A Very Good Year
by Mike Metzger
June 23, 2008
When Henry Kissinger reportedly asked former Chinese leader Chou En Lai whether the French Revolution of 1789 had benefited humanity, Chou replied: “It’s too early to tell.” It’s too early to tell which events in 2008 will change the world. But next year – 2009 – marks the 250-year anniversary when several threads began to be stitched together in a network that would benefit humanity. 1759? Yes, it was a very good year.
The year was good for Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), the 12th child of potter Thomas Wedgwood. Josiah came from a long line of potters, including his grandfather and great-grandfather. Yet when his oldest brother Thomas refused Josiah a place in the family business, Wedgwood apprenticed under the preeminent English potter of the day, Thomas Whieldon. In 1759 Josiah started his own pottery business and the name Wedgwood soon became synonymous with fine English ceramics and elegant pottery.
1759 was also a good year for Robert and Elizabeth Wilberforce. They had a son named William (1759-1833) who would later serve in Parliament with an eye on becoming Britain’s Prime Minister. William’s ambitions however underwent a “great change” that began in 1784 and culminated on Easter of 1786. He came to embrace evangelical Christianity. Wilberforce’s conversion in turn led to his two “great objects” in life: the cause of abolition and moral reform of Great Britain. They were the unswerving focus of Wilberforce’s forty-five years of public life.1 Yet it almost didn’t happen, since Wilberforce at first imagined politics was incompatible with God. Friends humbly submitted that he pursue both. Wilberforce would later record in his journal: “My walk… is a public one; my business is in the world, and I must mix in the assemblies… or quit the part which Providence seems to have assigned me.” 2
1759 was also the year that Arthur Guinness signed a lease at £45 per annum for an unused brewery. He started brewing ales at the St. James Gate Brewery, Dublin, Ireland and the rest, as they say, is history. But the rest of this story, including how Wedgwood, Wilberforce, and Guinness were stitched together, might not be familiar to you. It’s why 1759 was a very good year.
The Guinness family tree has many branches, including the famous Guinness Book of Records. There are also limbs covered with Christians who have advanced the faith for many years. This includes one of today’s preeminent authors, Os Guinness. But way back in 1811, Arthur Guinness II and William Wilberforce met over a meal. Wilberforce’s diary entry in April 1811 reads as follows: “April 27th. At breakfast had a number of people – Mr. Guinness, of Dublin, about [his] Irish brewery.” They may have discussed nothing beyond beer (Why not? Franklin – who spent the summer of 1759 schlepping around Scotland – said beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to prosper). Yet it’s just as likely that Wilberforce tried to stitch Guinness into the abolitionist network. He certainly did so with Josiah Wedgwood I.
By the late 1780s, Wedgwood pottery was part and parcel with English high society. Wilberforce saw the need to engage these influential leaders, so he enlisted Josiah Wedgwood I to make a plate displaying a slave in shackles asking the question: “AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER?” Wilberforce and his colleagues used this as a “conversation launcher” to reframe how friends and foes imagined slavery. By stitching Wedgwood into the network, Wilberforce’s movement benefited humanity.
This is why 1759 was a very good year. It reminds us that movements benefiting humanity are not the work of individual, celebrity heroes but social networks. Weaving together these networks starts small and takes time. This is why so few commemorate 1759 – but it was a unique year. Seventy-four years later, in 1833, the entire English Slave Trade was abolished.
This is why 2008 might one day be recognized as a very good year. On March 30th, the Run for Freedom was launched in Bermuda. It was held in conjunction with the annual Run for Freedom that began in London in 2006, marking the bicentenary of the first Slave Trade Act. These marathons are part of an initiative aimed at abolishing the modern day slave trade – larger today than in Wilberforce’s day. One of the chief spokespersons is a 28 year-old woman who is South African by birth. Her name is Charlotte Wilberforce. Yes, the great-great-great-granddaughter of William Wilberforce. It’s too early to tell whether this campaign will one day benefit humanity. But it’s trying to stitch together similar social networks as Wilberforce did, so that the 700,000 children and women currently trafficked around the world in slavery might enjoy many good years. To join the network, go to www.geocities.com/runforfreedom/london_bermuda.html.
1 Sir Reginald Coupland, Wilberforce, A Narrative (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press), p. 251.
2 The vision for these two tasks was noted in his personal journal on October 28, 1787.