Wilberforce’s Focus on Society


At 28 years old, Wilberforce wrote in his diary on October 28, 1787, that “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners.” True to his intent, Wilberforce would spend the next 46 years working to accomplish these lofty goals.  To the surprise of many, he would achieve both.


Looking back from our age plagued by child pornography, gambling addictions, and Enron scandals, we might wonder what morals Wilberforce thought needed to be reformed.  After all, wasn’t 18th century England a tame and cultured time?


Actually, no.  Wilberforce had witnessed first-hand the degradations of the age, which included drunkenness among MPs in the House of Commons, frequent duels, debauched lifestyles among the rich and famous, a corrupt clergy, and bribery among elected officials.  The lower classes were afflicted by fatherless families, alcoholism, and the grinding effects of the nascent industrialization that was swelling urban centers.  The social injustices were grave, with workers, especially children, exploited and abused. 


Wilberforce’s driving concern in his campaign to reform England’s manners was to improve the welfare of the entire society, especially the poor and the powerless.  He was distressed at the cavalier imposition of the death penalty and the effects of crime on the lower classes.  “The barbarous mode of hanging has been tried too long and with the success which might have been expected from it: the most effectual way of preventing the greater crimes is punishing the smaller, and endeavoring to repress that general spirit of licentiousness which is the parent of every species of vice.” [1]  Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s transformed New York City by enforcing laws against petty crimes such as public urination, graffiti artists, and subway gate-hoppers, which in turn caused the serious crime rate to plummet.  This is a modern-day attempt at what Wilberforce accomplished 200 years earlier.


Wilberforce found that “there is always a great deal of religious hypocrisy: we have now an hypocrisy of an opposite sort, and I believe many affect to be worse than in principle they really are, out of deference to the licentious moral [sic] of the fashionable world” (letter of 9/27/1787).  He was disturbed by the moral slide from which he had only recently emerged himself, and he set out to change the moral climate of the time.  And yet, “the profligacy and moral decay . . . when Wilberforce first entered public life gave way to the moral integrity and concern for the welfare of others that was the hallmark of the Victorian era” shortly after his death.[1]   Wilberforce truly made goodness fashionable in the course of his life.


The question was how?  How did an obscure politician get traction to turn around an entire culture?  Wilberforce had a plan which he executed for decades to come.


How Wilberforce’s Colleagues – The Clapham Circle – Helped


Although William Wilberforce was an extraordinary man, he did not achieve his objectives alone, but in community.  Wilberforce understood that humans are made to live in fellowship with one another, not as isolated individuals.  He personally relied on his own tight-knit circle of family, friends and neighbors to help him dream dreams and strive to accomplish the two Great Objects.  He also depended on communities to implement the reformation of manners throughout England.


Wilberforce lived in the rural village of Clapham, just outside London, with his cousin Henry Thornton, and several other close friends who also served in Parliament.  Thornton and Wilberforce started this intentional community of like-minded men and women to help strengthen their respective callings.  They became known as the Clapham Circle.  Wilberforce relied on these friendships as a brain trust, a operational nerve center, an in-house think tank and a personal support to help him through the rough and tumble of public life and the sometimes fierce criticism he received from his political opponents. When several of his colleagues in the House of Commons committed suicide, he challenged others to rely on a circle of friends to help them avoid a similar fate.  


One key member of this community was the poet and author Hannah More, one of the most successful writers, and perhaps the most influential woman, of her day.  She entered the social and cultural scene in the 1770s by writing for and engaging the theater.  Through a gradual conversion, she became aligned with Evangelicalism, and wrote poetry and essays targeting the upper class on matters of manners and religion.  However, she also weighed in on the great debates of the day, including slavery and the French Revolution.  She published Village Politics in 1793, to counter the arguments of Rights of Man by Thomas Paine. She wrote a series in The Cheap Repository Tracts to promote the plight of the working lower class, virtually enslaved by their economic conditions.  Her work was so consequential that when the Cheap Repository was closed, the Religious Tract Society was founded to continue her work. 


