Jefferson and Wilberforce: Leaders Who Shaped Their Times

Part I

In the annals of history, there are singular individuals who by superior and often unique personal qualities are able to energize many others to shape or transform their times. Often their influence seems to come from the exercise of power-military, economic, or political. Sometimes their impact comes from unique insights and galvanizing ideas that capture the imagination of large numbers of people. For people of faith, there is the added dimension of God’s activity in the world, shaping events and lives for his purposes, and raising up leaders of all stripes to positions of influence, particularly in times of crisis.

A Search for Heroes

We live in an era that many describe as unprec­edented in history. Various commentators refer to it as chaotic, a time of continuous, unpredictable change- permanent white-water. Rapidly spreading technology; bewildering and deadly religious and ethnic passions; moral and cultural decline-especially in the West; a global economic, political, and media influence; and the widespread availability of stunningly lethal weapons that can be employed by a single person. This is the stuff of our everyday lives and daily head­lines. In such times people often greet the day with a sigh and search for wise and good leaders who can navigate the treacherous shoals. Often there is a deep need and even a craving for past examples-heroes- who have exercised transformational moral leadership and who have changed their times to give us hope and to encourage our hearts in these difficult days.

In recent years, Americans have begun to rediscover the time of our nation’s founding, closely study­ing the lives of a small group of Revolution leaders. Authors have relentlessly mined history in a number of biographies, searching for clues to the character and wisdom that brought the world’s first freely elected democracy into being in a time of great testing. But, per­haps we have been a bit myopic and limited in this search for leaders and heroes.

If we turn to examine England during the same time period, we would find the entire moral culture of a nation being transformed over the course of some 40 years-largely by the determined leadership of another small group, most of them scarcely known. They were men and women of Christian faith who gave up their lives and ambitions for a great moral cause. This re­markable story is perhaps best embodied in one man, called to the vocation of politics: William Wilberforce. His career spanned the administrations of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and John Quincy Adams. But his impact in transforming En­glish morals, practices, and culture arguably gave rise to the greatest era in English history and accom­plished what America could not without its bloodiest war ever-the peaceful abolition of slavery in the en­tire British Empire.

If we then juxtapose the founding era in America, we find one man in particular, who gave eloquent voice to the freedom of man that would roll down through the ensuing centuries as his legacy: Thomas Jefferson.

Both men, Wilberforce and Jefferson, challenged perhaps the most perplexing cultural and moral issue of their time-the existence of slavery in a free and ad­vanced society. How each approached this challenge and how they influenced others to engage their culture is one of the more interesting and compelling lessons of leadership to be found.

Parallel Paths

To begin, what is particularly intriguing in comparing these two great men is the remarkably similar nature of their early paths in life, in their public commitments, and in their choice of career. Only later in life would their actions begin to diverge-starkly.

They entered the world in the same era-Thomas Jefferson born on April 13, 1743; William Wilberforce on August 24, 1759. Each came from famous blood­lines and a privileged, achieving background: Wilberforce’s father and grandfather were wealthy merchants and his grandfather a revered politician; Jefferson’s father was an important plantation owner and a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses; his mother was a Randolph, the first family of Virginia with a line to British aristocracy. They subsequently lost their fathers at an early age, Jefferson at 14 and Wilberforce at the age of 10. They went on to receive an excellent education for their time, one that opened doors to important careers. Wilberforce would attend Cambridge while Jefferson attended William and Mary. Most significantly for our initial focus, each man was to come under the early in­fluence of significant male role models who would not only mentor them but also provide them with an ex­ample and a worldview that shaped their entire lives.

In their choice of vocations, while in their early twenties, both young men embarked on a political ca­reer. And then, early on as young legislators, they made it a matter of priority to sponsor bills to eradicate slavery. And, not surprisingly, they received a com­mon reaction from their older peers-legislative failure and personal vilification. But, the lessons each drew from those early setbacks would be quite different. In observing the roads each man subsequently chose, we come to the heart of what we will attempt to dis­cover-why do common beliefs and common commit­ments not always translate into common actions in leaders? Or, in today’s vernacular, what causes some to walk the talk and others not.

For while Jefferson continued to ever more sporadi­cally speak and write against slavery for the rest of his life-most importantly in his memorable phrasing in the Declaration of Independence-he never did em­body his early words with consequent actions. He died in 1826 with slavery more firmly ensconced in the cul­ture, not only in the south, but also in the growing west­ern lands of America as he failed to even lend a hand to a growing abolition movement. Forty years later, that failure would come home with a vengeance.

By contrast, Wilberforce would for 40 years keep a clear-eyed focus on abolishing the slave trade and then slavery itself in all of England’s colonies. Before his death in 1833, word came to him that his lifelong ob­jective had become a legal reality. In the course of his pursuit of this objective, he was to see the beginning of a cultural and moral transformation in England that made it fashionable to do good, ushering in the Victo­rian era for decades to come.

Their Times

To be fair, for both men the difficulty of their abolition task was enormous and it daunted many others who shared their views. Not unlike our time today, each country faced threats to their national survival. They came of age in a time of revolution in both Europe and America. There was not only the common threat of military conquest but also economic failure if the slave-driven engines of the largely agrarian economies were to run down and imperil national security.

England was confronted by the threat of France, and the example of the French and American revolu­tions loomed as frightening possibility at home. As an island nation that relied so heavily on trade, England’s wealth was dependent on its colonies and their use of slaves to produce trading goods. Abolishing slavery would be tantamount to surrendering to their enemies and a crippling of their economy opening the door po­tentially to chaos.

