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The Man Who 'Murdered' Slavery
[COMMENT: The Eric Metaxas upon whom Steyn comments
below, was a good friend when I lived in Norwalk, CT, during the late 1980's.
This is a super article correcting a huge amount of distorted history taught in
the West today.
One of the basic laws of pagan life, including most
emphatically, the great civilizations of Greece and Rome, including their
democracies and republics, was the the strong has the right, even the duty, to
rule the weak. In both places, at least half the population was slave to
the other half. There are few places outside of the Biblical influence
where that was not true, and it was only the Biblical people who changed that.
Life without the Biblical God was pretty much eat or be eaten,
and the cosmos as almost universally considered a pretty chaotic place, so the
only order anyone experienced was that imposed by the "strong man".
In such a world, an imposed tyranny which created order would be welcome.
Roman Republic era was not the 2-century period of the "Pax Romana". The
republic was fraught with horrendous internal strife as leaders competed for
dominance (e.g., the assassination of Julius Caesar). The "peace" came
with the fall of the republic and the reign of Augustus and the empire -- again
at sword point. But God used that era of relative peace as part of the "fullness of time",
the coming of Jesus, and the spread of the Church.
Metaxas does not appear to note that Wilberforce had some
serious help from the some of the early Celtic saints, Thomas Aquinas, the Pope,
and (yes) the Inquisition, all of whom raised the battle cry against slavery.
These were the first in human history to do so, long before Wilberforce, though
it took him to bring about the effective renunciation of slavery in England,
spreading then to the rest of the empire and then to Europe.
The Muslim and Communist worlds are, so far as I know, the
only places where slavery is de facto practiced. It is my
prediction that if the West continues to trash its Judeo-Christian heritage,
slavery will return here as well.
Indeed, some of us would claim that we in the West are already
becoming slaves on government plantations. E. Fox]
The man who 'murdered' slavery
Two centuries ago, a British backbencher changed an entire way of seeing
MARK STEYN | Mar 19, 2007 |
'William Wilberforce,' writes Eric Metaxas in Amazing Grace, 'was the
happy victim of his own success. He was like someone who against all
odds finds the cure for a horrible disease that's ravaging the world,
and the cure is so overwhelmingly successful that it vanquishes the
disease completely. No one suffers from it again -- and within a
generation or two no one remembers it ever existed.'
What did Wilberforce 'cure'? Two centuries ago, on March 25, 1807, one
very persistent British backbencher secured the passage by Parliament of
an Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade throughout His Majesty's
realms and territories. It's not that no one remembers the disease ever
existed, but that we recall it as a kind of freak pandemic -- a SARS or
bird flu that flares up and whirs round the world and is then
eradicated. The American education system teaches it as such -- as a
kind of wicked perversion the Atlantic settlers had conjured out of
their own ambition. In reality, it was more like the common cold -- a
fact of life. The institution predates the word's etymology, from the
Slavs brought from eastern Europe to the glittering metropolis of Rome.
It predates by some millennia the earliest laws, such as the Code of
Hammurabi in Mesopotamia. The first legally recognized slave in the
American colonies was owned by a black man who had himself arrived as an
indentured servant. The first slave owners on the North American
continent were hunter-gatherers. As Metaxas puts it, 'Slavery was as
accepted as birth and marriage and death, was so woven into the tapestry
of human history that you could barely see its threads, much less pull
them out. Everywhere on the globe, for 5,000 years, the idea of human
civilization without slavery was unimaginable.'
I'm not sure whether Amazing Grace the movie is the film of the book or
whether Amazing Grace the biography is the book of the film. But
Metaxas's book does a better job of conveying the scale of the challenge
than Michael Apted's film. The director of Gorky Park and 007's The
World is not Enough and the ongoing 7 Up TV documentaries, Apted has
made a conventional period biopic -- men in wigs sparring with each
other across the floor of the House of Commons, some rather flat scenes
with the little woman back home, the now traditional figure of the
'numinous Negro' (in Richard Brookhiser's phrase), though for once he's
not played by Morgan Freeman; and a lot of argument by empathy -- the
chains in which slaves are transported to the Indies being slapped down
dramatically on the tables of London dining rooms. In between come
irritating slabs of plonkingly anachronistic dialogue -- Wilberforce has
to choose between doing 'the work of God or the work of a political
activist' -- and more subtly so: Pitt the Younger rebukes his friend
with the words, 'I warn you as your prime minister' -- not a phrase the
king's first minister would have used back then, though I can imagine it
from the mouth of Mr. Chrétien.
