Wilberforce, William (1759 – 1833)

‘I was… plunged up to the chin in slave papers, having absconded… for the sole purposes of making myself complete master of my subject’

A remarkably long — eleven pages — autograph letter signed by William Wilberforce, 20th January 1790. He writes to his friend Joseph Walker in great detail, largely in relation to the Corporation and Test Acts.

Wilberforce opens, ‘For several days I have been wanting to write to you, but I have been hindered partly by the pressure of business and still more by the weakness of my eyes, the subject of this letter not allowing one to avail myself of the help of my amanuensis.’ He goes on, ‘Whilst I was your guest at Eastwood I purposely abstained from the mention of the test and corporation acts; my reason I need not state to you, it must have been suggested by the delicacy of mind which indeed you on your part to observe a similar silence. It is relative to this business that I have now occasion to trouble you and I shall speak with the freedom which I wish to prevail in all our communication. If I censure pretty severely by some persons with whom you are in some sort connected, I believe you are too liberal… to be offended if they are proved to be deceiving of it. About 18 months ago when my friend Mr. Gisborne was with me at Raysig, we had several conversations on the dissenters application to parliament and he being extremely favourable to it and urging his agreements with his usual ability and force. I confess I saw so much cause to doubt concerning the vote I had given against them as to resolve whenever the business should be again brought forward to consider it de novo, and to read the best publications… I should presume to form an opinion. When Mr. Beaufort gave his notice last year I was in the country plunged up to the chin in slave papers, having absconded from London for the sole purposes of making myself complete master of my subject, scarce condescending so much to the affairs of common life as to look into a newspaper, I heard and saw nothing of notice. I was never more surprised or vexed than to find accidentally the night I returned into the neighbourhood of London that Beaufort was to come on the third day after. My own motion was to follow on the Monday immediately succeeding. I, having been repeatedly delayed, could be put off no longer.’

Wilberforce continues, ”I had more to read and think over to be ready for it than I could execute where I to appropriate to it every hour of the day till the critical moment, yet if I would give an honest vote on the dissenters application I must wholly withdraw myself from my own proper business. The dilemma was distressing but the decision was obvious, and I determined to absent myself from the House, tho fully aware of the unpleasant impression that might be conveyed by this step. However, I resolved never again to be caught in such a predicament and accordingly I have for some time been laying in a store of materials on which I am now actually going to work – all this it was necessary to promise to make you understand what is to follow.’

‘Amongst other applications, I had one from the ministers of the W. Riding (Dr. Wood of Leeds in the chair) to whom having thrown out in my reply that in voting against the dissenters I had been influenced by arguments that were not used in the debate, I received from them a rejoinder in the shape of a resolution desiring me to communicate the arguments to which I alluded. The language used on this occasion was not over polite, and some of my friends indeed thought it much otherwise, but for my own part, not admitting the instructions of constituents to be absolutely binding, I hold perhaps in higher estimation the advantages of a free intercourse between them and the representative, who I think can hardly be called on too often to explain the grounds of his conduct. Accordingly, I set about complying with the request as satisfactorily as I could: my main reason was perfectly present to my friend, and as it conveyed an insinuation against the body of the established clergy…’

‘To this replication of mine, I received some time after a rebuttal consisting of many arguments very ably put and many strictures on my letter, several sentences of which were quoted, particularly that in which I had spoken as it might be desired a little too harshly of the established clergy. It concluded with requesting that I would as soon as I could do it conveniently (or some such purpose for I quote from memory) acquaint them with my final opinion, it being also added in a way not very difficult to be interpreted that it must be of importance to them to know the sentiments of their own representative. All I could say to this was that being resolved to consider the question most thoroughly and it being one on which I might expect much light to be thrown by reading and conversation, I was not likely to come to a speedy decision, but promised as before that I would weight all that was put… Now you will be astonished I doubt not to hear that it was a perfect surprised on me to be told a few days ago by a friend that he had seen the dissenting ministers’ letter to me in print, and accordingly at my desire he procured me a copy of it from a gentleman to whom amongst others it had been sent. I could not have been more amazed by seeing the sorry letter in the next York Herald, which I do not think very likely to happen. Much suggests itself to me to say on this… but I will suppress it till we meet.’

‘Tis not of incivility I complain, tho to publish without asking my leave and still more without even apprising me of it is highly objectionable in this view. Tis not of their business, tho what can be more unfair than to publish not my letter but certain extracts from it which in the first place contained what I said against the regular clergy without the paragraph which might be supposed to qualify it and secondly omitted also that sentence wherein I had guarded against the sentiments I was expressing being understood to be my present sentiments, when I declared were all in doubt. But what I complain of is that designing to act an honest part, and if the result of my consideration should so turn out to vote for the dissenters they have made it impossible for me to do this without its being imagined to arise from a fear of their influence rather than from conviction of the justice of their cause. I own I can see it no other view than as meant to injure me in the county by holding out a public menace, and tho a man who acts from the principles I possess, I reflect that he is to give an account of his political conduct at the judgement seat of Christ must be influenced as little by passion as by interest, and is no more at liberty (at the expense of his integrity) to consult the fairness of his character, than his personal situation, yet to conquer that pride which swells on such treatment is no easy victory.’

Wilbeforce concludes: ‘I was told only yesterday by a person to whom I was saying I did not know how I should vote on this occasion, “I suppose you dare not offend the Yorkshire dissenters” and in one word I am put into a situation in which I can neither persist with suspicion or retire with degradation. Now under the circumstances to whom it is so natural for me to unbosom myself as to you. I k now you to be superior to these little tricks if it were not your private friend that is in question, and I was much surprised to see the name of Mr. Grove implicated in this business of whom I had always heard such a report as to induce me to expect better treatment from him. Mr. Wood I believe to be our enemy in politics but what of that… And now my dear Walker, having tired both you and myself, I must leave it to you to supply for one whatever else I should otherwise say on this occasion. As for the question itself, I am just now entering on the investigation, having laid in a large stack of pamphlets, and it is my sincere wish to be directed right in my pursuit of truth, and I join prayer to diligence as the only fair way. I endeavour to… blot from my mind the resolution of my message… Whatever happens you will always be regarded with unabated affection by him who is always yours, W. Wilberforce.’ In post-script, he adds, ‘I need not add that I have written so much post haste that I have scarce rendered myself legible or intelligible but my eyes will allow me to write but for a short space, and therefore I crowd as much as I can into as short a time.’

In very fine condition. An interesting and detailed letter shedding light on the in-fighting relating to the Protestant Dissenters’ opposition to the Act.