America , throughout most of Jefferson’s lifetime, would contend for freedom from what they saw as the overt and then latent tyranny of England as well as military threats from France and Spain. In addition, the passions of regional contention between the states of the industrial north and the agrarian south were fueled by a plantation economy which required more slaves as the landholdings expanded farther south and then west when the soil was depleted. This issue, alone-slave or free-as the nation grew, threatened the very capacity of a United States to hold together.

The Role of Mentors

We begin by focusing on one important explanatory factor for why Wilberforce and Jefferson took different roads: the critical role their early mentors played-par­ticularly in shaping their character and their contrast­ing worldviews. A significant relationship with older, wiser people is one of the key lessons of experience that shape a leader. 1 In particular, it is these relation­ships that do more to shape character than anything else. 2 In one of the best analyses of what shapes a leader, the authors of The Ascent of a Leader use the metaphor of two ladders. One is the short capability ladder where individuals identify their gifts, develop their capabilities, acquire a position or title, and ulti­mately reach their potential. But what is ignored in this typical pattern of developing a leader is the very reason people follow others-character leading to trust in dif­ficult times. The longer character ladder is a develop­ment process that doesn’t ignore capability but which focuses greatly on important shaping relation­ships such as good mentors provide. It is here that in­dividuals learn to trust God and others with their lives, make choices to be vulnerable and open about their entire lives, align their actions with time tested truths, often paying a price for choices made, and reaching not simply a position of power, but one they have been called to by their Creator and co-laborer. This examination of their mentors is a good illustra­tion of how the development of character and capa­bility were different for Jefferson and Wilberforce. It is at least a beginning explanation for where and why their paths ultimately diverged.

James Houston has rightly observed that the whole subject of mentoring today has taken a turn toward intense interest as we look for exemplars in an age of alienation. 3 Indeed, talk of mentors is rare in the pages of history; it was more a matter of fact. Houston as­cribes it, in part, to a hunger for soul friendship in today’s culture. Another more prosaic reason might be the changing demographics that find the aging popu­lation becoming much larger proportionately as younger persons acquire the leadership roles earlier than they would normally expect. The hunger for mentors we see today may be even more shaped by the whole range of issues surrounding missing parents- divorce, busyness, self-preoccupation, and absent par­ents (particularly fathers).

Jefferson ‘s Early Mentors

Both Wilberforce and Jefferson would say that they were fortunate protégées and indeed, they were deeply impacted by their early mentors.

It was at William and Mary at the age of 17, that Jefferson encountered the three men who would be his most important mentors. The first, William Smalls, was a philosopher and mathematician from Scotland (and the only non-clergy person on the faculty) and one of the earliest Enlightenment scholars in America. There was also Governor Fauquier, a prominent government leader in Williamsburg, who held strong views on the role of government and the need to curtail state spon­sored religion-an issue Jefferson later took up with some success. And, finally, there was attorney George Wythe who would shape Jefferson not only as his law tutor but also later as a business partner and lifelong friend. Wythe would later become a prominent Virginia leader as a signer of the Declaration of Independence and as a framer and signatory to the Constitution.

The four men formed somewhat of a European style salon during Jefferson’s university years, brought to­gether by Smalls, with the teenage Jefferson the clear beneficiary of such heady company arranged by Smalls. Here the great issues of the day were discussed and debated as Jefferson learned to think widely about the world he was entering.

Jefferson would say later in his autobiography that of the three mentors, William Smalls, his professor in mathematics and later philosophy, “probably fixed the destinies of my life.” 4 Perhaps Smalls’ greatest im­pact was on Jefferson’s lifelong passion for science and the supremacy of rational thought over super­natural revelation.

Smalls’ form of philosophy, formerly called skepti­cism, and later rationalism, would be fully embraced by the young Jefferson as a means of understanding the world and later the role and limits of politics. That philosophy marked the emergence of the Enlighten­ment in Europe and in America. Jefferson’s years as ambassador in France where the Enlightenment origi­nated only reinforced his early discovery of the exciting new way of understanding the shaping of history and the destiny of man at William and Mary. It was also a rejection of the longstanding biblical view of the sover­eign guidance of God in the affairs of men.

In one sense, this begins to explain how Jefferson could write so tellingly about slavery as a violation of rights (and not moral law). This was a central idea from the Enlightenment: a rejection of revealed truth about morality as a basis for decisions. He would also come to place his trust in the moral progress of man as the eventual answer to slavery-another central En­lightenment tenet. We will examine these impacts in greater detail later, but it is clear that the roots of those views in an older Jefferson can be traced back to Smalls and to the Williamsburg salon. It did fix Jefferson’s “destinies” in ways he may not have under­stood. Throughout his life, Jefferson was more a man of great ideas with a faith in the ultimate perfectibility of man and society.

Wilberforce’s Mentors

Wilberforce was only 10 when his father died and his mother was also ill at the time, so for two years he lived with his uncle and aunt, recent evangelical con­verts to Methodism under Whitefield. There he met two of their friends who both became important male role models and mentors.

The first man, John Thornton, his aunt’s half brother, was also a convert under Whitefield’s preach­ing and one of the wealthiest men in England who lived simply and used his wealth to do his “Church work.” He took the unusual step of giving William a large sum of money and instructing him to use it to al­leviate the needs of the poor. Here was a lesson that could be seen later in Wilberforce’s life as he took up dozens of causes for the poor in England.

The other mentor, John Newton, was the colorful ship’s captain, preacher, and converted slave trader- whom we know as the author of “Amazing Grace.” Childless, he came to consider young William as a son. Under the influence of Thornton and Newton and that of his uncle and aunt, William became a practic­ing evangelical and a Methodist, alarming his mother who finally recalled him home. Though his early faith would fade as Wilberforce encountered the culture at his mother’s insistence, he would later recommit his life to this faith spawned under his mentors’ influence.

