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Abolitionists and Emancipators


Wilberforce and Buxton - Buxton's Family and Early Life - Buxton enters Parliament - Joins Wilberforce - Historic Conference at Cromer Hall - Clarkson on Work of Wilberforce and Buxton.
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'They conquer who believe they can.'

Wilberforce the Abolitionist and Buxton the Emancipator were men of an extraordinarily close affinity. Physically no two men could have been more unlike. Buxton, with his six feet four, towered over his fellows and had been nicknamed Elephant Buxton by his school friends. Wilberforce, small, slight and stooping, had been described by Boswell as a 'shrimp.' But there are many parallels in their lives. Both came to a definite turning point in their spiritual careers. Both had fascination of manner and extraordinary capacity for inspiring affection. Both possessed unshakable determination and unusual powers of concentration and hard work and they spared neither themselves nor others in the cause. Pitt chaffed Wilberforce about 'his white negroes,' while Buxton said that he did 'not care how many white slaves I make so long as the black ones are released.' Both were brought near to death by their excessive labours. Wilberforce was always delicate.

Buxton had a splendid constitution until, at the early age of forty, he had a fit of apoplexy. He was never afterwards very strong, but regardless of his doctor's warnings he continued to do the work of twenty men. When he was only fifty-five his health failed completely. He died at the age of fifty-nine, but at least he had worked himself to death in a good cause.

The two men trusted each other in everything. Apparently almost all Buxton's letters to Wilberforce have been destroyed, but Wilberforce's letters show how close was their friendship.

In his last letter to Buxton, written on July 14, 1833, only three weeks before his death, he says:

I always feel that on Sundays I love friends who are fellow Christians much better than on any other. My dear friend, may our Heavenly Father fill you with all joy and peace in believing, and be assured that I remain with every good wish for the temporal and spiritual well-being of yourself and all most dear to you, my dear friend, ever sincerely and affectionately yours, W. Wilberforce.

Above all, they were united in their religious faith. Their lives were permeated by the things not seen and they took no step without prayer. Their religious intensity does not appear to have repelled even those far removed from them in general outlook. This was perhaps because both men had not only the supreme merits of charity and sincerity, but also the saving graces of humility and sense of humour. Madame de Stael said of Wilberforce: 'I have always heard he was the most religious, but I now find that he is the wittiest man in England.' Buxton did not possess the polished wit of Wilberforce, who remarked of him that he was 'a man who could hew a statue out of a rock, but not cut faces upon cherry stones.'

If Fowell Buxton was not witty he had a hearty and delightful sense of fun. 'Do it with thy might' is the Buxton motto, and no man ever practised the precept more faithfully, whether in work or play. Born on April 1, 1786, at Castle Hedingham, Essex, he was left fatherless in early boyhood, for his father died in 1792. His widow was left with six young children, of whom Thomas Fowell was the eldest. Mrs. Buxton was a woman of vigorous mind, great strength of character and deep religious feeling. Although she was a Quaker and the daughter of a Quaker, her husband remained a member of the Church of England, and she never tried to bring her children to her persuasion. Her religious and moral influence over them was great and she directed all her energies towards making them vigorous and at the same time unselfish in the service of others. She taught them very early to abhor slavery and the slave trade.

As a small boy Fowell Buxton was not very studious; he loved country life and enjoyed hunting, shooting and fishing under the tuition of 'my Guide, philosopher and friend, Abraham Plaistow,' the gamekeeper, whom he described years afterwards as 'for the first twelve years of my life the dearest friend I had.' At the age of fifteen, after eight uneventful years at Dr. Burney's School, he persuaded his mother to allow him to live at home, where he passed his time in sport and desultory reading. At this critical period in the formation of his character the Gurney family came into his life. Mr. John Gurney, of Earlham Hall, near Norwich, was a widower with-eleven children, one of whom, Elizabeth, was afterwards Mrs. Fry. The whole family became the life-long friends of Buxton. He paid them long visits and they awakened in him the wide interests and stimulus towards intellectual tastes which had hitherto lain dormant.