One of her early social commentaries was published anonymously in 1788 as Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to the General Society.  Many believed the author to be William Wilberforce himself.   The book was phenomenally popular:  the second edition sold out in six days, the third in four hours, and an eighth edition appeared in 1790.  In admonishing the upper classes, More made clear her belief in a hierarchical and deferential society and argued that a reformation of manners could be achieved only if the leaders of society reformed themselves.  This belief was shared by Wilberforce and the Clapham community, and would influence their tactical engagements and priority of projects.


This community of like-minded conviction and faith was central to the pursuit and accomplishment of Wilberforce’s two Great Objects.  But it is important to note that dozens of initiatives were born out of the fellowship, from efforts to reform the Church and promote the Christian faith, to efforts to protect animal welfare.  It has been said that as many as 60 different initiatives, projects and societies were operating simultaneously out of the Clapham circle.


First Steps: The Proclamation of Manners


In 1769, King George issued the “Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue and for the Preventing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality.” It was routine for new monarchs to issue such proclamations, but they were usually ignored.  The Proclamation is strict by today’s standards.  It forbade playing cards or dice on Sundays, drunkenness, blasphemy, profane swearing and cursing, lewdness, pornography, and required church attendance. 


Wilberforce, More and their colleagues saw the potential in the Proclamation, and successfully petitioned the King to reissue it on June 1, 1787, 18 years after his ascension to the throne.  With the re-issuance of the Proclamation, they used it as a springboard to launch a campaign to make a kinder and gentler society. King William and Queen Mary’s moral proclamation almost a century earlier had been successful thanks to the formation of local societies to encourage recognition of the Proclamation. Wilberforce and his community sought to repeat history by creating nationwide voluntary associations of “Great” men and women to ensure that the Proclamation was not ignored.  These so-called Proclamation Societies were comprised of community leaders, most of whom were morally upright, though some were notoriously dissolute – much like enlisting today’s celebrities like Madonna or Kid Rock.


The Proclamation Society movement also reflected Wilberforce’s understanding that people learn what to love and what to hate in communities of like-minded people.  The myriad meetings that took place surrounding implementation of the Proclamation were designed to develop positive peer pressures to adhere to moral standards.  Inherent in the notion of “making goodness fashionable” is the belief that people pay attention to what others think.  If some people followed the new and more upright norms of behavior solely out of concern for what their friends thought of them, that was for Wilberforce one step on the road to real virtue.  He didn’t want just superficial compliance with the Proclamation, but he recognized that norms and mores can lead to the embrace of the underlying virtue motivating the norm.  And where the adherence was superficial, a sort of “positive hypocrisy,” at least other people would be less likely to be tempted to wrong behavior by degraded mores.


Today's counterparts to the Proclamation Society are small groups. Some studies estimate that as many as 40 percent of Americans are involved in small groups, from scout troops to Bible studies.  While these groups are formed around many diverse aims, they are an essential part of the glue of a healthy society.  Alexis de Tocqueville observed that American society thrives on these voluntary associations.  They knit us together as a nation.


The Role of “The Great”


Wilberforce and More understood the role and the power of the elite in shaping society, and consciously integrated this appreciation in their efforts.  Their aim was to make goodness fashionable or “cool.”  By enlisting the elites, they ensured that their movement would have the support of the Establishment:


Men of authority and influence may promote the cause of good morals.  Let them in their several stations encourage virtue and [discourage] vice in others.  Let them enforce the laws by which the wisdom of our forefathers has guarded against the grosser infractions of morals . . . Let them favour and take part in any plans which may be formed for the advancement of morality.[2]


Wilberforce was not interested in simply putting a veneer of goodness over corruption and licentiousness.  He was no fan of hypocrisy.  Instead he aimed to reduce the allure of debased morals by lifting up the good, the true, and the beautiful as a model to be venerated.  His aim was to restore genuine virtue and refinement at the core, not just on the surface.