For Wilberforce, the more influential of his two men­tors was clearly John Newton. In those early days at his aunt and uncle’s, Newton and the boy he came to call his “son” became close. Newton would come to the house to preach “parlor sermons,” often an exposition on Pilgrim’s Progress, which remained vivid in Wilberforce’s memory. Later as Wilberforce came to place his entire faith in Christ after a time of wander­ing in the cultural enticements of his day, he came to repent of his man-about-town ways as a young, bach­elor parliamentarian.

Newton had not lost track of Wilberforce over the ensuing years but followed his career, even using him to illustrate how a life could go off track. “The most promising views of this sort (Christian conviction) I ever met with were in the case of Mr. Wilberforce when he was a boy but now they seem entirely worn off, not a trace left behind, except a deportment comparatively decent and moral in a young man of a large fortune.” 5

It was on the heels of his recommitment to his earlier Christian faith that he secretly sought out Newton for advice. To openly associate with such a religious enthu­siast as Newton would potentially doom Wilberforce’s political career, yet the two met. This was to be a life changing conversation, because Wilberforce had con­cluded that now as a professing Christian, he could not remain in the sordid world of politics but must instead enter the ministry. He sought confirmation from New­ton only to be told that his calling was to remain where he was. The government needed godly leaders during difficult times. Newton made it clear that his calling to politics was not a lesser choice.

This understanding of vocation would become the centerpiece for Wilberforce’s work for the next 40 years and soon led him directly to his clearer under­standing of his call. In 1787 he saw his specific mission was laid down in “two great objects” that came from God-to abolish slavery in all of Britain’s colonies and to reform the manners and morals of England. Against horrendous odds, that breathtaking vision remained his focus for the rest of his life.

Newton ‘s early influence led to the conversion of young William; his later influence was certainly two­fold. First, in helping Wilberforce to see that his voca­tion, his calling by God, was politics, not the church. This ran counter to the common view that the highest expression of religious commitment was to be in the profession of clergy. Second, Newton helped Wilberforce to understand the horrors of the capture and transporting of slaves where almost half would die in what was called “the middle passage.” It not only galvanized William’s conscience, it provided him with the beginnings of his exhaustive documentation of the realities of slavery that proved so effective in the debates that led up to the slave trade being ended in 1807. Without Newton’s influence as a mentor, it is doubtful that Wilberforce would have become the man in later life that became known as “the Washington of humanity.” It was in the shaping of Wilberforce’s character that Newton made the greatest impact.


Two older men, Smalls and Newton, were at the fore­front of those who shaped the thinking and ultimately the destinies, not only of Jefferson and Wilberforce, but arguably of America and England as well. Their place is perhaps little appreciated but clearly they were a part of God’s design for the lives of Jefferson and Wilberforce as both began their rise to power. Their role is at least one piece to the puzzle of why the lead­ership of Jefferson and Wilberforce in transforming their cultures was one of divergence from their early commitments. Jefferson became a man of science, philosophy, and rational thought, trusting in the forces of enlightened minds. Wilberforce became a man with a calling and a commitment to act on that call, empow­ered by a God who acted in history.

However, a fuller explanation remains as we next examine the role of their colleagues, followers and sup­porters in forging their commitments and then as we take a fuller look at how their worldviews impacted not only their choices but their legacies as they shaped the cul­ture of their times.


1 Morgan McCall, Jr., Michael Lombardo, Ann Morrison, The Lessons of Experience, (New York: Lexington books, 1988), p. 68.

2 Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol, Ken McElrath, The Ascent of the Leader: How Ordinary Relationships Develop Extraordinary Character and Influence, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999); Howard and William Hendricks, As Iron Sharpens Iron: Building Character in a Mentoring Relationship, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995)

3 James M. Houston, The Mentored Life, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), p. 16.

4 Adrienne Koch and William Peden, eds., The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, (New York: Random House, 1944), p. 4

5 Steve Turner, Amazing Grace, (New York: Harper Collins, 2002), p. 95

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Part II

Leadership, even godly leadership, is not the sole province of the individual, but the outcomes are often shaped as much by those who advise, support, encourage, and come alongside a leader. It is within a network of relationships or of a like-minded community that the great movements of change occur. Those with whom leaders surround themselves, their choice of com­panions on the journey, help to make them who they are and determine what they can achieve. These col­leagues also help to further shape and to sustain a trans­forming vision over time and bring it to reality. We have looked at the role of early mentors in shaping the com­mitments of Jefferson and Wilberforce; we now turn to examine how those around them later in life helped to sustain their purposes.

Leading Societal Change

Contemporary research on leading transformative change posits three key factors if societal and cultural change is to be successfully initiated: (1) a sense of ur­gency or great importance; (2) a compelling vision for change that captures the hearts and the minds of a wide group of people; and, (3) a guiding coalition which has the prestige and the capacity to help bring about the change envisioned. 1 How these factors played out in the lives of Jefferson and Wilberforce is yet another telling contrast of the results of their com­mitments to ending slavery.

Jefferson : Leading Behind the Scenes

Jefferson ‘s powerful gift of written expression together with his naturally introverted and scholarly personality shaped a somewhat unique approach to his political and collegial work and indicated where he would make his impact. Even from his earliest political years, Jefferson’s superior writing talents were evident, and John Adams’ choosing him to draft the terms of declar­ing independence from England would prove to be the key to Jefferson’s spectacular rise. While Jefferson pre­ferred to avoid public roles due to a thin and high-pitched voice and a reluctance to speak publicly, his seeming shyness belied his large personal ambitions. He had a deep aversion to any conflict and had a need to be loved-to a degree quite unusual for one in his profession. Thus, Jefferson tended to work behind the scenes in his political life, becoming known as a “com­mitteeman.” He trusted only a few men to carry his central themes of republicanism over federalism and freedom from the tyranny of religion and rulers. The man he trusted most throughout his life was James Madison. Madison’s role as collaborator with Jefferson on matters great and small-and even nefarious-is one that is largely unsung.