At the age of sixteen he was sent to a tutor at Donnybrook to be prepared for Dublin University, and there he studied to such purpose that after a very distinguished career he carried off its highest honours and was asked to represent Dublin University in Parliament. But he was engaged to be married to Miss Hannah Gurney, and with family responsibilities before him, coupled with the necessity of earning his living, he declined the honour, and was married in 1807 at the age of twenty-one. Many years later he referred to his marriage and his undertaking the cause of the slaves as 'the two chief events in my life.' Nothing could have been more ideally happy than his marriage.

He commenced his business career in Truman's Brewery at Spitalfields, and until 1818, when he entered Parliament, he showed that intensity of application which characterised all his activities. How hard he worked may be gathered from a letter written to his mother in 1808: 'was up at four and do not expect to finish my day's work before midnight.' The marked business capacity which he showed caused the senior partners to entrust him with the difficult task of remodelling the whole management of the brewery. The personal interest which he took in the men under his care led him to arrange to have them taught how to read and write, After ten years of this exceedingly strenuous business life it can be no matter for surprise that he began to long increasingly for a wider sphere of public service, and we find him writing, 'I am sick of having my heart in vats.' And again, 'I want to be living in a higher key, to do some good before I die.' He owed much to the friendship of William Allen, the Quaker philosopher and philanthropist, who initiated him into some of the causes to which his after life was devoted.

He was a notable combination of method and enthusiasm and at the beginning of each year he reviewed his aims. His interests grew. Starting with a Savings Bank for Spitalfields and the London Hospital, by 1820 he had added to his interests the Reform of the Penal Code, the Abolition of Suttee, Prison Reform, the Police, Lotteries, the Abolition of the Slave Trade and the Emancipation of the Slaves. Though his labours in connection with slavery demanded nearly all his time and more than all his strength, his interests never became narrow and he was always a great humanitarian and social reformer. As a friend wrote of him after his death, 'He walked through the world like a man passing through the wards of an hospital and stooping down on all sides to administer help where it was needed.... He had a singular power of realising to his own mind distant and unseen suffering and of making it his own.'

His sympathy always led to action. Mrs. Fry had interested him in prison conditions and he was one of the original members of the Society for the Reformation of Prison Discipline. It was founded in 1816, and his name stands in the list of the Committee between two of those with whom he was later to work in the cause of the slaves - Dr. Lushington and Lord Suffield (then the Hon. E. Harbord). Just before entering Parliament it might have been expected that it would be Prison and Penal Reform and not Emancipation that would absorb Buxton's energies, for he writes to his wife of a visit which he made to Newgate Prison, where he

saw four poor creatures who are to be executed on Tuesday next. Poor things, God have mercy on them! The sight of them was sufficient for that day. I felt no further inclination to examine the prison. It has made me long much that my life will not pass quite uselessly.

His first important public speech was a remarkable effort. It was made at a Mansion House meeting in aid of the starving weavers of Spitalfields, and shows how intensely he felt their sufferings. He and his relative, Samuel Hoare, had visited many of them, and had seen, he said, 'a degree, an expanse of distress, utterly beyond my powers to describe.' The eloquence and feeling of his speech made so deep an impression on his audience that a sum of 43,369 was quickly subscribed, towards which the Prince Regent upon reading the speech sent 5,000. It was also the cause of his first contact with Wilberforce, from whom he received a letter prophetic of their future labours together for suffering humanity. Wilberforce wrote, November 20, 1816:

My dear Sir, I must in three words express the real pleasure with which I have both read and heard of your successful effort on Tuesday last in behalf of the hungry and the naked. It is partly a selfish feeling, for I anticipate the success of the efforts which I trust you will one day make in other instances, in an assembly in which I trust we shall be fellow labourers, both in the motives by which we are actuated, and in the objects to which our exertions will be directed.

Both men indeed had the powerful instinct for philanthropy of the 'Anima naturaliter Christiana.'

For some time, Buxton's predominating human interests were in the poor and in questions connected with crime, punishment and prison reform. Early in 1818 he published 'An Inquiry whether Crime be produced or prevented by our Present System of Prison Discipline.' It attracted wide attention and was highly praised in the House of Commons by Sir James Mackintosh, later one of Buxton's fellow workers in the Emancipation of the Slaves. Again Wilberforce wrote to him, and after congratulating him on the weight which his work appeared to carry he added:

may it please God to continue to animate you with as much benevolent zeal and to direct it to worthy objects. I hope you will come soon into Parliament and be able to contend in person, as well as with your pen, for the rights and happiness of the oppressed and the friendless. I claim you as an ally in this blessed league.