The core for Wilberforce was the soul.  His conversion to Christianity was central to his life and what he believed necessary for the renewal of the culture.  In 1797, he wrote a book entitled A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes in the Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity.  He was passionate about reinvigorating what he believed was a calcified Anglican Church that was more cultural than it was authentically spiritual.  It would be difficult to underplay the pervasive influence of his faith on everything that Wilberforce did.  Though he was a man comfortable among the non-religious – friends like Jeremy Bentham – his devotion to God permeated every aspect of his life, from his daily Bible study and prayers to his scrupulous attention to his personal habits.  His faith was well-known and an object of admiration and sometimes derision.  Towards the end of his life, it became fashionable in the upper classes to have lengthy family prayers as was patterned by the Wilberforce family.


Wilberforce and company believed that voluntary associations were more effective at encouraging adherence to the Proclamation than law enforcement, but they were not grassroots populists, per se.  The societies’ held numerous meetings all over the country on the implementation of the Proclamation, including parish officers, constables, and churchwardens, and not without a practical impact.  For example, licenses were no longer renewed for businesses that promoted immorality.  But it was more by positive example than by threats of retribution that the Proclamation began to be more widely observed in daily life.   Just as smoking has declined in recent years -- less by the passage of anti-smoking laws for public places and more by the powerful ad campaigns and the example of famous athletes and Hollywood stars – so Wilberforce managed to strategically use the levers of power to persuade people to project goodness and morality.  He recognized the power of law to change behavior was not as great as the power of fashion and culture, and the elite who define it.


There were some critics of Wilberforce’s campaign, including those who said that the poor were targets of the campaign.  This was never Wilberforce’s intent.  He believed that effective moral renewal required renewal within the upper strata of society.  In fact, he made great in-roads with the elite, including Princess Victoria through her tutor, an Evangelical clergyman.  He also captured the imagination of the young social elite, so much so that he had to encourage them not to be self-righteous or “preachy” with their parents.  In later years, it would actually be considered old-fashioned in the upper classes to curse. 


In her book Manners of the Great, Hannah More made the direct connection between the positive and negative “pattern” set by society’s elite:


Reformation must begin with the Great, or it will never be effectual.  Their example is a fountain from whence the vulgar draw their habits, actions and characters.  To expect to reform the poor while the opulent are corrupt, is to throw odours into the stream while the springs are poisoned … If, therefore, the rich and great will not, from a liberal spirit of doing right, abstain from those offenses for which the poor are to suffer fines and imprisonments, effectual good cannot be done. [3]


The effects of the moral reforms would be far-reaching and enduring.  By strategically recruiting powerful cultural, political, and religious leaders in his campaign and by extending its reach to the grassroots, England would eventually become known as a society of gentility, refinement, and moral uprightness – all of the things it was not during Wilberforce’s youth. 


The Importance of a Moral Society


Wilberforce’s second Great Object, the reformation of manners, reflected the truth that law alone is not sufficient to bring about a more just society.  There must also be just people to enact, implement, and obey just laws.  Laws are not self-enforcing, and robust law enforcement is not sufficient to ensure compliance.  Creating a just society is only partially a function of law, and much more a product of other institutions – family, religion, education, entertainment, journalism, civic associations, etc. – institutions that help us to shape what we love and what we hate. 


It is unlikely that Wilberforce would have been successful in abolishing slavery without a corresponding, or perhaps even antecedent, renewal of the moral foundation for British society.  The interdependence of the two Great Objects seems more than coincidental.  Instead, it reflects the reality that the passage of just laws requires a virtuous citizenry.  In Wilberforce’s words,


It is a truth attested by the history of all ages and countries . . . that the religion and morality of a country, especially of every free community, are inseparably connected with its preservation and welfare; that their flourishing or declining state is the sure indication of its tending to prosperity or decay.  It has even been expressly laid down, that a people grossly corrupt are incapable of liberty.


