EARLY WILBERFORCE LETTER RE MILITIAS
WILBERFORCE, William (1759–1833), politician, philanthropist, and slavery abolitionist. Autograph letter signed to Rt Hon Henry Dundas, 2 sides of an 8vo bifolium, plus address panel docketed, Clapham 19th May 1794, regarding the arming of the Volunteer Corps “I wish you would talk with Nepean for 3 minutes abt my idea of Governments not giving Pikes but Muskets etc to the Volunteer Corps. He is in some degree in Possession of my Apprehensions on that subject & I cannot but think them of the utmost importance. My eyes hurt me so. I cannot write & I despair of being able to get to speak to you this morning”. The blank corners of the address leaf with two sections torn and cut (probably to open the sealed letter). A scarce item from Wilberforce’s earlier political career.
In March 1794 parliament responded to the invasion threat posed by revolutionary France in passing a Militia Act that called upon ‘gentlemen of weight or property’ throughout the realm to initiate local defence plans that included the establishment of volunteer military formations. Evidently there was some concern by Wilberforce and others about arming the rank and file given the upsurge of the radical movement in Britain at outbreak of the French Revolution on England’s doorstep.
Wilberforce’s correspondent Henry Dundas (1742–1811), was from 1791 home secretary, and amongst other things was responsible for suppressing popular unrest sparked off by the French Revolution, starting with the Birmingham riots of 1791. Dundas’s colleague in the Home Office was under-secretary of state Evan Nepean (1752–1822) and both men were transferred to the War Office in July 1794, Nepean becoming under-secretary for war, and Dundas secretary of state for war.
Wilberforce was in 1793-94 heavily engaged in promoting the abolition of the slave trade, but the outbreak of the French Revolution created a major diversion in parliamentary time and focus towards the threat of invasion. A vote to abolish the slave trade was narrowly defeated by eight votes in 1793 and in 1793 and 1794, Wilberforce unsuccessfully brought before Parliament a bill to outlaw British ships from supplying slaves to foreign colonies (the Foreign Slave Bill). His fame ultimately rested in the successful passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807 abolishing the British slave trade, and the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 abolishing slavery in most of the British Empire.