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Two Heroes of Conscience Who Changed the World

Two Heroes of Conscience Who Changed the World

Must matters of law and public policy be dull? Should they be the exclusive provinces of lawyers, legislators, lobbyists, economists and statisticians? Or can they be animated by lofty and exciting moral principles put forward by eloquent crusaders from any walk of life?

If my answers to those three questions were Yes, Yes and No, then readers could be forgiven for reading no further. But history is full of inspiring stories involving huge, positive changes made possible by people both illustrious and ordinary. One of the best examples comes from Great Britain between 1787 and 1833.

It is a story of long odds and daunting obstacles, a tale of courage, perseverance, and moral vision. It’s about much more than changing only laws and public policies. It’s about transforming the conscience first of a nation and ultimately, that of the world. Perhaps we should think of it as the most significant development in law and public policy of the last 500 years. Its lessons should give us all hope that great battles can be won today if good people never give up.

The development to which I refer is the abolition of slavery within the vast British Empire. Though many people—black and white, male and female, high-born and commoner—can lay claim to being players, the Dynamic Duo of the anti-slavery movement were Englishmen by the names of Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce.

Born a decade apart (Wilberforce in 1750, Clarkson in 1760), these two men forged a life-long association in the late 1780s. By that time, both had become deeply convicted Christians who saw human bondage as outrageous and indefensible. It was a perspective shared by few in those days. A few decades later, however, the anti-slavery perspective would dominate society and re-shape law and policy forever.

Slavery was an institution with ancient roots in countless cultures on every inhabited continent. Viewed widely in the late 1700s as integral to naval and commercial success, slavery was big business for British commercial interests. It enjoyed broad political support, as well as widespread (though essentially racist) intellectual justification.

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The slave trade was lucrative for British slavers but savagely merciless for its victims, blacks that were captured in Africa. Mortality rates sometimes ran as high as 50 percent during the voyages across the Atlantic. Those who survived the journey faced excruciating toil, with death at an early age on Caribbean plantations.

As a student at the University of Cambridge, Clarkson entered the university’s annual Latin essay contest in 1785. Contestants were required to write in Latin. The assigned topic that year was, “Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare?” — Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?

Clarkson hoped to be a minister, and slavery was not a topic that had previously interested him. Still, he plunged into his research with the vigor, meticulous care, and mounting passion that would come to characterize nearly every day of his next 61 years. Drawing on the vivid testimony of those who had seen the unspeakable cruelty of the slave trade firsthand, Clarkson’s essay won first prize.

What Clarkson learned from his research wrenched him to his core. Shortly after claiming the prize, and while riding on horseback along a country road, his conscience gripped him. Slavery, he later wrote, “wholly engrossed” his thoughts. He could not complete the ride without frequent stops to dismount and walk, tortured by the awful visions of the traffic in human lives. At one point, falling to the ground in anguish, he determined that if what he had written in his essay were indeed true, it led to only one conclusion: “It was time some person should see these calamities to their end.”

Thus began Clarkson’s all-consuming focus on a moral ideal: No man can rightfully lay claim, moral or otherwise, to owning another. Casting aside his plans for a career as a man of the cloth, he mounted the bully pulpit and risked everything for the single cause of ending the evil of slavery. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge would later call Thomas Clarkson a “moral steam engine” and “the Giant with one idea.”

At first, he sought out and befriended the one group which had already embraced the issue, the Quakers. They were few in number and written off by British society as an odd fringe element. Quaker men even refused to remove their hats for any man, including the king, because they believed it offended an even higher authority. Clarkson knew that antislavery would have to become a mainstream educational effort if it were to have any hope of success.

On May 22, 1787, Clarkson brought together 12 men, including a few of the leading Quakers, at a London print shop to plot the course. Alexis de Tocqueville would later describe the results of that meeting as “extraordinary” and “absolutely without precedent” in the history of the world. This tiny group, which named itself the Society for the Abolition of the African Slave Trade, was about to take on a firmly established institution in which a great deal of money was made and on which considerable political power depended.

Powered by an evangelical zeal, Clarkson’s committee would become what might be described as the world’s first think tank. Noble ideas and unassailable facts would be its weapons.

When Clarkson and his group approached a young member of Parliament, William Wilberforce, to join the cause, their persuasiveness fell on receptive ears. Wilberforce’s boyhood pastor had been John Newton, the former slave trader who converted to Christianity, renounced slavery, and wrote the autobiographical hymn, Amazing Grace.

