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LIFE OF WILLIAM WILBERFORCE BY HIS SONS."
[EDINBURGH REview, 1838.]
These volumes record the Life of a man, who, in an age fertile beyond most others in illustrious characters, reached, by-paths till then unexplored, an eminence never before attained by any private member of the British Parliament. We believe we shall render an acceptable service to our readers, by placing them in possession of a general outline of this biography.
William Wilberforce was born at Hull on the 24th of August, 1759. His father, a merchant of that town, traced his descent from a family which had for many generations possessed a large estate at Wilberfoss, in the East Riding of the county of York. From that place was derived the name which the taste, or caprice of his later progenitors, modulated into the form in which it was borne by their celebrated descendant. His mother was nearly allied to many persons of consideration; amongst whom are numbered the present Bishops of Winchester and Chester, and the members of the great London banking-house, of which Lord Carrington was the head.
The father of William Wilberforce died before his son had completed his tenth year; and the ample patrimony which he then inherited was afterwards largely increased on the death of a paternal uncle, to whose guardianship his child was committed. By that kinsman he was placed at a school in the immediate neighbourhood of his own residence at Wimbledon, in Surry. The following are the characteristic terms in which, at the distance of many years, the pupil recorded his recollections of this first stage of his literary education:—“Mr. Chalmers, the master, himself a Scotchman, had an usher of the same nation, whose red beard, for he scarcely shaved once a month, I shall never forget. They taught French, Arithmetic, and Latin. With Greek we did not much meddle. It was frequented chiefly by the sons of merchants, and they taught therefore every thing, and nothing. Here I continued some time as a parlour
* Life of William Wilberforce. By his sons Robert Isaac Wilberforce. M A., Vicar of East Farlough, late Fellow of the Oriel College; and SAMUEL WILBERFonck, M.A., Rector of Brightstone. 4 vols. 8vo, London, 1838
boarder. I was sent at first among the lodgers, and I can remember, even now, the nauseous food with which we were supplied, and which I could not eat without sickness.” His early years were not, however, to pass away without some impressions more important, if not more abiding, than those which had been left on his sensitive nerves by the ‘red beard of one of his Scotch teachers, and by the ill savour of the dinners of the other. His uncle's wife was a disciple of George Whitfield, and under her pious care he acquired a familiarity with the Sacred Writings, and a habit of devotion of which the results were perceptible throughout the whole of his more mature life. While still a school-boy, he had written several religious letters, “much in accordance with the opinions which he subsequently adopted,” and which, but for his peremptory interdict, the zeal of some indiscreet friend would have given to the world. “If I had stayed with my uncle, I should probably have been a bigoted despised Methodist,” is the conclusion which Mr. Wilberforce formed on looking back to this period, after an interval of nearly thirty years. His mother's foresight, apprehending this result, induced her to withdraw him from his uncle's house, and to place him under the charge of the master of the endowed school at Pocklington, in Yorkshire, a sound and well-beneficed divine, whose orthodoxy would seem to have been entirely unalloyed by the rigours of Methodism. The boy was encouraged to lead a life of idleness and pleasure, wasting his time in a round of visits to the neighbouring gentry, to whom he was recommended by his social talents, especially by his rare skill in singing; while, during his school vacations, the religious impressions of his childhood were combated by a constant succession of such convivial gayeties as the town of Hull could afford. Ill as this discipline was calculated to lay the foundation of good intellectual habits, it was still less adapted to substitute for the excitement and dogmatism of Whitfield's system, a piety resting on a nobler and more secure basis. One remarkable indication, however, was given of the character by which his future life was to be distinguished. He placed in the hands of a schoolfellow, (who survives to record the fact,) a letter to be conveyed to the editor of the York paper, which he stated to be “in condemnation of the odious traffic in human flesh.”