But ironically, it was also this behind-the-scenes ap­proach to leadership that became Jefferson’s undoing with many, including not only his Federalist archen­emy, Alexander Hamilton, but also his father figure, George Washington, and, most painfully, his sponsor and good friend, John Adams. This made the possibility of sustaining the cause of abolishing slavery more un­likely, because he had tarnished many of the key rela­tionships he would have needed-all in favor of his personal ambitions.

Key Relationships

John Adams, Jefferson’s champion in the Continental Congress, was not only a mentor to the young and gifted Jefferson but also a close friend along with his wife Abigail when they served in France and England as ambassadors. But it was a collegial relationship that was not to last long into the Washington administra­tion as Jefferson became more and more disenchanted with the Federalist bent of the government he joined as Secretary of State with Adams as Vice President. Re­signing his post early for a return to Monticello, Jefferson would later allow his name to stand for elec­tion in 1796 and again in 1800 in a quiet campaign against Adams, to succeed Washington.

The breaking point came for the two as Jefferson chose to have Adams falsely tarred by hiring a journal­istic flack to tarnish Adams’ image while Jefferson was ensconced in Monticello-a standard political “dirty trick” of the early years of campaigning. The subse­quent split between Jefferson and John Adams and even more so, Abigail, would last until the men were in their last years.

Madison , on the other hand, was not only a neigh­bor in Virginia, but one who was the more public ex­pression of the private Jefferson’s ideas. An early example came in the bill for Religious Freedom that Jefferson authored in the Virginia legislature. After an inability to see it through on its first offering, Jefferson was about to give it up, much like his bill on abolishing slavery earlier in his career. It was Madison who shared Jefferson’s passion to curb the role of the church in the affairs of government (and conscience) that would persist and carry it to completion while Jefferson was off in France as ambassador. It was also Madison who took a key part in the drafting of the Constitution and in writing much of the apologia for a Federal form of government (which we know today as The Federalist Papers). He also wrote regularly to Jefferson in France, keeping him apprised of the pro­ceedings and ensuring that Jefferson’s advice played a role in the shaping of the Constitution in curbing the powers of the central government in favor of a balance toward the role of the states-a Jefferson tenet.

Over a lifetime, it becomes clear that Jefferson chose his colleagues for their agreement with him, their per­sonal devotion, and their capacity to help him carry out his political ends. Madison was brilliant at it, and the two rarely differed, so much so that one commen­tator has said that without Madison there would have been no Jefferson. James Monroe was another col­league, and both would later benefit from Jefferson’s sponsoring of their careers.

Unfortunately for those colleagues and sponsors that he turned against, Jefferson was unable to bridge the gap. He never reconciled with the proud Washing­ton who could not bear to bring up his “son’s” perfidy in making public a comment denouncing Washington’s meek captivity to the Federalists. And as for John and Abigail Adams, it was only by the tireless efforts of Dr. Benjamin Rush through a benign subterfuge, that Jefferson and John Adams were able to patch up the wounds of Jefferson’s smear campaign and initiate a remarkable end-of- life correspondence.

Right up to the end of his life, Jefferson was a po­tential rallying point for those interested in seeing the full realization of the vision for equality of all. But not prior to his election as President in 1800 or during his presidency or even when he became more and more an icon in his latter years-all times when his influence might have been most effective-did he provide influ­ence and agree to take up cause with those who would abolish slavery, including the lone “founding father” who did, Benjamin Franklin, and the long time groups campaigning against the ownership of human beings, particularly the Quakers. While he realized that “we have the wolf by the ears” in the dilemma of when and how slavery would end, he voiced a reluctance to publicly act, even while giving those who sought his leadership verbal encouragement.

A good example of this reluctance-as well as the fullest explanation of his reasons for not offering to lead emancipation efforts-came in a letter he sent in reply to Edward Coles. Coles had solicited the former President’s support in the cause of abolition, appealing to him as an Albemarle County neighbor and also as private secretary to James Madison. Coles was no dreamy young idealist but was to become Governor of the new state of Illinois where he moved with his freed slaves and pursued the course of abolition for the re­mainder of his life.

Jefferson ‘s reply is essentially a long apologia for his early championing of the cause as a young legislator but doing little thereafter. Astonishingly, he maintained that from the time he was in France as ambassador in 1787 until he returned to Monticello for good in 1809 when his two terms as President ended, he had “little opportunity of knowing the progress of public senti­ment here on this subject.” 2 His hopes, he concluded, had been placed in the younger generation who would see the importance of extending liberty in emancipat­ing the slaves as of first import. Such was not the case, he lamented. Jefferson also failed to note to Coles the debates he took part in from afar in his latter years, favoring the extension of slavery to the western states as balancing the interests of northern manufacturing and southern plantation economies.

He ends his letter with an apt expression of his Enlightenment worldview-“Yet the hour of emancipa­tion is advancing, in the march of time ….” 3 There is no reply to the call to help rally the younger genera­tion to the cause and take league with Coles and others of that generation. Ironically however, he does extol the example of Wilberforce to Coles as one to follow in his quest.