Wilberforce had not long to wait, for Buxton entered Parliament in 1818 as Member for Weymouth. In politics, though nominally a Whig, he, like Wilberforce, was from the beginning independent of party ties. When his Dublin University friend, John Henry North, thought of entering Parliament (as a Tory) Buxton urged him to stand and described his own attitude in the following words:

My line is distinctly drawn, I care but little about Party politics - I vote as I like... but I feel the greatest interest in subjects such as the Slave Trade, the condition of the poor, Prisons and Criminal Law; to these I devote myself and should be quite content never to give another vote upon a party question.

Although Wilberforce had yet fifteen years to live, he was deeply conscious of his own physical frailty. During three years after Buxton took his seat, the two men became still more closely wedded to each other's purposes. They thought alike, they shared the same ideas and they reciprocated each other's deep religious experiences. Wilberforce felt that at last the time had come to throw his mantle over Buxton, and on May 24, 1821, he wrote to him:

Now for many years, I have been longing to bring forward that great subject, the condition of the Negro Slaves in our Trans-Atlantic Colonies; and the best means of providing for their moral and social improvement; and ultimately for their advancement to the rank of a free peasantry. A Cause this, commended to me or rather enforced on me by every consideration of Religion, Justice and Humanity. I have been waiting with no little solicitude for a proper time and suitable circumstances of the country for introducing this great business, and of late for some Member of Parliament, who, if I were to retire, or to be laid by, would be an eligible leader in this Holy Enterprise. I have for some time been viewing you in this connection and after what passed last night I can no longer forbear writing to you, as I formerly did to Pitt, and earnestly conjuring you to take most seriously into consideration the expediency of your devoting yourself to this Blessed Service.

Buxton was one who undertook nothing lightly. He felt the tremendous responsibility of consenting to take up the burden from Wilberforce, and it was not until eighteen months after receiving the latter's appeal that he decided finally to undertake the great task of Emancipation. Other influences had joined with that of Wilberforce. His brother-in-law, William Forster, urged the claims of Emancipation upon him: so did the Gurneys, and it was during this year that, as we have already seen, Priscilla Gurney died, begging him, with her last breath, to remember the slaves.

By the autumn of 1822 his mind was made up. Wilberforce, Zachary Macaulay, Dr. Lushington and Lord Suffield joined him at Cromer Hall. 'Long and deep were their deliberations, how best to shape those measures which were to change the structure of Society throughout the Western World.' (Life of Wilberforce, v, 160.) Nothing could have been closer than the friendship between this band of brothers, all animated by the same ideals. Earl Buxton has well described them: 'Wilberforce was his Nestor. Zachary Macaulay, who had been an active lieutenant to Wilberforce in the campaign against the slave trade, was described by Buxton in 1833 as "the real leader of this Cause, the Anti-Slavery tutor of us all." Dr. Lushington, who avoided the limelight, was admirable in counsel and a partner in every idea and every plan. Lord Brougham, who delighted in publicity, was an enthusiastic supporter; J. J. Gurney (Buxton's brother-in-law), Lord Sufneld, James Stephen, Sir James Mackintosh, O'Connell, and others rendered yeoman service.' Mr. Denman was another stalwart.

In Parliament they were indeed few. In a private conversation in 1841 Buxton, looking back over the struggle for Emancipation, said:

For several years there were only six of us in the House, Sykes, Wm. Smith, Win. Evans, Dr. Lushington, myself and Brougham... Wilberforce also occasionally aided at first, but was soon obliged to give up. Constantly we were completely done up for want of speakers. I remember a whole array of West Indians sitting opposite to us, while of our own party, there were only Dr. Lushington and I. We were always anxious not to appear so few, so he and I agreed each to make speeches, and the others applaud, which we did.... We were tired of always speaking, and had, on coming into the House, to apply to Evans, who, though the honestest fellow in the world... when unprepared, made atrocious ones [speeches]; however, that time he got on pretty well.

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