrote in 1819, 'would exclude religion from life, and substitute knowledge in its stead', but 'it is only by educating our people in Christian principles that we can advance in strength, greatness and happiness'. (p. 445) How far have we moved from his ideals! We may have benefited as a society to take more heed to his observations and reflections.
All in all the book has provided us with a comprehensive account of one aspect of Wilberforce's life and much fruit for thought. He truly was 'a beacon of light' in the history, 'which the passing of the two centuries has scarcely dimmed.' (p.515) I lament, however, if today's shift in thinking and values would ever support another statesman like Wilberforce, who 'showed unyielding reverence for truth, loyalty, integrity and principle as he understood it'. (p. 515)
on 7 June 2014
With the Hallelujah Chorus playing and replaying in his head, or so I imagine, Tony Blair was liberating Iraq from an era of death and mayhem and at great cost ushering in a new era of mayhem and death. At the same time, William Hague, his rival for Prime Minister in the 2001 election, was writing this book. It isn't hard to see who was more usefully employed.
Hague's book is superb. Satisfyingly rich in detail, with prose as smooth and tasty as good blended soup, and with insights from Hague's own experience of the life political, he gives a fine retelling and analysis of perhaps England's greatest backbench MP, and his epic struggle to end the slave trade.
An Evangelical myself, I was pleased and surprised to see how Hague took great efforts to see the world through Wilberforce's eyes. He understood how Wiberforce's Christian faith was the great unifying vision that held him together through a long life in politics, that made him nevertheless a fine husband and father, that made him a peacemaker even with natural political enemies, and in the end remained even when illness and age removed the politics from him.
His final chapter is a thoughtful summing up, worth the admittance money on its own. Wilberforce died happy and fulfilled because he lived and died for a cause; many politicians die unhappy and unfulfilled because they live and die for power. Interesting.
I loved this book. About the only error of judgement I spotted in the entire thing was Hague's decision to wear a lilac shirt for his author photo.
The same author has written a biography of Wilberforce's contemporary Willliam Pitt the Yonger, and with rumours of him leaving front-line politics after the next election, one wonders whom else he might turn to. He seems to have restricted himself to politicos called William, so that leaves him Gladstone (already the subject of a biography by another senior politician), or perhaps WIlliam of Orange or WIlliam the Conqueror. Either way, it'll be welcome.