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Use the Wilberforce

England's angst-filled celebration of the abolition of slavery.

12:00 AM, Mar 29, 2007 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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THERE WERE FEARFUL LOOKS as a lone protestor disrupted the solemn service at Westminster Abbey marking the 200th anniversary of the Parliamentary act to abolish the slave trade. "This is an insult to us," shouted Toyin Agbetu, campaigner for an organization promoting African-British identity. "You are a disgrace to our ancestors." Attendees--including the queen, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams--seemed stunned and anguished by the unscripted spasm of rage.

It was, in fact, an entirely predictable episode. The clamoring for apologies and reparations for slavery in England during recent weeks--stoked by steady coverage from the BBC--made Tuesday's incident almost inevitable. Last week, for example, London Mayor Ken Livingstone dismissed the contribution of parliamentarian William Wilberforce in defeating the slave trade and demanded national contrition. Livingstone called on all Londoners to repent their "squalid" evasion of guilt. In an op-ed for the Guardian, he summoned all residents to join him in "formally apologizing for London's role in this monstrous crime."

Similarly, Anglican leader John Sentamu used the BBC One Sunday program to call on the government to apologize. The second most senior cleric in the Church of England told the interviewer that Britain "should have the sense of saying we are very sorry and we have to put the record straight." (Several months ago, in fact, Tony Blair called Britain's role in the slave trade "profoundly shameful"; earlier this month he expressed "deep sorrow" for its support of the institution.)

Meanwhile, activist groups and politicians ratcheted up demands that government payments be made to the descendants of slaves. After debating a reparations advocate on BBC 24, Baroness Caroline Cox warned the House of Lords: "I hope that we will not allow the celebration of the year of [Wilberforce's] achievement to be a condemnation of our failures."

That hope appears to be fading. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking to BBC's Radio 4, seemed inclined toward a scheme of faith-based compensation. "I haven't got a quick solution to that," said Rowan Williams. "I think we need to be asking the question and working at it." In his address at Westminster Abbey, the archbishop stressed the economic debt that modern-day Britain incurred from its exploitation of African slaves. "We, who are heirs of the slave-owning and slave-trading nations of the past, have to face the fact that our historic prosperity was built in large part on this atrocity."

THANKFULLY, the explicitly Christian dimension to the anniversary--the efforts of Wilberforce and his Clapham Sect--is getting renewed attention. Films such as Amazing Grace, which opened last weekend in London, and new Wilberforce biographies by Eric Metaxas and Conservative MP William Hague make the Christian inspiration for abolition compellingly clear. (To be fair, the BBC Online also takes note of Wilberforce's evangelical faith.)

Yet lost amid the din of apology talk are some provocative historical facts. Britain was not only was the first major European country to criminalize the slave trade after 1807: In the words of William Hague, the British government "lobbied, bullied, and bribed other nations" to get in line with the new policy. Between 1810 and 1850, the British Navy freed nearly 120,000 slaves--an effort that proved hazardous to the officers and seamen involved. "It was the Royal Navy who bravely enforced the abolition," Hague told members of Parliament. "And so the moral case, once made and enshrined in the law, was upheld over the coming decades through a commitment to international diplomacy and the application of British force."

There's a lesson for politicians and clerics alike: Great social evils are not defeated by mere talk. In the case of abolition, new laws demanded not only diplomacy but the threat--and use--of military power. Without it, the proclamations and legislative victories might have come to nothing.

Many Britons seem to harbor a nagging guilt--even self-loathing--about their days of empire. But, facing the post-9/11 threat of Islamic fascism, Britain (and America) cannot afford to indulge in self-flagellation. There are too many cheerless voices eager to demean British identity for their own craven reasons.

This danger is not new; Britain faced similar criticisms during another season of national testing. In the darkest hours of 1941--as the British people stood alone against the Nazi juggernaut--a fresh generation of cynics and appeasers condemned the nation for its historical sins. American observer Lynn Harold Hough, a gifted preacher and theologian, took umbrage at them. Hough's critique, published in April of 1941, is worth quoting at length:

[The cynic] reminds us of every evil thing he can find in the history of England since the Norman Conquest. . . . After his best efforts, Britain remains a dull grey against the bitter black of Hitler's Germany. The history of parliamentary democracy is ignored. The broadening liberties of the British Empire are forgotten. The word imperial is used in such a fashion as to black out intelligence and to set every fact in a false perspective. Nobody--least of all the British--would deny the dark spots in British history. But they do not represent the defining matters in the British tradition.

Great Britain's audacious decision to forcibly end the slave trade is part of the uplifting narrative of that tradition. This American, at least, is grateful for that supremely moral act and the freedoms it promoted, on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond.

Joseph Loconte, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is host of the London-based television/internet program < href="" rel="nofollow">"Britain and America." His most recent book is The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm.