James Basker, Professor of Literary History at Barnard College, is the president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which recently began featuring an online exhibit, “Wilberforce, Lincoln, and the Abolition of Slavery.” In light of the new attention being drawn to Wilberforce, the subject of the new movie Amazing Grace, we thought this would be a good time to interview Mr. Basker, the editor of Amazing Grace: An Anthology of Poems about Slavery 1660-1810 (2002), Early American Abolitionists: A Collection of Anti-Slavery Writings 1760-1820 (2005), and Slavery in the Founding Era: Literary Contexts (2005).
1. Americans are soon going to be hearing a lot about William Wilberforce after the movie Amazing Grace appears. I haven’t seen it, but I take it you have. Is this Wilberforce as he really was?
Of course the film takes creative liberties — Wilberforce was a tiny man with a crooked nose, for example, not the dashingly handsome movie star who plays him in the film. But overall the film captures the dramatic story, the psychological intensity, the political and economic tensions of the abolition campaign, and the heroic persistence, to the point of physical self-ruin, that Wilberforce brought to it.
2. Is it important that Americans know more about Wilberforce?
Yes, because he was part of a transatlantic abolition movement led by people in both America and England that dates back to the 1780s, and even earlier. We forget that Anthony Benezet, the Philadelphia activist, began writing pamphlets against slavery as early as 1759 and that Vermont abolished slavery in its constitution in 1777. We might otherwise think that the struggle had only begun with William Lloyd Garrison in the 1820s, or Frederick Douglass in the 1830s, or Harriet Beecher Stowe in the 1850s. Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and countless other anti-slavery figures of the 19th century remembered Wilberforce well, and were inspired by his example. The struggle has deep historical roots.