And what might have been the real cause for such reluctance to lead the aboli­tion effort? One explanation may well be that the col­leagues and supporters that mattered most to Jefferson in his rise to power and in his latter years, were those of his own planter class in Virginia and the south. Roger Kennedy perhaps best sums up this view:

Jefferson was driven by an insatiable hunger for approval of his fellow planters. Such a need for the affirmation of peers is common among political persons. In Jefferson’s case, it was so intense as to overwhelm his commitment to concepts distasteful either to his contemporaries among the planter class or thereafter to their sons. He sought brothers while attacking the authority of fathers. 4

The Saints

Wilberforce, were he alive today, would have been the first to say that the end of slavery in all of Britain was not his accomplishment alone. While this would not be false modesty, he nevertheless was the engine for change whose persistence in what he believed to be right, his good humor and patience under vicious per­sonal and even physical attack, and his creative talent for making a moral cause a popular one, clearly marked the non-partisan coalition in Parliament that was given the nickname, “The Saints.”

Many of “The Saints” chose to live in a community called Clapham Common. Later generations would refer to them as the Clapham circle or sect. They were in and out of each other’s homes, worshipped in the same Anglican church, and were willing to submit their political careers and egos to the cause they all shared, operating, as one contemporary described, like “a meeting which never adjourned.” Begun as a small group in 1792 by Wilberforce and his second cousin, Henry Thornton, it was to continue until Wilberforce’s death in 1833. It was this group that not only allied with him, but also helped to encourage him and sustain his commitment in the darkest times. He was clear that the network of support he enjoyed was “indispensable in enabling him to serve effectively in politics.” 5

Among the Clapham circle were leaders of British society and, given that Wilberforce’s strategy to trans­form thinking was to influence its leaders, this group proved invaluable. They numbered not only political leaders like Sir William Smith, but also the jurist, James Stephen, Master of Chancery; the poet, educa­tor, and playwright Hannah More; clergyman and author Gisbourn Thomas; prominent businessman Charles Grant; colonial governor Zachary Macaulay; Henry Thornton, a wealthy banker; John Venn, the Rector of Clapham parish; Lord Teignmouth, Gover­nor General of India; and the abolitionist thinker Granville Sharp whose campaign to eliminate slavery in England was already well known in a series of tri­als in English courts.

All shared not only a common purpose but also a common Christian belief. What they needed was a leader, a voice that would be taken seriously in the public eye. The choice fell to Wilberforce whose faith and belief in eradicating slavery were by now well known. It was this group that would sustain Wilberforce and each other again and again through prayer and personal relationships as, each year, defeats in Parliament piled up the mound of discouragement.

It was not only the toll of defeats but also the viru­lence of the opposition in the early years that was daunting. The crown opposed them. The greatest hero of Britain, Admiral Lord Nelson, not only opposed their cause but also declared Wilberforce a traitor. And the opposition became so intense that Wilberforce was twice publicly attacked and began to have an armed guard travel with him where he went. But Wilberforce continued without returning the rancor.

After his conversion, Wilberforce would declare to his friend and Prime Minister, Pitt, that now his “party was humanity.” Pitt was the political leader who ad­vocated that Wilberforce introduce his first bill on abo­lition in 1787, and was a staunch ally in the fight for the next several years. But when war broke out with France in 1793, the fear of the French revolution spreading to England and the possible rebellion of Brit­ish slaves gave Pitt cause to back away from his com­mitment in the name of the greater cause. Wilberforce, despite tremendous pressure, would not follow his party’s lead. Political convenience, even in the name of party unity and national interest would not be put ahead of the greater cause of human freedom.

Another key to the ultimate success of Wilberforce lay not only with his close friends in Clapham and other fellow Christians but also with those who may have opposed him at the outset or who did not share his beliefs. He became known for being able to work with those whose ideology or religious beliefs differed from his own. One of his biographers describes this quality as that of “being a bridge-builder in public life-persuading those with whom he disagreed, and commending his views through civil discourse.” 6 He had a view that embraced all of humanity and which held out hope that opponents might find areas in which to work in concert.

His personal respect for others, even those who vig­orously opposed his views on faith or the changes needed in society, was the character quality that al­lowed even his opponents to rise and applaud him when the bill ending the slave trade eventually passed in 1807. This was one central characteristic that saw many over his lifetime won to his side. Had he em­ployed vigorous denunciation and vilification, they would have only hardened their stance; had he plied the subtle use of power to undermine his opponents, he would have alienated potential allies as was seen in some of Jefferson’s dealings. While he would not com­promise his beliefs, Wilberforce was very ready to adopt differing tactics when necessary. He would not, however, yield to pragmatism over virtue and give up the steady fight for ending slavery in order to advance his career. He almost certainly gave up a likely oppor­tunity to be Prime Minister and succeed Pitt because of his devotion to his two purposes.

Wilberforce and the Clapham circle also made cause with a wider circle of influential people who would help carry the message to the leaders and the grassroots. One of the best stories is the recruitment of Josiah Wedgwood, the maker of fine china. He de­signed a special Wedgwood pattern with the distinctive pale blue and white colors but with an imprint of a slave in chains on the center with the inscription, “Am I not a man and a brother?” These were considered conversation “launchers” by Wilberforce, objects providing an opening for dialogue after the finished meal uncovered the message of the evening.

There are some lessons here that would be well worth noting. First, Wilberforce did not act alone; al­though he took the lead thrust upon him by his call and by his Clapham colleagues-many whom had been laboring for those in need for years before-they worked together as a virtuous coalition. Other practices worth noting are:

  • They did their homework with excellence, not basing their positions on “right” or on rhetorical passion alone.
  • They built a wider support community around them.
  • They had a clear sense of a purpose to ac­complish.
  • They would not accept setbacks as final de­feats, even in the name of pragmatism.
  • They stayed the course for the long haul.
  • They refused to allow their opponents’ viru­lent personal attacks to be answered in kind-they stuck with the issues and did not retaliate.
  • They sought to understand their opponents and to engage in meaningful dialogue.
  • They accepted small gains on the road to the larger prize.
  • They transcended a single-issue climate by addressing many issues within a need for a moral climate in all of society.
  • They had a sense of God’s providential lead­ing and a faith that He would guide them if they acted faithfully.

