William Wilberforce and the Abolition of the Slave Trade: A Gallery of Aristocratic Activists
When after much struggle and effort, the abolition bill passed in 1807, William Wilberforce said to his friend Henry Thornton, "Well, Henry, what shall we abolish next?"
The comment illustrates Wilberforce's innate optimism, but the "we" also reveals something. Though he was probably the greatest social reformer of the 1800s, he never worked alone.
When he was converted to evangelical faith in 1785, Wilberforce soon found himself at the center of a group of well-connected and well-heeled individuals. This group, called the Clapham Sect, combined their considerable talents, religious zeal, and optimism in a concerted campaign of national reform. And in large measure, they succeeded.
Here are some of the leading members and what they accomplished as individuals and as a group.
Whenever a new cause was championed by the Clapham friends, and a society organized to carry it out, Henry Thornton was the one who gave practical business advice and financial support. He was almost sure to be asked to be the treasurer.
After his conversion, Wilberforce had retreated to the mansion of Henry's father, John Thornton, who lived in Clapham. Wilberforce soon became fast friends with Henry. Henry purchased his own house at Clapham in 1792, and he and Wilberforce lived there together as bachelors for five years. Later, when each had married and established his own family, they lived as neighbors on the same estate. It was around Wilberforce and Thornton that the "sect" gradually formed.
Henry, like his father, was a highly successful merchant banker. He had a superb mind for abstract economics, and his business savvy was matched by a liberal generosity. He gave away six-sevenths of his income before he was ...