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Amazing Grace: The Work of William Wilberforce

Meet William Wilberforce, anti-slavery crusader and co-founder of the world's oldest anti-cruelty society

The Humane Society of the United States

by Bernard Unti

Film captures Wilberforce's devotion to animals

"Amazing Grace," a film biography of William Wilberforce, anti-slavery crusader and co-founder of the world's oldest anti-cruelty society, captures Wilberforce's deep devotion to animals and his determination to end the cruelty and suffering imposed upon them in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The film comes out exactly 200 years after Wilberforce's 20-year fight to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire ended, with the passage of the Foreign Slave Trade Act in 1807.  As the filmmakers point out, however, many of the social problems Wilberforce sought to address, including cruelty to animals, are still with us. 

Produced by Bristol Bay Productions and directed by Michael Apted, "Amazing Grace" stars Ioan Gruffudd as Wilberforce, with Albert Finney, Romola Garai, Michael Gambon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rufus Sewell, Ciaran Hinds, and Youssou N'Dour in supporting roles. The film opens in American theaters Friday, Feb. 23. 

William Wilberforce 

For two decades, William Wilberforce (1759-1833) led the struggle in the English Parliament to abolish slavery, and it was his principal concern as a politician and a reformer.  But he did not limit his vision of a better world solely to his fellow human beings.  Wilberforce was also a founding figure of the animal protection movement, helping to found the first society for the prevention of cruelty to animals and providing essential support for the first modern laws on the subject. 

A man of intense personal piety and one of the outstanding lay Christians of his era, Wilberforce was a central figure in the Clapham Evangelicals, a group whose humanitarian sensibility expressed itself in support for a number of social causes, anti-slavery the most important.  From the late 1780s to his retirement in 1825, in the British Parliament and in public life, Wilberforce worked to curb and eliminate slavery.  After three attempts and twenty years, he and his colleagues secured the Foreign Slave Trade Act (1806-07), the decisive legislation outlawing the participation of British vessels in the slave trade.  Although this legislation did not end slavery, it struck a serious blow to the institution throughout the world. 

Even as the slavery issue dominated his personal and political life, Wilberforce found time to champion the cause of animal protection from the moment it first surfaced.  He was present for and involved with every Parliamentary debate on cruelty issues, from the first failed proposal by Sir William Pultney in 1800 to the watershed breakthrough of Martin's Act in 1822. Over those 22 years, moreover, Wilberforce remained faithful to the cause, against objections that the subject of cruelty to animals was not suited to the dignity of a legislature.

The debate over cruelty was never confined solely to Parliament, of course.  In his popular work, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians (1797), Wilberforce had castigated field sports designed "to fill up the void of a listless and languid age." But as the eighteenth century drew to a close, controversy settled on the issue of bull baiting, one variant of a host of sporting activities in which animals were set to fight against one another. Every community had a bull ring, and the ritual took place in more or less the same form all over.

As one historian describes it, "A bull, securely tethered to a stake in the ground by a rope long enough to allow him freedom of movement, was set upon by dogs, often specially bred for the sport.  While the enraged bull defended himself—tossing, shaking, goring unlucky attackers—the dogs tried to slip and claim the bull's sensitive lips or nostrils in their vise-like jaws. The skill of the attackers, the tenacity of the bull, his bellows of anguish, dogs hurtling through the air with their bellies ripped open, gallons of beer and the clink of silver all blinded in a fevered heat of uproar and excitement."

In the first weeks of the year 1800, a group of citizens journeyed to London from the countryside to speak with Wilberforce about the cruelties of bull-baiting.  They were determined to ask Parliament to suppress it. Already involved with dozens of reforms, Wilberforce declined to lead their cause, but promised to support them and to sponsor the legislation if they didn't find anyone else willing to do so.

As it turned out, they did.  In April 1800, Pulteney introduced his bill to prohibit bull-baiting. Unfortunately the bill never got to a second reading. Along with Richard Martin and others who would step forward whenever animal welfare legislation arose, Wilberforce supported it.  He remarked that the usual summonses for attendance were not sent out to supporters of the bill, and he felt that it had not received the proper stewardship. 

Wilberforce thought bull baiting "cruel and inhuman," and the fact that such events profaned the Sabbath in his mind made them still worse. Wilberforce called bull baiting one of the "multiplied plague spots" on England's complexion, "sure indicatives" of a "falling state."  He felt sure, he told his colleagues, that if the principal opponent to the legislation, Windham, "or any other member, had inquired into the subject minutely, he would no longer defend a practice which degraded human nature."

Pulteney tried again in 1802 and Wilberforce, Richard Martin, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan supported his bill.  Wilberforce spoke in its favor, cautioning his colleagues that the subject ought not to be treated with levity. Countering the argument that baiting was a source of great amusement for "the people," Wilberforce observed that the condition of the people "must be wretched indeed" if this were the case.  This bill made it through the House of Lords, but was rejected in the House of Commons.

The next benchmark came on May 15, 1809, when Lord Erskine rose to introduce his bill on cruelty to animals, and delivered the first protracted discussion of the question in any legislative body. Erskine designed his legislation not to abolish a single pastime but to "suppress willful and wanton" cruelty to all domestic animals. The bill's scope was eventually limited to beasts of draught and burden.  Along with Samuel Romilly and James Stephen, Wilberforce again spoke in favor. Erskine's bill passed the Lords but failed in the Commons by a few votes. B the time he introduced it again the following year, opposition had stiffened, and the subject would not gain further parliamentary discussion for more than a decade.

The public campaign against cruelty to animals did not end during this hiatus of legislative activity, however. Even without the benefit of anti-cruelty law, Wilberforce and others confronted cruelty in public where and when they could.  Once in Bath, Wilberforce got out of his carriage to stop a cart driver from beating and kicking a fallen horse. As the man prepared to turn upon him, another driver stepped up and whispered "Wilberforce" in the driver's ear.

By 1821, the Irish M.P Richard Martin had emerged as the most ardent champion of anti-cruelty legislation in Parliament.  Martin's bill "to prevent cruel and improper treatment of cattle" was introduced in the House of Commons. Wilberforce and Fowell Buxton were amongst its sponsors. In its second introduction, in 1822 the bill sailed through both houses and received Royal Assent on July 22. 

Less than two years later, on June 16, 1824, Wilberforce was present with Martin, Buxton, and others, at old Slaughter's Pub, where the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was formed. The era of formal advocacy for animals had begun.

Bernard Unti, Ph.D. is senior policy adviser and special assistant to the CEO of The HSUS. He is the author of Protecting All Animals: A Fifty-Year History of The Humane Society of the United States, and is currently writing a book on the 19th century animal protection movement.