Some biographies set out to show that saints are merely men. The best biographies set out to show that saints are supremely men.
Surrounding last year's 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade, there was a spate of books, and a major film, focusing on the life of William Wilberforce, the figure most responsible for that massive moral achievement. Most of these efforts were inspiring but tended toward the worshipful. And worship -- as Lincoln biographies sometimes demonstrate -- can miniaturize a complex political accomplishment.
Now, slightly late but welcome nonetheless, William Hague -- the shadow foreign secretary of Britain's Conservative Party -- has produced a complete picture of Wilberforce and his times. Above all else, Wilberforce was a religious man. But "William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner" is a political book, and gloriously so. As a major parliamentary figure, Hague is at home in the world of restive constituencies, unstable coalitions and sudden elections. As an accomplished historian, Hague also has an eye for the social context that shapes the largest of leaders.
Wilberforce was a paradox: A conservative in constant revolt against the social order of his time. Hague explains that revolt by vividly describing late-18th century corruptions. At the beginning of Wilberforce's career, elections involved the massive bribing of voters with ale, rum, wine and brandy. His first election cost the modern equivalent of 1 million pounds; no single British campaign in 2005 cost more than 14,000 pounds. Elections often included an undercurrent of violence, from dueling or the mob. Once in Parliament, members drank and gambled around the clock, with occasional breaks for public business. Most politicians were familiar with Mrs. Hazer's Establishment of Pleasure on Pall Mall.
In the midst of this fashionable decadence, a wealthy and witty young conservative politician experienced a profound spiritual crisis -- a "sense of my great sinfulness in having so long neglected the unspeakable mercies of my God and Saviour." Hague takes Wilberforce's religious conversion seriously, describing his consuming doubts, restlessness and agony -- and his resulting commitment to an evangelical Christianity that provided "the moral force and unshakeable will to become one of the greatest campaigners, and liberators, in the whole course of British history."