As another of Wilberforce’s biographers has concluded, Wilberforce gives an example of how to create the momentum that leads to positive change. His life is proof that a Christian statesman can change the times in which he lives; though he cannot do so alone. 7

The Contrast

It is a tantalizing question to consider: if Jefferson had been surrounded by a Clapham-like group, would he have taken up the cause of slavery while President or even afterward when the union was more secure? In my own estimation, I think not.

First, his nature, unlike Wilberforce’s, was not one to try and take cause with those who did not adhere to his own beliefs. Thus, he could undermine his long­time friend and sponsor, Adams, privately vilify his “father” and advocate, Washington, and be comfort­able doing so as long as he was behind the façade of retirement at Monticello. It is also apparent from many biographers that he was a man with huge personal ambition, even though he denied it. He could not sub­ordinate his political ambitions to a greater purpose as much of the Clapham circle and Wilberforce were able to do. Political pragmatism was far more impor­tant in the long run to Jefferson than the lofty vision of the Declaration. And, finally, Jefferson did not have either the personality or possibly the strength of char­acter to persevere against opposition and certainly against widespread personal vilification. He once al­most quit public life entirely after being driven from the governor’s house by the British and the cries of “cow­ard” wounded him for life.

Without Wilberforce’s sense of a call from God and thus His present help to provide strength for the long battle, Jefferson saw himself as essentially on his own with a few trusted allies. He would not have been able to take the kind of slings and arrows that were the lot of the Clapham group and Wilberforce.

As for those who later became the Claphamites, until Wilberforce took up the lead at God’s behest and theirs, their passion could not gain traction in a culture where as Wilberforce observed, “selfishness” was the reigning quality of its leaders. The unique coalescence of the times, the man, and the community along with the preparation of the culture’s soil over the years made for an outcome in British society few would have dared to prophesy. Can it ever be replicated? It remains for some to make the attempt. Until then, it stands as a singular lesson.

In Part III we will conclude with a look at the con­tending worldviews evidenced in the lives of Wilberforce and Jefferson and at the legacy of their lives. What did they leave behind them to attest to the enduring quality of their leadership and why?


1 John Kotter, Leading Change and The Heart of Change (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1997 and 2003).

2 Adrienne Koch and William Peden, eds., The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Random House, 1944),

p. 642.

3 Ibid.

4 Roger Kennedy, Mr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause: Land, Farmers, Slavery and the Louisiana Purchase ( New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 30.

5 Kevin Belmonte, Hero for Humanity ( Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), p. 139.

6 Ibid.

7 John Pollock as cited in Belmonte, Hero for Humanity, p. 180.

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Part III

In contemporary leadership and organizational research, Dr. Peter Senge stands among the most respected scholars in the field seeking to understand why people be­have the way they do in large organiza­tions. In a somewhat unique finding, he has framed what he calls the ladder of infer­ence as a way of understanding how people both convey and understand mean­ing and how they act upon it. Central to his findings is that, at the core, an individual’s beliefs lie behind the real meaning in all that they say or do. Belief in this context is de­fined by Senge as what people think is true about how the world works, what their under­standing is of why people behave the way that they do, and what their own sense is of what is central to their purposeful actions in all of life. Others might use the term world-view to describe this perspective.

Two Worldviews- Two Legacies

Lurking behind all of what we have been seeing so far in the comparison of what shaped the lives of Wilberforce and Jefferson is the notion of contending world-views. We have examined two factors that played key roles in both men in sustaining the commitments they made early in political life to abolishing slavery. Where we have seen this distinction most clearly is not in what they said or wrote publicly, but in the choices they made to act or not to act. In examining so far two sustaining influ­ences-their early mentors and their choice of colleagues and supporters-we have also seen an emerging and a differing world-view that guided each of these men. We now turn to look more closely at the third sustaining factor in more detail-their two worldviews-and how they were lived out in their two visions for abolishing slavery.

We will then be in a better position through a summary comparison to under­stand how and why they chose the course that they did that began to vary so widely. We might also better understand how each man shaped the times they lived in long after they were dead. These then are the tasks for this final part.

Saint vs. Hypocrite?

In the starkest of terms, many would con­clude that simply by limiting the inquiry to their actions alone, it would seem that Wilberforce set an unswerving course to abolish slavery to his very deathbed because of his beliefs in the equality of all men and that Jefferson, in contrast, abandoned the field because his beliefs radically changed over time. In short, some would say Jefferson was a hypocrite of the first order.

While a tempting conclusion, this is far too simplistic an answer and masks how a leader’s (and politician’s) worldview can help us to understand the distinction be­tween verbal affirmations and consequent actions. More than anything, it was the di­vergence in their worldviews, their beliefs of how history worked, that most deeply di­vided the two men and determined the course of action each would follow throughout their mature lives regarding how to engage the fractious political and human issue of slavery.

The Optimist

As we have seen, William Smalls, Jefferson’s first and likely most important mentor, helped to expose Jefferson to the exciting ideas of the Enlightenment that were emerging on the global scene. Space does not allow for a thorough discussion of the new thinking that was being introduced, but for our pur­poses there are three key beliefs that Jefferson held that illustrate the impact it had on him.

First, he believed the progress of history should be viewed with optimism owing to the power of man’s reason which could only lead to inexorable progress not only materi­ally, but far more so morally. Progress toward equality depended upon the subsequent gen­erations’ further development of the requisite knowledge and moral insight to complete the task of ending slavery.

Second, the equality of which he spoke was more of a metaphysical equality based upon the notion of individual rights and not revealed moral truths of what it means to be human. He expressed skepticism in his Notes on Virginia that black slaves possessed the requisite mental and moral raw material to ever rise to the level of most white Americans.

