In the United States, the end of slavery came after a hundred years of abolitionism culminated in a war that claimed over 600,000 lives. While Britain was able to unite the nation around a shared vision of morality and justice, the United States was torn asunder by a bloody conflict that left scars felt for generations afterward.
Which raises the question: “What made the difference?” How did Great Britain achieve the same goal in half the time and without major violence? In his essay “Jefferson and Wilberforce: Leaders Who Shaped Their Times,” Ray Blunt of the Washington Institute suggests that it was a difference in worldview -- one was based on Christian principles, and the other on Enlightenment ideals.
A conflicted advocate
Among the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson was the best poised to champion the cause of abolition. His natural eloquence and unrivaled passion for liberty landed him the authorship of the Declaration of Independence, in which he penned the enduring phrase, “all men are created equal.”
Throughout his tenure as a Virginia statesman, a U.S. Secretary of State, Vice President, and a two-term President, Jefferson was a stanch supporter of abolition. He advocated emancipation in Virginia, denounced Britain’s slave trade, banned slavery in the Northwest Territories, and signed a bill outlawing international slave trade just days after Parliament passed a corresponding act in Britain.
Yet during all of this, even until his death, Jefferson was a slave owner. Benjamin Banneker, a black mathematician at the time, challenged Jefferson to explain how his lofty ideal of “created equal” squared with the practice of “detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren.” Jefferson replied, assuring Banneker of his commitment to the equality of American blacks.
But for Jefferson, equality meant something different than it did to those like Banneker who took the Declaration at face value. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote, “This unfortunate difference in colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.”
Why did Jefferson see a “powerful obstacle” to emancipation? Was it because he was a plantation owner with huge debts who could see no way to free his own slaves? Did he fear, as he expressed in Notes, that “the slave, when free, might mix with . . . the blood of his master”? Or was it because one of his slaves was allegedly a mistress who, according to Virginia law, would have had to leave the state once freed?
While we may never know for sure, Jefferson’s proposal that emancipation should be contingent upon expatriation to Africa was doomed from the get-go. Not only did few slaves desire to return to their native land, the numbers involved (over half a million at the time) made it impractical.
It seemed that when the time for action was due, Jefferson’s vision was strangely at odds with the principles he enshrined in the Declaration.
A product of the Enlightenment
As a young man, Thomas Jefferson admired the Enlightenment ideals of Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Isaac Newton. Inspired by the rationalism of the day, Jefferson developed his own form of deism. Although he gave a nod to the “Law of Nature and of Nature’s God” and admired the teachings of Jesus, he rejected the deity of Jesus, miracles, and anything supernatural.
Enlightenment influences convinced Jefferson that unaided reason was capable of unraveling the clockwork machinery of nature. Supernatural revelation, on the other hand, was not only unnecessary, it was a hindrance in the quest to a more perfect society.
What did reason tell him about American blacks? “We know,” Jefferson wrote Edward Coles in 1814, “[they] are by their habits rendered as incapable as children of taking care of themselves. . . . Their amalgamation with the other color produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character can innocently consent.” Jefferson’s sentiments conflict with modern notions of egalitarianism, as well as his own alleged “amalgamation” with a female slave.
Yet in their book Counting by Race, Terry Eastland and William Bennett explain that Jefferson viewed equality in terms of man’s moral faculty, that is, his universal sense of accountability and obligation to others. Clouded by his own practices, that “unfortunate difference in colour” made liberty an intractable problem that was left to faith in the Enlightenment principle of progress to work out.
As he told Coles, “Yet the hour of emancipation is advancing, in the march of time. It will come . . .” concluding with this reference to Wilberforce: “We have proof of this in the history of the endeavors in the English parliament to suppress that very trade which brought this evil on us.”
Tragically for the victims of slavery and the Civil War, that “hour” did not come for another fifty years, three decades after full emancipation in England.
Differences in faith
As Ray Blunt notes, William Wilberforce and Thomas Jefferson shared many similarities in their upbringing, education, talents, and early political career. But there were important differences as well -- the most important being their faith.
As already suggested, Jefferson’s deism afforded no place for divine revelation. As one biographer put it, “Morality required no divine sanction or inspiration, no appeal beyond reason and nature, perhaps not even the hope of heaven or the fear of hell.” As a result, Jefferson’s ideas about human rights stemmed from what could be drawn from nature by reason, rather than what could be learned from Scripture about man as the Imago Dei.
Wilberforce, on the other hand, considered divine revelation both map and compass. It was an Archimedean point transcending popular opinion, fashion, convenience, and practicality. From the revealed Word, Wilberforce understood that man’s uniqueness was inherent and beyond anything that could be decoded solely from nature.
Against those of his day who would keep their faith private, Wilberforce sought to integrate his faith with his calling as a public servant. Christianity was not a set of doctrines to be given assent and shelved until needed. It was a belief system that governed every aspect of life, to be lived out, as he expressed, “under the scrutinizing eyes of God.”
Wilberforce was outspoken against forces that had erased sin from the social conscience, leading to an upsurge in nominal Christianity where injustices were no longer viewed as offenses to God, but only as “injuries to society.” Wilberforce granted that while good things were being done out of “natural benevolence,” those doing them lacked the character “in the face of difficulties and dangers, to produce readiness in service . . . and perseverance in action.”
A common criticism is that Christians are so heavenly minded they are no earthly good. Yet it was precisely his heavenly perspective that gave Wilberforce the strength and resolve to avoid the moral impasse experienced by Jefferson.
Aiming at Heaven
Over a hundred years after Wilberforce’s death, C.S. Lewis remarked in Mere Christianity,
If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. The apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were preoccupied with Heaven. . . . Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.
Lewis understood what many people today have either forgotten or ignored: that the great achievements of Western civilization -- the rise of modern science; the establishment of universities; the building of libraries, hospitals and orphanages; the flourishing of art, literature, and music -- were advanced by those whose minds were on “those things above.” Moreover, Christians, like Wilberforce, were the architects of the great social movements of abolition, civil rights, child labor legislation, suffrage, and prison reform.
And that’s something we should all be thankful for, and never forget.
(Next time we will examine some important “take-aways” from the life of William Wilberforce.)
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.