The abolition of slavery with all of the economic sacrifice that it required would only be possible if people were motivated by something better than crass self-interest. Ensuring that the British people would be prepared to accept the abolition of the slave trade meant that the morals of the nation must be the soil in which the laws would take root.  Remaking those mores was Wilberforce’s second Great Object, but not necessarily second in importance.


We are not suggesting that politics is just a reflection of culture.  Law is a teacher, and the passage of just laws has an effect on people’s behavior.  Legal sanctions help to inform and guide the conscience of a nation.  Everything from abortion laws to tax policy play a role in shaping culture.  Our personal political involvement for decades underscores this conviction.  Voter guides, congressional hearings, petition drives, debates, and political campaigns are integral to a healthy republic.


But, as Wilberforce teaches us, law and politics only go so far.  No matter how large a political party’s majority in Congress, there are certain legislative goals that remain elusive absent cultural change.  King George’s initial Proclamation issued in 1769 was widely ignored.  But when it was issued a second time in 1787, it was taken more seriously thanks to the Proclamation Society making its adherence compelling.   The Society breathed life into the Proclamation by giving it what sociologists call “plausibility structures” – systems that make rationale the passage, implementation, and compliance with law. Just look at all of the old and widely ignored laws throughout the United States – laws against gum-chewing and oral sex – laws that no longer make sense to a new generation.  Compliance with a particular law presupposes a certain kind of civilization.  Once that civilization morphs into something new, old laws fall into disuse. In short, cultural mores dictate what laws pass and are obeyed, and what laws are defeated or ignored.


The tendency for many people is to overstate the importance of politics in shaping culture.  As two men who have spent our careers in the halls of power, we are convinced law and politics play a relatively minor role in forming culture when compared with religion, Hollywood, academia, media, or the family.  Law, while it may appear to be at the vanguard of a society, is more like the infantry.  Law stands at the front lines, but is directed from the rear by the culture.  Its prominence in ongoing battles over abortion, same-sex marriage, stem cell research, and Supreme Court nominations may deceptively suggest that the battle rages there.  That we trade our history by various government actions might suggest that law and politics lead our society.  Instead, law and politics protect a particular social order, but do not primarily lead or guide it. 


Wilberforce’s contemporary and fellow Member of Parliament Edmund Burke wrote that “manners are more important than laws” [4].  Individuals rarely change their lives based on a political speech or a government act.  An individual may be inspired to work for a political candidate who reflects what he finds most important in preserving or creating a certain kind of culture.  But, more often than not, a cultural consensus precedes the enactment of laws.


Across the sea in the former British colonies, the Framers of the American Constitution had concluded the same thing.  John Adams, a friend of Wilberforce, had said that, “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” It is entirely possible that Adams and Wilberforce had discussed this very thing.  President George Washington in his Farewell Address of 1796, said, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.” [5] James Madison, drafter of the Constitution, said, “Corruption of [morals] make a people ripe for destruction.  A good form of government may hold the rotten materials together for some time, but beyond a certain pitch, even the best constitution will be ineffectual.” [6]


It is not enough to craft a government that relies on checks and balances, the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, a strong legislative branch.  The American Experiment required the right kind of people to create and sustain it.  The old adage that “you get the government you deserve” was as fundamental to the American Framers as it was for Wilberforce.






[1] Richard R. Follett, Evangelicalism, Penal Theory and Criminal Law Reform in England, 1808-1830 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), 94.

[2] William Wilberforce, Practical View of the Prevailing Religious Systems of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes, Contrasted with Real Christianity (New York: Leavitt, Lord & Company, 1835) , 319.

[3] Hannah More, The Works of Hanna More (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1852), 274.

[4] Mark Caldwell, A Short History of Rudeness: Manners, Morals, and Misbehavior in Modern America (New York: Picador, 2000), 23.

[5] "Washington's Farewell Address 1796" (The Avalon Project at Yale Law School, 1996), http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/washing.htm).

[6] Jeffrey H. Morrison, John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), 28.