Guide to the William Wilberforce Papers, 1782-1837 and undated
Political and personal correspondence of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), member of the House of Commons. Many letters relate to his leadership in the movement for Britain's abolition of the slave trade. Correspondence discusses the evils of the slave trade; the slave trade in Dutch, English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish colonies; slavery, especially in the West Indies; the composition and distribution of pamphlets on the slave trade; the attendance of Thomas Clarkson at the Congress of Vienna against Wilberforce's advice; William Pitt's (1759-1806) support of the abolition movement; efforts to interest the Roman Catholic Church in the abolition cause; the determination as to whether abolition could be enforced; and noted English and French leaders and their position on the abolition question. Other topics discussed include British foreign relations; the Church of England; Roman Catholicism in Ireland; politics and government in England, France, Ireland, Jamaica, Sierra Leone, Trinidad, and Venezuela; elections; French colonies; free trade versus protection; the French Revolution; Greek Independence; Haiti; South Africa; the Society of Friends; the Royal Navy; parliamentary reform; need to reform the penal code; and personal matters including Wilberforce's failing health. Correspondents include British politician William Pitt (the younger); Thomas Harrison, a close friend and a member of the Duke of Gloucester's West India Committee; Hannah More, an English writer and philanthropist; his close friend John Scandrett Harford, Jr. of Blaise Castle (near Bristol, England); George Montagu, Fourth Duke of Manchester; Lord Brougham; Spencer Perceval; Thomas Chalmers; George Canning; and John Bowdler (d. 1815).
- Collection Number
- William Wilberforce papers
- 1782-1837 and undated
- Wilberforce, William, 1759-1833
- 1.0 Linear Feet
- David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Collection consists largely of correspondence to and from William Wilberforce, with subjects ranging across abolitionist politics in Great Britain, business correspondence about the West India Committee, and personal family news and health. Correspondents include British politician William Pitt (the younger); Thomas Harrison, a close friend and a member of the Duke of Gloucester's West India Committee; Hannah More, an English writer and philanthropist; his close friend John Scandrett Harford, Jr. of Blaise Castle (near Bristol, England); George Montagu, Fourth Duke of Manchester; Lord Brougham; Spencer Perceval; Thomas Chalmers; George Canning; and John Bowdler (d. 1815).
Letters from this collection, particularly in the 1810s, often reference slavery and Wilberforce's work with abolitionists. In one letter of Aug. 10, 1814, Wilberforce wrote Harrison that he had been able to persuade Thomas Clarkson not to attend the Congress of Vienna. Articles appeared in The Edinburgh Review during 1814 which questioned William Pitt's motives in supporting the abolitionists. Wilberforce (Oct. 22, 1814) wrote Harrison concerning his relations with the younger Pitt (d. 1806), and stated that his belief was that Pitt had been a "sincere friend" of the abolition movement. Other letters for 1814 mention such things as the West India Committee and its membership, including the Duke of Gloucester, Lord Grey, Marquis Lansdowne, and Lord Grenville (Mar. 20 and Apr. 20), and the planned composition and distribution of pamphlets describing the evils of the slave trade and advocating its abolition (Apr. 26 and Oct. 3). The letter of Apr. 26 suggests the establishment of a special board, sanctioned by the King, to see to the composition of such works. Other letters from this period are between Wilberforce and Harford. One letter of Oct. 12, 1814, speaks of French publications which favor abolition and mentions Chateaubriand, Humboldt, Sismondi, and Madame de Staël. It also tells of the Duke of Wellington, the King of France (Louis XVIII), Prince Talleyrand, and the English Prince Regent (later George IV) as being favorable to abolition. A letter of Nov. 23, 1814, continues to speak of abolition in the light of world events, and Wellington and Tallevrand's correspondence with him. One fragment of a strong letter, dated 1815, gives a graphic account of two slave ships. This letter also asks Harford to try to interest the Roman Catholic Church in banning the slave trade. Wilberforce also mentions trying to interest Sir Thomas Acland and Lord Castlereagh in making an attempt to interest the Pope in the abolition of the slave trade. In 1817, Wilberforce was bothered by the hostile pamphlets of one of his opponents, the anti-abolitionist Joseph Marryat. Wilberforce wrote to Harrison concerning this matter on Aug. 4, 1817, and discussed the urgency of having one of James Stephen's speeches in answer to Marryat printed and distributed as soon as possible. Wilberforce recognized the need for much printed material to educate the peoples of all countries, and especially the "unprincipled Frenchmen" (letter of Aug. 5, 1821), in support of abolition of slavery. A July 9, 1816, letter speaks of Zachary Macaulay; and a May 7, 1817, letter tells of a Macaulay letter falling into the hands of Joseph Marryat. Wilberforce also speaks bitterly of Marryat's attack on himself.
