Jefferson and Wilberforce: Leaders Who Changed Their Times with Lessons for Ours

Ray Blunt discusses the leadership of Jefferson and Wilberforce.
Reading Time: 6 minutes

In the beginning there was a triangle – an unholy triangle- a three sided journey by ship that brought unsurpassed wealth to millions for over four centuries. From the 15th to the 19th century, the unholy triangle held sway over the Christian European nations and the Americas, aided and abetted by Muslim slave traders and pagan fellow countrymen who participated in the joint rape of humanity in Africa.

In its wake it brought forth a growing number of apologists and supporters, from merchants to clerics. Slavery even altered the theological interpretation of what it meant to be a human being brought forth on earth by a Creator. As it shuddered reluctantly to an end, the unholy triangle gave birth to a conflict so intense that nations were desperately divided internally and externally. In America alone, for four years, the largest cataclysm in its history watered the soil with the blood of more than 600,000 of its own before it ended. It all began with a simple yet unholy triangle finally broken by the courageous persistence of great leaders.

This African Diaspora dwarfed anything in history. Ten million? Fifteen? Twenty? There is no completely reliable source and little agreement as record keeping was spotty. But the results are known: a human degradation and a genocide that rivals the Holocaust in its inhumanity to a group of people. The groans and prayers of millions were seemingly unheard. A culture of selfish cruelty was aided and abetted by a culture of indifference.

Yet, history, much like nature, has a way of balancing extremes. There was another beginning, two beginnings really, that occurred in the midst of the relentlessness of the unholy triangle— beginnings that would ultimately signal its demise.

Innocuously enough, the end began with the cry of two small babies born across the Atlantic, far from each other, where the unholy triangle ground out its victims while it enriched its beneficiaries. It was these two tiny newborns that would have ears to hear what others so long ignored.

The crushing of the triangle is an unprecedented lesson from history that saw slavery abolished and nations and cultures transformed for the good, if not the perfect. From these stories we can learn a lesson in leadership and preparing leaders that can transform lives and even nations. In the course of this story we will attempt to answer one compelling question—a question every classical Christian school should be asking itself:

What is it that shapes a leader from youth to maturity who will persist in a great cause through all adversity to serve the common good of others?

William Wilberforce and Thomas Jefferson would become linked forever, in their beginnings and in their endings; in the work of their lives and in their legacies. While they never met or communicated directly, they were destined to become leaders deeply implicated in shattering the unholy triangle and changing their nations’ cultures, though in vastly different ways.

Two men of the same era, separated by an ocean, later united in their against-the-grain antipathy toward slavery, entered life in remarkably similar ways. Thomas Jefferson was born April 13, 1743; William Wilberforce 16 years later, on August 24, 1759. Each came from famous bloodlines when such things mattered far more than today. They shared a privileged family background along with the high expectations that such a heritage brought, and each was raised in nominal Anglican surroundings. Each was to have a classical education and a end great universities. But they also shared a common tragedy: they lost their fathers at a critical time in their lives.

At his death, Peter Jefferson left his young scion land and property at his maturity; the most valuable of all his property—so declared by the Commonwealth of Virginia—was his slaves. Jefferson’s father also left something he would come to highly value much more in later life. Peter Jefferson insisted that his son receive a classical education in the poetry, philosophy, and the drama of ancient Greece and Rome. While Thomas Jefferson also became a recognized scientist of a new age, later serving for eighteen years as President of the American Philosophical Society, his own words describe the impact of his father’s bequest: “I thank him on my knees, him who directed my early education, for having put into my possession this rich source of delight; and I would not exchange it for anything which I could then have acquired…”

For two years young Thomas studied under a classical scholar and clergyman, Rev. William Maury, and at the age of 17, this tall, bookish, red- haired lover of the outdoors entered The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. What the teenaged Jefferson began to learn under Maury and continued to be steeped in at William and Mary opened up for him a lifetime of thought and a love of learning that he practiced even in his later years.

Though his father’s death left behind a young man yet to be fully formed, it was when he entered The College of William and Mary that he would find the mentors he so badly needed in the absence of Peter Jefferson. These older mentors would do more to shape his approach to leadership and to influence his thinking about life than anyone or anything: Professor William Small and attorney and statesman George Wythe. Both men embodied the heady draught of the new Enlightenment.

An ocean away, William Wilberforce had a similarly privileged upbringing in the port city of Hull where his father and grandfather were wealthy merchants who profited from the lucrative Baltic trade and the protection of the world’s leading navy. Like Jefferson, his lineage was superior. Where Jefferson was a tall and a robust outdoors loving boy, Wilberforce as a boy and man was tiny, prone to sickness with very poor eyesight. Nevertheless he had a brilliant mind and a luminous personality that made an early impression on adults. He also had an unusual compassion for others.

At a younger age than Jefferson, Wilberforce also experienced the wrenching death of his father, Robert, when he was nine. He would also find himself independently wealthy at the age of twenty- one. Shortly after her husband’s death, his mother became extremely ill and young William was sent to live in London with his aunt and uncle, Hannah and William Wilberforce, first-born son of the Alderman. It was within that fondly remembered London circle that he would meet the man who was to become his lifelong mentor: the converted slave boat captain and now evangelical pastor, John Newton. Newton was the embodiment of the Christian worldview that shaped Wilberforce so profoundly after a dalliance with the world while a student at Cambridge.

Thomas Jefferson and William Wilberforce would forever change the way we look at freedom and humanity. Their journeys, while diverging more as time went on, would take them to world prominence and link them inextricably to the transformation of their times. Yet they were also children of their times, shaped by them, and reacting (as many young men do) against them. The context for both future leaders consisted of revolution, war, great human inequality, and great indifference by leaders. It was a time when slavery was seen as irreplaceable to national prosperity and its abolition tantamount to surrendering to their powerful enemies. Abolition was simply impossible to consider in England or America.

Yet, both young men would choose a career in politics and slavery as a common cause as neophyte representatives in the great halls of legislation. Their first attempts were predictable and personally repudiating failures. The road to success for both young men would seemingly not lie with taking on this entrenched and volatile challenge.

Nevertheless, as their prominent careers advanced to maturity in the last quarter of the 18th and the first quarter of the 19th century, both men would continue in one way or another to be linked to the abolition of slavery. One man would see slavery abolished in his country, literally on his death- bed. The other would die knowing slavery in his country had grown six fold in his lifetime yet still believing fervently it would one day end, and that he had done all that could be done.

The story of how they were shaped as leaders, how they acted as leaders over their extraordinary lifetimes is a story not only of remarkable commonality but puzzling divergence. The question posed at the outset is a question to be answered for those who would prepare the next generation of leaders; for those who would be the leaders who change the organizations, cultures and even nations of today.

What we see in these stories is the remarkable impact that mentors have on the formation of the young; how the communities around us shape and sustain us; then, particularly, how the world- views we live out shape our lives and our choices of action. It is primarily in the Enlightenment worldview of Jefferson and the Christian worldview of Wilberforce that we can see why they took different paths after tasting early defeat, each becoming the embodiment of that worldview for their times.