How Tory was Wilberforce?

The House of Commons in Wilberforce's day, by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson

The House of Commons in Wilberforce’s day, by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson

Note: unless otherwise indicated, page numbers cited are from my book. For copyright reasons I am unable to quote directly from the Wilberforce MS in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, but the quotations are to be found in the book, fully referenced.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne is the latest Conservative to claim the credit of the abolition of the slave trade and slavery for his party. This is repeated so often than it is almost becoming an established ‘fact’. The reality is that the slave trade was abolished in 1807 by a  coalition government, and slavery itself was abolished in 1833 by a Whig administration. Alongside this false claim goes the assumption that William Wilberforce was a Tory.  I am going to suggest here that this is a problematic identification that risks misunderstanding both the man and the politics of his age.

For most of the eighteenth century the Tory label had disreputable overtones because of its association with Stuart absolutism and treasonable Jacobitism, and as a result, by 1800, all but ‘a very few self-conscious Neanderthals…thought of themselves as Whigs’. (Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England 1783-1867, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2006, p. 195). This was the position when Wilberforce entered parliament as member for Hull in 1780 and when he was elected MP for Yorkshire in 1784. As a young member, he was determined, as he later told his sons, to attach himself to no party, but to be independent. This meant that, though he was firmly opposed to the American War, he did not align himself with the radical opposition, who were already appropriating and redefining the name ‘Whig’. However, though he refused to adopt a party label, he was in practice, part of the set of ambitious young men that gathered round William Pitt the Younger, who became Prime Minister at the end of 1783, and in 1785 he broke off a holiday in order to return to Westminster to vote for Pitt’s modest (and unsuccessful) bill for parliamentary reform. Pitt has been retrospectively seen as a Tory, though he always thought of himself as a Whig: the point being that party labelling was fluid and imprecise in this period. Continue reading