—On the same authority he is reported to have “greatly excelled all the other boys in his compositions, though seldom beginning them till the eleventh hour.” From school Mr. Wilberforce was transferred, at the age of seventeen, to St. John's College, Cambridge. We trust that the picture which he has drawn of the education of a young gentleman of fortune, in an English University, towards the close of the last century, will seem an incredible fiction to the present members of that learned society. “The Fellows of the College,” he says, “did not act towards me the part of Christians, or even of honest men. Their object seemed to be to make and keep me idle. If ever I appeared studious, they would say to me—“Why, in the world should a man of your fortune trouble himself with fagging?' I was a good classic, and acquitted myself well in the College examinations, but mathematics, which my mind greatly needed, I almost entirely neglected, and was told that I was too clever to require them.” With such a preparation for the duties of active life, Mr. Wilberforce passed at a single step from the University to the House of Commons. The general election of 1780, occurring within less than a month from the completion of his twenty-first year, “the affection of his townsmen, “not unaided by’ an expenditure of from eight to nine thousand pounds,” placed him at the head of the poll for “the town and county of Hull.” Although at this time Mr. Wilberforce states himself to have been “so ignorant of general society as to have come up to London stored with arguments to prove the authenticity of Rowley's Poems,” yet so rich and so accomplished an aspirant could not long be excluded from the mysteries of the world of fashion which now burst upon him. Five clubs enrolled him among their members. He “chatted, played at cards, or gambled” with Fox, Sheridan, and Fitzpatrick—fascinated the Prince of Wales by his singing at Devonshire House—produced inimitable imitations of Lord North's voice and manner—sang catches with Lord Sandwich—exchanged epigrams with Mrs. Creeve—partook of a Shaksperian dinner at the Boar, in East Cheap—“shirked the Duchess of Gordon"—and danced till five in the morning at Almack's. The lassitude of fashionable life was effectually relieved by the duties or amusements of a Parliamentary career, not unattended by some brilliant success. Too rich to look to public service as a means of subsistence, and, at this period, ambitious rather of distinction than of eminence, Mr. Wilberforce enjoyed the rare luxury of complete independence. Though a decided opponent of the North American war, he voted with Lord North against Sir Fletcher Norton's re-election as Speaker, and opposed Mr. Pitt on the second occasion of his addressing the House, although he was already numbered amongst the most intimate of his friends. This alliance, commenced apparently at the
University, had ripened into an affectionate union which none of the vicissitudes of political life could afterwards dissolve. They partook in each other's labours and amusements, and the zest with which Mr. Pitt indulged in these relaxations, throws a new and unexpected light on his character. They joined together in founding a club, at which, for two successive winters, Pitt spent his evenings, while, at Mr. Wilberforce's villa at Wimbledon, he was established rather as an inmate than as a guest. There he indulged himself even in boisterous gayety; and it strangely disturbs our associations to read of the son and rival of Lord Chatham rising early in the morning to sow the flower-beds with the fragments of a dress-hat with which Lord Harrowby had come down from the opera. There also were arranged fishing and shooting parties; in one of which the future champion of the anti-Gallican war narrowly escaped an untimely grave from the misdirected gun of his friend. On the banks of Windermere, also, Mr. Wilberforce possessed a residence, where the Parliamentary vacation found him “surrounded with a goodly assortment of books.” But the discovery was already made that the actumnal ennui of the fashionable world might find relief among the lakes and mountains of Westmoreland, and “boating, riding, and continual parties” fully occupied the time which had been devoted to retirement and study. From these amici fures temporis Mr. Wilberforce escaped, in the autumn of 1783, to pass a few weeks with Mr. Pitt in France. They readily found introductions to the supper table of Marie Antoinette, and the other festivities of Fontainbleau. Louis XVI. does not appear to have made a very flattering impression on his young guests. “The King,” says Mr. Wilberforce, in a letter written about that time, “is so strange a being of the hog kind, that it is worth going a hundred miles for a sight of him, especially a boar-hunting.” At Paris “he received with interest the hearty greetings which Dr. Franklin tendered to a rising member of the English Parliament, who had opposed the American war.” Graver cares awaited Mr. Wilberforce's return to England. He arrived in time to second Mr. Pitt's opposition to the India Bill, and to support him in his memorable struggle against the majority of the House of Commons. The Coalition was now the one subject of popular invective; and, at a public meeting in the Castle-yard at York, in March, 1784, Mr. Wilberforce condemned their measures, in a speech which was received with the loudest applause. The praise of James Boswell is characteristic at once of the speaker and of the critic. In an account of the scene which he transmitted to Mr. Dundas, “I saw,” writes Boswell, “what seemed a mere shrimp, mount upon the table, but, as I listened, he grew and grew, until the shrimp became a whale.” A still more convincing attestation to his eloquence is to be found in the consequences to which it led. Mr. Wilberforce attended the meeting with the avowed purpose of defeating, at the approaching election, the predominant influence of the