Tuesday, February 27, 2007
Scott Horton has a long post, over at Balkinization, on William Wilberforce, the anniversary of Parliament's vote to abolish the slave trade, and the role of religion in politics. Here is a bit:
Wilberforce mustered many powerful arguments against the slave trade. At first, he avoided denunciations of the slave traders, and instead appealed to their humanity and inherent sense of justice. Throughout the Napoleonic Wars, Wilberforce was also a persistent advocate of the doctrine of humane warfare and raised his powerful voice repeatedly for the humane treatment of all prisoners taken in time of war. He also mobilized the emerging humanitarian law doctrine of protection for prisoners to oppose the slave trade. A large part of the West Africans impressed into bondage and shipped across the sea to be sold were, he pointed out, actually prisoners taken in warfare on the African continent. As such, he argued, they were entitled to humane treatment which could not be squared with the revolting conditions found on board of the slave trading ships. This shows the close, mutually reinforcing relationship between humanitarian law and human rights law that has continued to this day.
For Wilberforce's campaign, opposition to torture was the critical element. Given Biblical texts which explicitly or implicitly condoned the Peculiar Institution, it was difficult to frame a theological attack on slavery per se. But torture was another matter. The cruel abuse of a human being held in captivity was accepted by Wilberforce and most of his colleagues as an offense against Divine Law. Consequently the slave trade was thought a far more vulnerable target than slavery itself. In Wilberforce's great opening speech of 1789, frequently cited as the most important parliamentary address delivered in that memorable era, he dwelt heavily on the physical conditions of the slave ships: how slaves were stripped naked, bound and shackled, packed into the holds of the ship like sardines in a can, subjected to unbearable fluctuations of heat and cold, given inadequate water and food, deprived of sanitation. In such conditions the slaves screamed in agony, many calling out to be killed to put an end to their misery. And very many, by some reckonings most, expired in the process. Wilberforce's contemporaries readily accepted this thesis: that torture could not be permitted, even torture of slaves whose humanity was doubted. It is curious that today, two centuries later, the notion of slavery is a nonstarter, but torture seems to be accepted as fair grounds for debate. There can be no doubt that William Wilberforce would be appalled to make this discovery.
William Wilberforce may be something of an unwanted model for some of today's human rights advocates. He was an Evangelical Christian and, moreover, a Conservative. He sat for decades as a Tory MP for a Yorkshire constituency in Parliament, and his success comes at least to some extent from his close friendship with William Pitt, the youngest prime minister in Britain's history. But these are, I think, among the traits that make Wilberforce such an important figure for us today. He demonstrates the universality of the human rights message and its appeal across partisan and philosophical boundaries. He demonstrates that a political conservative who builds from traditional religious values, who embraces the joys of private property, who advocates a restrained government of limited powers, has every reason to advocate the cause of human rights. He demonstrates that there are and always were compassionate conservatives - men and women who truly earned this label.
How might Wilberforce's example, and success, inform the pro-life movement?