Michael Gerson

Young Prime Minister William Pitt, a close friend, also took Wilberforce's torments seriously, fearful he would lose a political ally to a life of "useless" religious contemplation. It was Pitt who urged Wilberforce to give his spiritual intensity a political outlet: ending the trade in human beings, on ships known as "part bedlam and part brothel."

Britain had been prepared for abolition by the philosophical objections to slavery of thinkers such as Adam Smith and the religious objections of preachers such as John Wesley. But justice is ultimately a political achievement. To pass the Slave Trade Act, Wilberforce and his allies invented the modern political pressure campaign, with its petitions and boycotts. In the process, they created a new form of politics -- human rights activism.

During his 45-year career, Wilberforce was attacked by social and economic radicals for refusing to support leveling equality for the British working class -- a charge which is true. "Wilberforce continued to believe," Hague comments, "that the real revolution that was required was in morals and education, so that people could become fit for the greater power they sought." This remains a conservative distinctive.

But Wilberforce was primarily attacked by conservatives who stood for tradition without moral vision. He was variously accused of undermining the British economy, gratifying "his humanity at the expense of the interests of his country," and proposing "romantic trials of compassion abroad."

All this has a modern resonance. Some conservatives still do not understand that a significant portion of their coalition, influenced by faith, hungers for trials of compassion, from the protection of innocent life to the fight against global disease, to the end of modern slavery.

Wilberforce spent 20 years of disappointment, tenacity and maneuver in his campaign against the slave trade before victory suddenly dawned in 1807. One contemporary concluded: "Hundreds and thousands will be animated by Mr. Wilberforce's example ... to attack all the forms of corruption and cruelty that scourge mankind."

Hague's life of Wilberforce should be read by every student of politics, to understand why mere prosperity and mere security will never be sufficient goals of evangelical political involvement. And this book should be read by every politician, to see what feats of honor are possible even in a very political life.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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