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Amazing GraceWilliam Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery
By Eric Metaxas
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Eric Metaxas
All right reserved.
" . . . if it be a work of grace, it cannot fail."
On August 24, 1759, William Wilberforce was born into a prosperous merchant family in the city of Hull. The impressive, red-brick Jacobean mansion in which he was born was situated on the city's High Street, overlooking the Hull River. The Hull in turn flowed into the much larger Humber, which flowed eastward into the North Sea.
The Wilberforce family proudly traced its lineage in Yorkshire to the twelfth century and the reign of Henry II. Burke's Peerage places them as one of the very few families who can be traced to the far side of the river 1066 and Saxon times. In those days and for centuries afterward, on into Wilberforce's own century, the family name was Wilberfoss. It was changed by Wilberforce's grandfather, who seems to have had something of a "forceful" personality, as evinced in part by his penchant for changing whatever he disliked. It's likely that he wasn't fond of the roots of the suffix foss, which means "vassal" or, in Irish, "servant." That wouldn't do for a political figure with grand ambitions to wealth and power. And Wilberforce it became.
As a boy, the young Wilberforce could see the river from his house's windows and watch the great sailingships unloading American tobacco and Norwegian timber and Prussian iron before they were loaded with local exports and then sailed away, down the Hull, and down the Humber, and out to the oceans of the world. In his own lifetime, Hull would become an important whaling port, complete with the seasonal stench of rendered cetaceans. But most important to our story are not those cargoes that came in and out of Hull's harbor, but the one that didn't. Though Hull was the fourth-largest port in England, it was the only one that did not participate in the slave trade. It was this happy detail that would enable Wilberforce to remain in political office in years hence. Any member of Parliament from Bristol or Liverpool, whose economies depended on the slave trade, would not have been able to get away with leading the abolitionist movement for long.
Though the Wilberforce family had been merchants in this part of England for two centuries, it wasn't until the eighteenth century that their fortunes rose dramatically. The rise was due largely to William's grandfather, also named William. (Though he had changed Wilberfoss to Wilberforce, he did not fuss with the name William, which means "valiant protector.") Born in 1690, Wilberforce's grandfather had found great success in the Baltic trade and had inherited considerable property from his mother, an heiress of the Davye family. It was this William Wilberforce, twice elected mayor of Hull and thenceforth known as "Alderman" Wilberforce, who was the patriarch of the family.
The Alderman's second son, Robert, married William's mother, Elizabeth Bird, and joined the family business in Hull, taking over as managing partner in 1755. The Alderman's first son, William, had opted out of the family business by marrying Hannah Thornton and moving to London, where her father was director of the Bank of England and a member of Parliament. It was this couple who, following a series of unexpected events, would soon end up having more influence in the life of the young William than his own parents.
By all accounts, William Wilberforce was a glorious little child, a veritable cherub of twinkling luminosity. Upon his death in 1833, his middle sons, Samuel and Robert, began a five-volume biography of their father, which was published in 1838. An "unusual thoughtfulness for others marked his youngest childhood," they tell us, and of course they would have had access throughout their lives to many who had known their father as a child. We have only one first-person recollection of him during this time, from a visiting guest sometime in the early 1760s: "I shall never forget how he would steal into my sickroom, taking off his shoes lest he should disturb me, and with an anxious face looking through my curtains to learn if I was better." Indeed, according to all who remembered his earliest days, he was possessed of a "temper eminently affectionate."
What we know of him in later years seems to corroborate this picture perfectly. Already as a little child he had a weak constitution and poor eyesight, as he would all his life. Wilberforce often said that in less "modern" days he wouldn't have stood a chance at survival. But despite his sickliness and myopia, he seems from the very beginning to have captivated all who knew him. Most of us have met children like that, whose piercing innocence and brightness are a refreshment for the adult soul. Little Wilberforce seems to have been one of these--the sort of boy who could lead even the most jaded misanthropes to think that perhaps the supremely cracked-up race of bipeds of which they were a member was not entirely, not hopelessly, unredeemable.
In 1766, when William was seven, he was enrolled at the Hull Grammar School, which the poet Andrew Marvell had attended as a boy during the previous century. Wilberforce was said to have been tiny all of his life; he never grew taller than five-foot-three, and his boyish frame was so slight that, as an adult, during one of his many illnesses, he weighed seventy-six pounds. One can only imagine how tiny he was at the age of seven.
Now and again he would visit his grandfather, who had removed to the bucolic village of Ferribly, on the Humber, seven miles away. But, truth be told, men like Alderman Wilberforce never really seem to retire. Indeed, it was this grandfather who roughly pulled some strings to install one Joseph Milner as the Hull Grammar School's new and very young headmaster, at the age of twenty-three, just in time for little Wilberforce to start there. This power play was executed over the objections of the other members of the corporation and town of Hull. But the crafty old Alderman was not about to let a mere seven miles' distance mitigate his considerable and hard-won powers over the town he'd run since two King Georges before. We cannot divine his reasons for wanting to install Milner in that post, but the Alderman's meddling in this affair would soon end up having some unintended and ironic results, as we shall see.
Excerpted from Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas Copyright © 2007 by Eric Metaxas. Excerpted by permission.
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“Johnny Heller takes full advantage of the author's humor, rich language, and clever ways of saying things.... The audiobook is a worthwhile prequel to the American Civil War and a jewel of biography beyond black and white.” -AudioFile