And, third, the Enlightenment view was that the tyranny most to be feared was not tyranny of one man over another, but rather that of the King, Executive, or the Federal Government over the rights of individual states. Thus, he would argue later in life that slaves were not men but property because that is what was decreed by many of the state laws of the south and that the Federal government could only override the states in regard to the rights of individuals, not the rights of property. Certain rights trumped others in his mind.

This sense of priority of abolishing slavery in his time can readily be seen in the remarkable correspondence that was car­ried on between Jefferson and John Adams for the last 14 years of their lives. As these two old revolutionary thinkers and leaders looked back on where they had come as a nation, each attempted to explain what they had done and what their hopes were for the future.

What interests us is that in all the years of their exchange of letters (they never saw each other after 1800) the subject of slavery was raised only one time. In 1821, Jefferson spoke to the Missouri question as an abridge­ment of the rights of states to declare slaves free, and tantamount to giving the slaves both freedom and the dagger whereby they might kill their masters. Adams voices his own misgivings, not just about the Mis­souri issue, but about the “black cloud” of slavery that hung over America for over 50 years. Like Jefferson, he replies, he can only leave it to posterity, but unlike Jefferson, he leaves it to God as well.

The Realist

There is perhaps no better place to contrast the worldview of Wilberforce with that of Jefferson than to return to Wilberforce’s great vision and how he understood his “two great objects:” abolishing slavery and the reformation of manners.

As we have noted, by “manners” he means nothing less than the moral climate of England-the culture embedded in and shaped by the leaders and members of Brit­ish society at all levels. This is a breathtak­ing vision that could only be the product of a completely youthful idealist or of some­one who actually believed that God, Him­self, had cast the vision and would shape the outcome.

Jefferson would most likely have been appalled that an educated political leader, particularly, would make such a proclama­tion. Jefferson would have viewed such sweeping goals of a political leader as tan­tamount to a declaration of tyranny of the worst sort-seeking to invoke personal re­ligious beliefs on an entire society and he would have categorically opposed any thought that there even was such a thing as the supernatural direction of God for a human life or a government.>

Nevertheless, these two God-inspired goals would be what would animate the rest of Wilberforce’s life and sustain his commitments in the face of the most furi­ous opposition, repeated failure, public de­rision and even the opposition of the crown. What sustained these goals was that Wilberforce held a particular Christian worldview that contrasted sharply even with the prevailing religious beliefs and re­sulting practices of his day.

He believed that slavery would not be abolished without a transformation of the prevailing views of society that went well beyond a single issue. Thus, he viewed the “second great object” as critical to the ac­complishment of the first. In that task, his strategy was to begin with the head, the leaders of society, in persuading them of the need for a radical change of character.

For an under­standing of this perspective he held and which sustained him and his colleagues, the best source is written in his own hand. For, among many other strategies, he took what we might view as an odd turn: he wrote a best selling book. But not just any book, his was a book of practical theology, improb­ably (to our ears) called A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country.

His central thesis was that God’s redemp­tive work in each person’s life was not to be that of the nominal faith so widely prac­ticed in England and among his political colleagues, but a real belief in the historic faith. That faith was revealed best in scripture and was evidenced in daily action and humble service. His own diagnosis of “the grand malady” was not that of the threat of the tyranny of the state, as Jefferson held, but nothing less than selfishness-the tyranny of self gratification above all. In an age where faith was kept on a leash and separate from the crucible of power and choices in life, his was a voice that was unique.

And it had an immediate impact becoming a widely read best seller in both England and later in America. Lincoln was said to have been strongly influenced as a boy by Wilberforce’s life story and later by his writing.

In the end, Wilberforce was to be the champion of over 70 bills that became law leading to vast changes in child labor, the exploitation of women and the poor, and even the first effort to prevent cruelty to animals. The end result was, as one com­mentator observed, “he made it fashion­able to do good.”

Stemming from his Christian worldview was an understanding of what it means to be human that marked another contrast with Jefferson. As we have seen, Jefferson’s view of slaves included that they were to be considered property and that their capaci­ties were limited in potential for absorption into the culture. Once slavery ended in the far off future, Jefferson saw slaves as being returned to Africa. In contrast, Wilberforce’s views of the slaves as persons can perhaps best be described in the strategy discussed in the previous part which he developed with fellow Christian Josiah Wedgewood, the fa­mous designer and manufacturer of presti­gious lines of fine china.

The conversation “starter” of a china charger plate with a kneeling black man, in chains, his hands uplifted in prayer was more than an intriguing gambit. The words on the plate, “Am I not a man and a brother?” were an expression of a central belief that animated Wilberforce and, in that day, were also a distinctively evangeli­cal Christian worldview. It is interesting to speculate what Jefferson’s reaction would have been had he been a guest at Wilberforce’s table.

A Comparative Summary

Our task has been to try to gain an under­standing of what it was that might have shaped the diverging actions of Thomas Jefferson and William Wilberforce as their lives sailed forward from their commit­ments as young, rising politicians. Many possible explanations have presented them­selves along the way under the rubrics of their mentors, their colleagues and support­ers, and their worldviews. We can at this point summarize them comparatively as a way to fill out the entire picture. In the end, there is one last explanation for their divergence that we have yet to touch upon.


