February 29, 2008
Dear Fellow Republican:
Tuesday night I finished the book “Amazing Grace” by Eric Metaxes. It is a uniquely written biography of William Wilberforce and it was the basis of the movie of the same name put out last year. I have enjoyed reading books again since my last campaign ended at the end of 2007, and this book was one of the best I’ve ever read.
For those of you that are not familiar with William Wilberforce, he lived from 1759 to 1833 and his life was an incredible journey, one that would be of particular interest to any legislator, as he was an MP, a member of parliament, from 1780, entering at the age of 21 and prior to graduating from Cambridge, until 1825. That’s almost as long as Delegate Lacey Putney has been in the House of Delegates!
Wilberforce is best known for his work to abolish the slave trade and then to abolish slavery itself in the British Empire. Having taken up the cause in 1787, he doggedly pursued the abolition of the inhuman slave trade for 20 years. He finally succeeded in 1807, one year before our own U.S. Constitution called for the same abolition in America. But unlike America, Wilberforce kept pushing to abolish the entire institution of slavery for the rest of his parliamentary career.
Throughout his marathon political battle against slavery, Wilberforce faced overwhelming resources arrayed against him, both financial and political, at every step of his journey. He freely acknowledged that the only way that he could have possibly carried on for so long was the inspiration of his faith.
In 1785, 5 years after entering parliament, Wiberforce was what we would call today “born again” in his Christian faith. It very quickly changed not only his own life, as he gave up much of his drinking, card playing and other frivolous ways, but he also saw the world with fresh eyes. It was only then that he began to recognize the significance and severity of some of the problems in the world around him – foremost among them being slavery, though there were many other issues as well. And unlike many of his day, he acted on his newfound realization.
First and most famously among his targets was slavery. In the mid-1780s, Britain was a place that truly looked down on anyone who was seriously religious. Such people were looked upon much like the Washington Post views evangelicals today, with about as much basis in fact to do so. Nonetheless, by the late 1780s, Wilberforce was what we would call an evangelical Christian who was nakedly arguing that Christianity demanded that Britain abolish the slave trade. Think of how much the Washington Post would appreciate such an argument for anything today, and you get an idea of how Wilberforce was received as he started his greatest legislative journey.
It is worth noting that just as Wilberforce was concerned with ending slavery, he was also concerned about what the slave trade did to its participants. In fact, the Privy Council of Great Britain and then the House of Commons itself undertook to include the effects of the slave trade on its participants in its studies of the slave trade. What they found was surprising. The slave trade was shockingly destructive of the sailors that were taking and shipping the slaves from Africa to the West Indies. In just a few short years, overwhelming majorities of people employed in the trade were themselves reduced to little more than soulless brutes, incapable or barely capable of ordinary, civilized interaction with their fellow man.
In short, any lengthy exposure to the slave trade was utterly dehumanizing. Thus, Wilberforce sought to regulate various aspects of the slave trade for the sake of those that were in it, whom he also cared deeply about, while at the same time keeping up the pressure to abolish the trade entirely.
Early in his effort against the slave trade, Wilberforce challenged his fellow Britons in words to the effect of “What does the slave trade say about us as a people? What does our countenance of this barbarism say about our nation? What does our inaction say about each of us? What is our duty in this matter?”
He well knew in his own mind the answer to these questions, and so he acted.
This brings me to the Virginia Senate.
This morning, as has happened just about every year that I have been here, a set of good and straightforward legislative efforts to address various aspects of the abortion issue died in the Education and Health Committee – again.
Rather than re-argue the merits of any particular piece of legislation, I would rhetorically pose the question to every legislator to consider the same sort of questions about abortion and our nation and Commonwealth that Wilberforce asked about his nation and its Commonwealth: “What does the abortion industry say about us as a people? What does our countenance of abortion say about our nation? What does our inaction say about each of us?” And last, but not least, “what is our duty in this matter?”
I have not always held the position I do today on the life issue. There was a time that I questioned the government’s role in abortion. Then, one day, during an ordinary lunch conversation with some political friends in the early 1990s, I noted my understanding that life begins at conception. With that, one of my colleagues leaned over to me and asked a simple question, which he left me to answer: “If you believe that it’s a human life, don’t you have a moral obligation to defend it?”
I had never thought of it that way, but it was an easy question to answer when it was cast in that light. And with one thoughtful question, my position on the protection of the unborn was forever changed.
Wilberforce was on to something in his approach to his opponents (and the disinterested), and I wonder if similar introspection about life and abortion in our nation and in our Commonwealth – particularly in the Virginia Senate – might change the hearts of some legislators? Wilberforce offers us a model worth imitating, and despite setbacks like this morning in the Senate’s Ed & Health Committee, one of the greatest lessons from Wilberforce – perseverance – will serve us all well as we work in the long term to change the course of Virginia toward a greater respect for life and the families that sustain and nurture life.
Well, that’s tonight’s “Deep Thought” (not from Jack Handy*), gotta get some sleep to keep fighting tomorrow!
Senator Ken Cuccinelli
Virginia 37th District
* Jack Handy was a fake author from Saturday Night Live when it used to be funny.
Others can sign up for The Compass at Senator Cuccinelli’s website at: