STEPHEN SMITH: Metaxas Book Well-Worth Reading
When Abe Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," he's reported to have remarked, "So this is the little lady who wrote the big book that made this great war."
Lincoln's observation was a half-truth in the service of flattery. If we acknowledge that the Civil War was in part a result of the unresolved slavery question in the United States, we also have to acknowledge that our British cousins had already dealt with the slavery question without resorting to violence on the scale of Gettysburg, etc.
Certainly the British example empowered anti-slavery advocates in this country, Stowe and "Uncle Tom's Cabin" notwithstanding.
The name Lincoln should have spoken when alluding to the slavery question was William Wilberforce, the British MP who was the catalyst, along with Thomas Clarkson, Charles James Fox, Henry Thornton, Thomas Fowell Buxton, et al, for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.
Eric Metaxas' "Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery" (Harper San Francisco, 281 pages, $21.95) is the best biography of the man whose perseverance and eloquence brought about a peaceful end to a thoroughly evil institution.
Since Wilberforce isn't a household name in this country, here are the basic facts relating to his life:
Born into a wealthy merchant family, Wilberforce attended English public schools and was educated at St. John's College, Cambridge, where he enjoyed an active and somewhat boisterous social life.
After graduating, he was elected a Member of Parliament in 1780. After undergoing a spiritual transformation in 1785, Wilberforce became the leader of a committee dedicated to the abolition of slavery, a cause that would occupy his many talents for the remainder of his life.
The story of Wilberforce's political journey is fraught with setbacks and plot twists that would have disheartened a lesser man. But his skills as a politician and orator served him well, and eventually Wilberforce was successful in eliminating slavery -- three days after his death in 1833.
If you're already familiar with Wilberforce's story -- or if you've seen the "Major Motion Picture" advertised on the dust jacket -- is there reason to read Metaxas' biography? Happily, yes.
Metaxas is one of those rare writers whose skill in crafting prose serves to propel the reader through a story that might otherwise lose American readers. Moreover, his understanding and straightforward grasp of English history of the period brings Wilberforce and his peers to life.
"It was also believed -- naively, we now realize -- that abolishing the trade would force the planters in the West Indies to treat their slaves better. There being no fresh supply, they would be forced to take care not to work their slaves to death, as they had certainly been doing; they would also be forced to see that the women were healthy enough to bear children and to care for them.
"The lives of the slaves on the West Indian sugar plantations, if it can be believed, were far worse than the lives of most of the slaves in colonial America. Raising sugar cane and harvesting it was one of the most brutal activities imaginable. The planters indeed worked their slaves to death -- and then bought new ones."
Metaxas effortlessly wields the language and weaves the most complicated concepts into a perfect story. His obvious love and respect for his subject is obvious in every syllable, and the discerning reader will likely be compelled to reread this completely satisfying biography.
Stephen Smith can be reached at email@example.com.
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