Poetry and Politics – William Wordsworth’s Changing Attitude towards Slavery

As is well known, slavery was one of the major political issues during the lifetime of the poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy. As they were growing up, the issue was steadily growing in prominence, as increasing numbers of people began to call for the abolition of the slave trade. In 1787, the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed, and both lived long enough to see both the trade and slavery itself abolished. In this article I shall provide an outline of the attitudes of both the poet and his sister towards this issue and towards the abolition movement.

William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson, the two most prominent abolitionist leaders, were lifelong friends of the Wordsworths. In September and October 1818, Wilberforce, his wife and children stayed with the Wordsworths at their home at Rydal Mount, half way between Grasmere and Ambleside. As for Clarkson, between 1794 and 1804, Clarkson (having temporarily retired from campaigning due to exhaustion) and his wife Catherine (née Buck) lived at Eusemere, where the Wordsworths visited them frequently: consequently, their names occur many times in Dorothy’s Grasmere Journal. Catherine Clarkson became a close friend and frequent correspondent of Dorothy, and two of Wordsworth’s children were named Thomas and Catharine, after the Clarksons, who were their godparents. It was while returning to Dove Cottage from the Clarksons’ house on 15th April 1802 that William and Dorothy saw some daffodils on Ullswater, prompting Dorothy’s description in her journal which in turn led Wordsworth to write “I wandered lonely as cloud”.

However, the Wordsworths’ relationship with Clarkson became strained in the 1818 Westmoreland election. In that election, Wordsworth vigorously (and ultimately successfully) campaigned for the Lowther brothers, the hand-picked sons of his Tory patron Lord Lonsdale, against the radical challenger Henry Brougham. Clarkson supported Brougham because, as Wordsworth explained in a letter to Lonsdale on 11th March:

“He [Clarkson], and all the other Slave trade abolitionists, consider themselves as under obligation to Mr B. for having brought in the Bill by which the Traffic in slaves was made felony. This disposed him to favour Mr B. – though he regrets much that he should have opposed your Lordship for whom he has the highest respect [Lonsdale had bought Clarkson’s Eusemere estate when Clarkson moved out of the Lake District].”

Clarkson wrote a letter of support to the chairman of Brougham’s campaign committee, printed in the Kendal Chronicle, which also backed Brougham, on 28th March. In response to this, Wordsworth wrote to Lonsdale on 23rd April:

“Mr Clarkson’s Letter went far beyond the worst of my apprehensions . . . no terms which I could find would be equal to express my concern that it should have been written, and my condemnation of such a writing being published under such circumstances.”

Despite this, the two men eventually reconciled, aided no doubt by the fact that writing the letter was Clarkson’s only contribution to the election campaign.

What were the attitudes of the Wordsworths towards slavery? When they were young, both William and Dorothy supported the abolition of the Atlantic trade. Dorothy was particularly passionate on the subject: on 8th May 1792, after the Home Secretary Henry Dundas had managed to delay abolition, Dorothy wrote to Jane Pollard:

“I hope you were an immediate abolitionist and are angry with the House of Commons for continuing the traffic in human flesh . . . I hate Mr Dundas.”

However, neither Dorothy nor William was active in the abolitionist movement. In a letter to Benjamin Robert Haydon on 10th September 1840, Wordsworth excused himself on this point by saying:

“I was too Little of a Man of Business to have an active part in the Work – Besides my place of Abode would have prevented it, had I been so inclined.”

As Wordsworth’s youthful radicalism fizzled out, however, so did his abolitionism: the house at Racedown where he and Dorothy lived from 1795 to 1798 was owned by John Pinney, a slaveowner.

In 1802, Wordsworth wrote a sonnet, “To Toussaint L’Ouverture”, dedicated to the imprisoned leader of the ultimately successful slave rebellion in the French colony of St. Domingue (now Haiti): however, the poem makes no mention of slavery or even of the rebellion. Instead it presents Toussaint as a passive victim of French tyranny, and it is probably fair to conclude that Wordsworth’s aim is to score points at the expense of Napoleon. Notably, in his implied contrast between tyrannical France and freedom-loving Britain, Wordsworth omits the fact that earlier in the conflict, Britain, in collusion with the planters of St. Domingue, had invaded the colony in an unsuccessful attempt to reinstate slavery (which had been abolished by the revolutionary regime that Wordsworth had so strongly repudiated, before being restored by Napoleon): Toussaint had then fought for France and driven the British out. In addition, Wordsworth urges the “miserable Chieftain” not to resist his imprisonment but to “Wear . . . in thy bonds a cheerful brow” – a very telling comment on Wordsworth’s opinion on how slaves should behave – on the grounds that he has “great allies”, viz., “exultations, agonies/And love, and Man’s unconquerable mind.” At about the same time, Wordsworth wrote another sonnet, “September 1st, 1802”, about a black woman whom he had met who had been expelled from France by Napoleon. Wordsworth portrays this woman in much the same way as Toussaint: “Dejected, weak, yea pitiably tame . . . Nor murmured at the unfeeling Ordinance.” From these two poems it can be inferred that Wordsworth (like many white abolitionists) preferred to see black people as passive, uncomplaining victims, rather than as active human beings who should resist oppression.