  • Early mentors in Enlightened ratio­nalism, removal of tyranny of gov­ernments and religion
  • Colleagues, e.g. Madison, shared common beliefs to work only within “party” and against former support­ers such as Adams; pragmatic regard­ing slavery vs. ambitions
  • Enlightenment worldview of optimistic resolution of slavery in the “next generation”; belief of triumph of right ideas over time
  • View of African slaves as lesser be­ings whose destiny is Africa
  • Societal moral reform through tri­umph of rational structures, educa­tion, removal of all forms of tyranny
  • First Loyalty to Virginia planter class and to the southern planters
  • Unwilling to come under criticism publicly or to give up lifestyle


  • Early mentors influenced Christian beliefs and faith, serving the poor, realities of slavery, and vocation of politics
  • Clapham circle gave encourage­ment of prayer support, persistence, worked across party and belief lines, gave up personal aspirations
  • Christian worldview of redressing societal ills as personal responsibility to God; faith=action, not practices
  • View of African slaves as men made in the image of God and brothers
  • Societal reform through changed hearts and lives and unselfish re­sponsibility
  • First loyalty to God and colleagues in faith
  • Willingness to be vilified and expe­rience economic hardship

Two Legacies

The notion of a person’s legacy in life has taken on much interest in recent decades. It is perhaps most prominently and publicly discussed when the term of a U.S. President is nearing its end and many of the penultimate acts are interpreted by journal­ists as enhancing the leader’s legacy. But what of the legacies of Jefferson and Wilberforce: what did they leave behind for the next generations, and what were their own views of their legacy?

Planned Yet Unanticipated

Interestingly, Jefferson was very fastidious about how he wanted history to remember him, even designing the obelisk he wanted to mark his grave and its inscription:

Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom and Father of the University of Virginia.

He then added, “because of these as testi­monials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.”

It might also be added-with the benefit of our view from history-that he, himself, was mentor to two future leaders and Presidents, both fellow Virginians and neighbors, Madi­son and Monroe. Both would perpetuate Jefferson’s avoidance of the slavery issue as a matter to be resolved politically, despite the growing seriousness of its divisiveness in America north, south, and west. But yet on a personal level, both men would, unlike their patron, free their slaves upon their deaths.

Despite his unarguably superior accom­plishments and visionary leadership, it may be seen that Jefferson’s legacy lies as well in what was not done with the opportunities he had and the consequences of a failure to act in accord with belief. His optimism that history and the intellectual and moral progress of man would resolve the black cloud that hung over them proved wrong. Never would he have foreseen that the lives of over six hundred thousand Americans would be given to keep intact the union his generation had forged and finally resolve the question on which they stood silent for so many years.

Humbly Transforming a Culture

Wilberforce, much like Jefferson, had leaders coming behind him whom he had influenced and who would carry on his work. By 1823, he was obviously becoming frailer and subject to attacks of inflamed lungs (pneumonia?) which laid him low for weeks or months at a time. Yet his two great objectives still animated his life. While the abolition of slavery was gaining momentum, it was by no means complete. He was reluctant to step down feeling he had not done enough.

Nevertheless, he prepared to pass the mantle on to Thomas Buxton, a Quaker M.P., who shared Wilberforce’s views on abolition and who had been a leader in prison reform. Wilberforce saw Buxton almost as much a son as a colleague in the fight. In a letter, he warns Buxton of the difficult road ahead and then shares his own hard earned lessons of leadership:

If it be His will, may he render you an instru­ment of extensive influence . . . [But] above all, may He give the disposition to say at all times “Lord, what wouldest thou have me to do or suffer?” looking to Him, through Christ, for wisdom and strength.

Buxton would go on to introduce the bill, and with Wilberforce supporting and advising him, the last race began that would end liter­ally on Wilberforce’s deathbed when the bill finally passed in 1833.

His own view of his legacy was far differ­ent than Jefferson’s. Despite over 50 years of laboring for the abolition of slavery and championing dozens of worthy causes for op­pressed people, all he could say of himself was “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”

A Final Note

There is one final explanation for the diver­gent outcomes and legacies of the lives of the two men who made early commitments to abolish slavery that may be more telling than any historian has noted to date: the sovereignty of God.

When Wilberforce was first taking up his task, the aged John Wesley wrote to encour­age him and to warn him. “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and dev­ils; but if God be for you who can be against you?” Why God raised up a Wilberforce in England, brought him together with a New­ton, and surrounded him with the Clapham circle during his life, we will never know. We do know it was a sovereign act of grace.

For Jefferson, the belief in sovereignty ran equally strong: the sovereignty of man. It was the central core belief of the Enlightenment that man would ultimately triumph and se­cure moral progress through ideas and through education freed from religious cant. And many in America felt that way in his time. Why God did not raise up a Wilberforce in America and why so many died to end sla­very and leave a legacy that haunts the United States even today is also something we will never know. We do know that the great leaders of the armies of the North and the South, Grant and Lee, acknowledged the provi­dence of God in the outcome and it humbled both men. This, too, we know as a sovereign act of God’s grace. Not why perhaps, but Who.

Even as we have examined these two lives and sought to understand them, we re­main awed by what Wilberforce and his friends were able to accomplish and the legacy they left. Perhaps John Newton draws the conclusion best in a letter he wrote to a young Wilberforce in 1796 urging him to remain in the political vocation and not withdraw from public life. He counseled that God’s grace would be sufficient and that “Happy the man who has a deep im­pression of the Lord’s words, ‘Without me you can do nothing.'” 4 For the next 37 years Wilberforce took that scriptural wisdom to heart. To God be the glory.

Ray Blunt is a Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute as well as the Senior Mentor for discipleship at Ad Fontes Academy.

End Notes

Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline (New York: Currency Doubleday, 1990)

The three-part framework for the discussion in the three papers is drawn from Dr. Steven Garber as set forth in his marvelous book, The Fabric of Faithfulness (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996).Winter 2005
Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams and Jefferson Letters, pp. 570-571.

Adrienne Koch and William Peden, eds., The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, (New York: Random House, 1944), p. ii.

Kevin Belmonte, Hero for Humanity, ( Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), p. 276

John Wesley as cited in Belmonte, p. 138.

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