The collection also includes letters about conditions and religion in Ireland. A Sept. 8, 1812, letter asks Harford (during his bridal tour of Ireland) to try to ascertain the comparative moral effects of the Catholic and Protestant religions on the peasant and servant classes of Ireland. A Feb. 7, 1827, letter from Charles Forster to Harford tells of the efforts of the Church of England clergy to convert the Roman Catholics in Ireland.
These letters often mention charities, especially the Bible Society. A May 2, 1821, letter speaks of investigating and learning about colleges. Wilberforce speaks of the "experiment" in education being conducted by Harford. This is leading up to Harford's giving land and helping found St. David's College in South Wales in 1822. A Nov. 9, 1827, letter speaks of St. David's College. There is also an 1819 pamphlet for the "House of Protection for the Maintenance and Instruction of Girls of Good Character."
The collection also includes two volumes which record Wilberforce's account with the London banking house of Smith, Payne, and Smiths during 1829-1833. The itemized transactions provide details about his expenditures, including investments and benevolences.
Other topics discussed include the African Institute; agriculture; economic panic among farmers, 1830; the Corn Laws; American Friends; the Treaty of Amiens; the Army Training Bill; the Waterloo campaign; conditions in New South Wales, Australia; British relations with Austria, Brazil, France, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, the United States, and the Vatican; economic conditions in Austria; Baptists; Baptist missions in India; the Church of England in England, Ireland and other British colonies; patronage and tithes of the Church of England; the Methodist Church; the Moravians, the Church Missionary Society; the Church of Scotland; the Blagdon Affair; censorship of books; emigration to Canada; the Congress of Vienna; the coal trade; economic conditions in England and Scotland; education; St. David's College, South Wales; politics and government in England, France, Ireland, Jamaica, Sierra Leone, Trinidad, and Venezuela; elections; French colonies; free trade versus protection; the French Revolution; Greek Independence; Haiti; South Africa; the Society of Friends; labor; landlords and tenants; manufacturers in Scotland; the textile industry; the Royal Navy; Black officers in the Royal Navy; parliamentary reform; prisons; need to reform the penal code; the use of capital punishment; the poor laws and poor relief; Socinianism; the New Rupture Society; and personal matters, including Wilberforce's failing health.
Collection is arranged chronologically in folders. Two account books are filed after the correspondence. Most of the letters were formerly bound in two volumes, one of which was arranged chronologically and the other alphabetically. In both volumes the letters were not in complete order, and there were many undated items. There were apparently one or more other volumes, and some loose manuscripts in this collection are mounted on the paper used for binding. The difficulty of reference, cataloging, and photoduplication of the manuscripts resulted in their removal from the volumes and their inclusion with the other manuscripts in chronological sequence.
The compiler of the volumes is uncertain. A note on the last page of the Duchess of Gordon's letter of July 13, 1788, suggests that one of Wilberforce's sons put the volumes together. The cover of one of the volumes had a book plate of Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, the third son of William and one of his biographers. This cover is filed at the end of the undated letters.
Access to the Collection
Collection is open for research.
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The copyright interests in the William Wilberforce Papers have not been transferred to Duke University. For more information, consult the section on copyright in the Regulations and Procedures of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
How to Cite
[Identification of item], William Wilberforce Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
The Rubenstein Library also holds the papers of Samuel Wilberforce, William Wilberforce's son. Samuel Wilberforce was an Anglican Bishop of Oxford and Winchester.
Click to find related materials at Duke University Libraries.
- Abolitionists -- Great Britain
- Charities -- England -- London -- History -- 19th century
- Slavery -- Great Britain -- Anti-slavery movements
- Slave trade -- Great Britain
- Slavery and the church
The William Wilberforce Papers were acquired by Duke University between 1955 and 1981.
Reprocessed by Meghan Lyon, March 2016
Updated by Meghan Lyon, March 2016