Beginning in 1789, Wilberforce introduced a bill to abolish the trade in slaves every year until it finally passed in 1807. Though history gives him the lion’s share of credit for abolitionism’s success, it was the information Clarkson gathered while crisscrossing the British countryside—logging 35,000 miles on horseback—that Wilberforce often used in parliamentary debate. Clarkson was the mobilizer, the energizer, the factfinder, and the very conscience of the movement.

When Wilberforce rose in the House of Commons to give his first abolition speech in 1789, he did not know that it would take another 18 years before British law would end the slave trade.

His was a call to conscience, to truth, and to the highest standards of character. It’s one thing to be indifferent to the cruelties of slavery for lack of knowledge; it is quite another to look askance once one is aware. At the close of another moving discourse in the House of Commons in 1791, he famously raised his voice and declared, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know.”

Wilberforce labored relentlessly for the cause in Parliament. In his spare time, he assisted organizations to spread the word about the inhumanity of one man’s owning another. Working closely with Clarkson’s group, he endured and overcame just about every obstacle imaginable, including ill health, derision from his colleagues, and defeats almost too numerous to count.

Every year he introduced an abolition measure, and every time for 18 long years, it went nowhere. At least once, some of his own allies deserted him because the opposition gave them free tickets to attend the theater during a crucial vote. (They were the so-called “moderates” on the issue.)

Meantime, Clarkson translated his prize-winning essay from Latin into English and supervised its distribution by the tens of thousands. He helped organize boycotts of the West Indian rum and sugar produced with slave labor. He gave lectures and sermons. He wrote many articles and at least two books. He helped British seamen escape from the slave-carrying ships they were pressed into against their will. He filed murder charges in courts to draw attention to the actions of fiendish slave ship captains. He convinced witnesses to speak. He gathered testimony, rustled up petition signatures by the thousands and smuggled evidence from under the very noses of his adversaries. His life was threatened many times, and once, surrounded by an angry mob, he very nearly lost it.

The long hours, the often thankless and seemingly fruitless forays to uncover evidence, the risks and the costs that came in every form, the many low points when it looked like the world was against him—all of that went on and on, year after year. No setback ever deterred the iron wills of these two great men.

When Britain went to war with France in 1793, Clarkson and his committee saw their early progress in winning converts evaporate. The opposition in Parliament argued that abandoning the slave trade would only hand a lucrative business to a formidable enemy. And the public saw winning the war as more important than freeing people of another color and another continent. In the House of Commons, Wilberforce was denigrated as a traitor in cahoots with Clarkson the troublemaker.

At Clarkson’s instigation, a diagram of a slave ship became a tool in the debate. Depicting hundreds of slaves crammed like sardines in horrible conditions, it proved to be pivotal in winning over the public.

Clarkson’s organization also enlisted the help of famed pottery maker Josiah Wedgwood in producing a famous medallion. It bore the image of a kneeling, chained black man, uttering the words, “Am I not a man and a brother?”

The effort finally paid off. The tide of public opinion swung firmly to the abolitionists in the early 1800s. The trade in slaves was outlawed by act of Parliament when it approved one of Wilberforce’s bills in 1807, some 20 years after Clarkson formed his committee. Twenty-six more years of laborious effort were required before Britain passed legislation in 1833 to free all slaves within its realm.

The abolition of slavery within the British Empire took effect in 1834, 49 years after Clarkson’s epiphany on a country road. It became a model for peaceful emancipation everywhere. Wilberforce died shortly afterward, but his friend devoted much of the next 13 years to the movement to end the scourge of slavery and improve the lot of former slaves worldwide.

Clarkson died at the age of 86, in 1846. He had been the last living member of the committee that gathered at that London print shop back in 1787. Author Adam Hochschild tells us that the throngs of mourners “included many Quakers, and the men among them made an almost unprecedented departure from sacred custom” by removing their hats.

In Thomas Clarkson: A Biography, Ellen Gibson Wilson summed up her subject well when she wrote of this man from the little village of Wisbech, “Thomas Clarkson (1760–1846) was almost too good to be true—courageous, visionary, disciplined, self-sacrificing—a man who gave a long life almost entirely to the service of people he never met in lands he never saw.”

The Parliament that once scorned Wilberforce resolved when he died that he should be buried near his friend and ally, Prime Minister William Pitt, in the north transept of London’s Westminster Abbey.

The lessons of the lives of Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce reduce to this: A worthy goal should inspire informed activism. Don’t let any setback slow you up. Maintain an optimism worthy of the goal itself and do all within your character and power to rally others to the cause.

Clarkson and Wilberforce, to their eternal credit, proved that even the most entrenched of laws and policies can be changed by people of courage, character and conscience.

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