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March 29, 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 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. . . . 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 mind-set 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 Ataturk abolished it in the '20s and in Saudi Arabia until it was (officially) banned in the '60s, 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. But what was decisive was the way Wilberforce ''murdered'' (in Metaxas' 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.''

More on Wilberforce's campaign for better manners and a stricter public morality at the article.

But continuing with the campaign that would end Western slavery -- forever -- within sixty years, Joesph Laconte notes that some take this anniversary as a (yawn) excuse to damn Britian all the more.

There’s a lesson for politicians and clerics alike: Great social evils are not defeated by mere talk. In the case of abolition, new laws demanded not only diplomacy but the threat—and the use—of military power. Without it, the proclamations and legislative victories might have come to nothing.

To this observer, many Britons seem to harbor a deep and nagging guilt—even self-loathing—for their days of empire and the brutalities that sustained it. Americans could probably benefit, at least on occasion, from a stronger sense of shame. But, facing the post-9/11 threat of Islamic fascism, Britain (and America) cannot afford to indulge in self-flagellation. There are too many cheerless voices eager to demean British identity for their own craven reasons.

This danger is not new; Great Britain faced similar criticisms during another season of national testing. In the darkest hours of 1941—as the British people stood alone against the Nazi juggernaut—a fresh generation of cynics and appeasers condemned the nation for its historical sins. American observer Lynn Harold Hough, a gifted preacher and theologian, took umbrage at them. Hough’s critique, published in April of 1941, is worth quoting at length:

“He [the cynic] reminds us of every evil thing he can find in the history of England since the Norman Conquest…After his best efforts, Britain remains a dull grey against the bitter black of Hitler’s Germany. The history of parliamentary democracy is ignored. The broadening liberties of the British Empire are forgotten. The word imperial is used in such a fashion as to black out intelligence and to set every fact in a false perspective. Nobody—least of all the British—would deny the dark spots in British history. But they do not represent the defining matters in the British tradition.”

Perhaps Andrew Sullivan should ponder the example of Christianist, morally-convicted Wilberforce when he rails against "certainty" and in favor of "doubt." If Wilberforce had any doubt that slavery was a purely evil insitutition without redeeming qualities, we would still would have had it for one hundred or more years.

Hot Air's Vent features a trailer for the film Amazing Grace, all about Wilberforce's campaign against the sourge of slavery.

Michael Gambon, Albert Finney (anyone get those actors confused, or is it just me?) and the persistently good but persistently unknown actor who played Horatio Hornblower so well. (It would help if his name weren't some hodgepodge gibberish of Welsh/Celtic/Retardese.)

Plus villainous actor par excellence Rufus Sewell. I don't know if he plays a villain, but I hope so. He's so good at being a dick.

Looks good. Finally a PC-themed movie I can get behind.

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posted by Ace at 01:26 PM

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