A painting of William Wilberforce, with his tilted head and kind eyes observing (I imagine) progressive movements for centuries after him, lends insight into his incredible character, which is particularly relevant for health care reform advocates this week in light of Tuesday’s Massachusetts election.
Wilberforce, a social reformer who lived from the late 18th to the mid-19th century, was a man of conviction, love and perseverance. He was a deep thinker, an intelligent diplomat and a man passionate about Jesus Christ — and his life and legacy in terms of his involvement in abolishing the slave trade consistently reflects those values.
I mention Wilberforce, not because of his eventual success in causing the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 and abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833, but because of his resilience in the face of failure and his tenacious perseverance even when the demise of his vision seemed inevitable.
In his biographical article about Wilberforce, “The ‘shrimp’ who stopped slavery,” Christopher D. Hancock describes Wilberforce’s heroic struggle to abolish the slave trade, writing, Wilberforce’s “bill to abolish the trade was defeated in 1791 (by 163 to 88) because a slave uprising in Santo Domingo made MPS nervous about granting freedom to slaves. Further defeats followed in 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805.”
That certainly doesn’t sound like a glamorous or popular national movement. Wilberforce and his supporters suffered one defeat after another, year after year after year. But Wilberforce refused to give up. In response to the failure of his bill in 1791, he said, “Let us not despair; it is a blessed cause, and success, ere long, will crown our exertions. Already we have gained one victory; we have obtained, for these poor creatures, the recognition of their human nature, which, for a while was most shamefully denied. This is the first fruits of our efforts; let us persevere and our triumph will be complete.”
No Parliamentary defeat, ideological opposition, or setback would arrest Wilberforce’s will to see his vision come to fruition. Wilberforce believed in his cause, and he believed in the human potential to affect change in his country — despite his detractors’ arguments, despite his defeat.
Why? Wilberforce knew he had a moral obligation to end the slave trade; he truly believed in his cause. And in 1833, three days before his death, Wilberforce’s vision came to pass. Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. It was an incredible achievement and a precursor for moral change throughout the world — 30 years before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States.
Like Wilberforce, Democrats have suffered a significant setback in the loss of Ted Kennedy’s seat in the Senate to Republican Scott Brown. That seat hasn’t been held by a Republican since 1952. But now, because they have lost their filibuster-proof majority, Democrats seem to have already thrown in the towel on any health care reform bill which would include a public option.
Sen. Barney Frank (D-MA) said Tuesday night, “It would be wrong substantively and politically for Democrats to try to pass the (health reform) bill despite the election. I think we now have to begin some negotiations over a different bill.’’
Translated out of political lingo, Frank is proposing that Democrats compromise with Republicans on an entirely new bill, one which probably will not include a public option. And my guess is that President Obama will also support such action.
They don’t seem to realize that they have a moral obligation to pursue public option health care — just as Wilberforce and his supporters had a moral obligation to pursue the abolition of the slave trade. According to a Harvard Medical study, 45,000 people die every year because they lack health insurance, and even more are drowned in medical bills.
If Wilberforce had settled with his detractors for an abolitionist bill that merely decried the slave trade and did nothing to ameliorate those conditions, history would not have remembered him. If Democrats allow Tuesday’s setback to redirect their agenda, history will not forgive them.