Magazine article The Human Life Review

Zeal Plus Prudence Equals Effectiveness

Magazine article The Human Life Review

Zeal Plus Prudence Equals Effectiveness

Article excerpt


William Wilberforce:

The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner

William Hague (Harcourt, 582 pp., $35)

William Wilberforce was the pivotal member of the British Parliament who led the 45-year political campaign to abolish the slave trade and emancipate the slaves. The 2007 movie Amazing Grace portrays only the first 20 years of that struggle, 1787-1807, when the target was the slave trade. But Wilberforce and his allies devoted much of the next 25 years, 1807-33, to the abolition of slavery itself.

After three biographies - Coupland, Furneaux, and Pollock - in me 20th century, and two more - Belmonte and Metaxas - in the past few years, I was skeptical that another biography of William Wilberforce was needed.

But William Hague, the former leader of the Conservative Party in Britain, supplies at least two compelling elements that no previous biographer has brought to the study of Wilberforce - the keen political insight of an experienced member of Parliament and what is easily the best concluding synthesis of Wilberforce's enormous qualities and the reasons for his success.

Other biographers devote more attention to Wilberforce's family life, his numerous philanthropic projects, his network that reached into virtually every sector of British society, his strategy to reform the morals of the upper classes, his evangelical faith, and his perseverance in the face of lifelong chronic illnesses. Hague does a fine job of concisely treating all of these, but what Hague provides is a true political biography - and he manages to do this without disregarding Wilberforce's faith and me transforming power that it had in his personal and political life.

For those who are interested in how political movements succeed, Hague explains how Wilberforce became an extraordinary political leader, his significance in the context of the broader antislavery movement, and how his legislative and political strategy was eventually successful over five decades.

Hague uses the word "prudence" only once, but his entire analysis is informed by that moral and intellectual virtue. Prudence is practical wisdom. Revered by Socrates, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas as the preeminent of the four cardinal virtues, prudence has, in our time, either been buried in clichés ("settling for half a loaf," "getting what you can get") or confused with other terms (moderation, caution, gradualism, incrementalism).

As an intellectual virtue, political prudence challenges political leaders and activists with four questions: Are they pursuing good goals? Do they exercise wise judgment as to what's possible? Do they successfully connect means to ends? Do they preserve the possibility of future progress when the ideal cannot be immediately achieved?

To achieve some political good in this world of limits and constraints, zeal is necessary but never sufficient. Political activists often have zeal in abundance but lack prudence - practical political wisdom. Prudence requires an acute understanding of the obstacles facing political leaders.

What Hague brings to his study of Wilberforce is precisely this acute understanding of political context and constraints. …

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