But the costume dramatics and the contemporary emotionalizing miss the
scale of the abolitionist's achievement. 'What Wilberforce vanquished
was something even worse than slavery,' says Metaxas, 'something that
was much more fundamental and can hardly be seen from where we stand
today: he vanquished the very mindset that made slavery acceptable and
allowed it to survive and thrive for millennia. He destroyed an entire
way of seeing the world, one that had held sway from the beginning of
history, and he replaced it with another way of seeing the world.'
Ownership of existing slaves continued in the British West Indies for
another quarter-century, and in the United States for another 60 years,
and slave trading continued in Turkey until Atatürk abolished it in the
twenties and in Saudi Arabia until it was (officially) banned in the
sixties, and it persists in Africa and other pockets of the world to
this day. But not as a broadly accepted 'human good.'
There was some hard-muscle enforcement that accompanied the new law: the
Royal Navy announced that it would regard all slave ships as pirates,
and thus they were liable to sinking and their crews to execution. There
had been some important court decisions: in the reign of William and
Mary, Justice Holt had ruled that 'one may be a villeyn in England, but
not a slave,' and in 1803 William Osgoode, chief justice of Lower
Canada, ruled that it was not compatible with the principles of British
law. But what was decisive was the way Wilberforce 'murdered' (in
Metaxas's word) the old acceptance of slavery by the wider society. As
he wrote in 1787, 'God almighty has set before me two great objects: the
suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.'
The latter goal we would now formulate as 'changing the culture' --
which is what he did. The film of Amazing Grace shows the Duke of
Clarence and other effete toffs reeling under a lot of lame bromides
hurled by Wilberforce on behalf of 'the people.' But, in fact, 'the
people' were a large part of the problem. Then as now, citizens of
advanced democracies are easily distracted. The 18th- century Church of
England preached 'a tepid kind of moralism' disconnected both from any
serious faith and from the great questions facing the nation. It was a
sensualist culture amusing itself to death: Wilberforce goes to a
performance of Don Juan, is shocked by a provocative dance, and is then
further shocked to discover the rest of the audience is too blasé even
to be shocked. The Paris Hilton of the age, the Prince of Wales, was
celebrated for having bedded 7,000 women and snipped from each a
keepsake hair. Twenty-five per cent of all unmarried females in London
were whores; the average age of a prostitute was 16; and many brothels
prided themselves on offering only girls under the age of 14.
Many of these features -- weedy faint-hearted mainstream churches,
skanky celebs, weary provocations for jaded debauchees -- will strike a
chord in our own time. 'There is a deal of ruin in a nation,' remarked
Adam Smith. England survived the 18th century, and maybe we will survive
the 21st. But the life of William Wilberforce and the bicentennial of
his extraordinary achievement remind us that great men don't shirk
things because the focus-group numbers look unpromising. What we think
of as 'the Victorian era' was, in large part, an invention of
Wilberforce which he succeeded in selling to his compatriots. We,
children of the 20th century, mock our 19th-century forebears as uptight
prudes, moralists and do-gooders. If they were, it's because of
Wilberforce. His legacy includes the very notion of a 'social
conscience': in the 1790s, a good man could stroll past an 11-year-old
prostitute on a London street without feeling a twinge of disgust or
outrage; he accepted her as merely a feature of the landscape, like an
ugly hill. By the 1890s, there were still child prostitutes, but there
were also charities and improvement societies and orphanages. It is
amazing to read a letter from Wilberforce and realize that he is, in
fact, articulating precisely 220 years ago what New Yorkers came to know
in the nineties as the 'broken windows' theory: 'The most effectual way
to prevent greater crimes is by punishing the smaller.'
The Victorians, if plunked down before the Anna Nicole updates for an
hour or two, would probably conclude we're nearer the 18th century than
their own. A 'social conscience' obliges the individual to act. Today we
call for action all the time, but mostly from government, which is
another way of excusing us and allowing us to get on with the
distractions of the day. Our schoolhouses revile the Victorian
do-gooders as condescending racists and oppressors -- though the single
greatest force for ending slavery around the world was the Royal Navy.
Isn't societal self-loathing just another justification for lethargy?
After all, if the white man is inherently wicked, that pretty much
absolves one from having to do anything. And so the same kind of lies we
told ourselves about slaves we now tell ourselves about other faraway
people, and for the same reason: because big changes are tough and who
needs the hassle? The hardest thing in any society is 'the reformation
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