As Wordsworth grew older and moved further to the right, his previous opposition to slavery became much more ambivalent. Indeed, he went so far as to express approval of a monument erected in 1846 to Malartic, the former French Governor of Mauritius, who had refused to implement the abolition of slavery and other revolutionary laws: “Long may the finished Monument last as a tribute to departed worth, and as a check and restraint upon intemperate desires for change, to which the Inhabitants of the Island may hereafter be liable.” Most of the “Inhabitants of the Island” were, of course, black ex-slaves.

In a letter to Benjamin Dockray, in whose “view of this important subject I entirely coincide”, on 25th April 1833, as the Slavery Abolition Bill was going through Parliament, Wordsworth insisted that “no man can deplore more than I do a state of slavery in itself. I do not only deplore but I abhor it”, but in fact he spent more time criticising the abolitionists and expressing fears about the consequences of emancipation than on his professed hatred of the institution. He wrote:

“Those who are most active in promoting entire and immediate Abolition do not seem sufficiently to have considered that slavery is not in itself and at all times and under all circumstances to be deplored. In many states of society it has been a check upon worse evils; so much inhumanity has prevailed among men that the best way of protecting the weak from the powerful has often been found in what seems at first sight a monstrous arrangement; viz., in one man having a property in many of his fellows.”

However, Wordsworth did not bother to supply any examples of where slavery truly had served such a noble purpose: rather, the remark indicates his Tory paternalist belief that the rich have responsibilities towards the poor but the poor should not demand equality or equal rights, which also explains his fervent opposition to democracy. Additionally, according to the Wordsworth:

“By no means does it follow . . . that . . . the people of England, who through their legislature have sanctioned and even encouraged slavery, have a right to interfere for its destruction with a sweeping measure, of which an equivalent to the owner makes no part. This course appears to me unfeeling and unjust . . .

“What language, in the first place, would it hold out to the slave? That the property in him had been held by unqualified usurpation and injustice on the part of his master alone. That would be as much as to say, ‘We have delivered him over to you; and as no other party was to blame, deal with your late oppressors as you like.’ Surely such a proceeding would be a wanton outrage upon the feelings of the masters, and poverty, distress, and disorder could not but ensue.”

Quite apart from his concern for the rights of the owners who had whipped, overworked, tortured, killed and raped their slaves with absolute impunity for so long, Wordsworth, in blaming “the people of England . . . through their legislature” for slavery, ignores both widespread popular opposition to slavery in Britain, and also of course the fact that only a small minority of the population could vote in those days – indeed, Wordsworth had strongly opposed even the modest extension of the franchise in the Great Reform Act the previous year.

The Slavery Abolition Act came into force on 1st August 1834. Under its terms, all slaves in the British Empire were to become apprentice labourers – essentially an ameliorated form of slavery – for seven years. Slaveowners received compensation, as Wordsworth advocated, but ex-slaves did not. Abolitionists were not satisfied with this and campaigned for the abolition of apprenticeship, which was achieved on 1st August 1838, three years early. On 25th June 1838, Wordsworth wrote a letter on this subject to William Ewart Gladstone: the future Liberal Prime Minister was then a Conservative, described by Lord Macaulay (who was himself the son of Zachary Macaulay, a leading abolitionist) as “the rising hope of those stern and unbending Tories”, a group to which Wordsworth definitely belonged. Gladstone’s father John was a slaveowner, and consequently Gladstone had voted against abolition and would later support the South in the American Civil War: on 30th March 1838 he made a speech in the House of Commons opposing the abolition of apprenticeship. In the letter Wordsworth wrote:

“Many urgent applications are made to me to sign the Petition that went from Kendal and the neighbourhood, in favour of immediate abolition of negro apprenticeship – I refused to do so, and I am sure I shall never regret that resolution. Your own speech was masterly.”

Wordsworth’s attitudes towards slavery provide a very good index of his changing political views. Just as he moved from being a radical democrat to a reactionary Tory, so on slavery support for abolition gave way to a more ambivalent stance. Though, unlike with his views on democracy, he did not perform a complete U-turn (i.e. becoming an apologist for slavery) it is striking how his main criticisms were made of the abolitionists, not of slavery, and how his concerns were for the rights of the masters, not the slaves: even, as in the cases of Malartic and Gladstone, expressing admiration for anti-abolitionists. It is truly remarkable, in fact, that his changing stance does not seem to have affected his friendship with Clarkson and other abolitionists. Overall, Wordsworth’s opinions on slavery must be seen in the context of his opinions on other political matters: when he was a radical, he wholeheartedly supported abolition, but when his views on democracy and parliamentary representation changed, his view of slavery changed with them, along the same right-wing trajectory.

Liam Physick


  1. A very interesting and informative piece of writing.I had the pleasure of listening first hand at the last nerve meeting and found the story very compelling and well spoken by the reader.


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