Two Unitarian Members of Parliament who campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade

William Smith (1756-1835) – a leading Unitarian in the Anti-Slavery campaigner

Whatever right over man may be legitimately exercised by the society to which he belongs; to whatever privation of liberty he may subject himself, by crime legally proved; though he may forfeit even life itself; yet as long as he remains a rational, moral, accountable creature, it arises out of the essence of his nature that he cannot be the proper object of barter and sale, and be indiscriminately transferred as property from hand to hand – far less than such right can by any possibility be acquired over his certainly innocent offspring
William Smith in a letter to William Wilberforce

Smith has been described as ‘the most important Dissenting politician of the period’ of 1780-1830.

He was a Member of Parliament (apart from short breaks from 1790-1791 and from 1806-7 during the critical passage of Abolition bill!) from 1784 to 1830, first for the ‘pocket’ borough of Sudbury, then for Camelford, and then, from 1802 for the far more important constituency of Norwich.

His three major concerns as a Member of Parliament were ‘Parliamentary Reform in some shape or other, the Abolition of all Religious Tests as to Civil Matters, and the Abolition of the Slave Trade’.

In campaigning against the slave trade, Smith was closely associated with William Wilberforce.

Smith was not an MP when the Act which abolished the slave trade in the British Colonies was passed in March 1807. His NOrwich constituents were not very pleased with him at the time because he did not pay much attention to their local bill, for ensuring that rates could be levied to pave the streets of Norwich.

In his absence, however, he was still influential: he wrote a ‘forceful and well-argued’ pamphlet which he circulated to all the leading politicians.

William Smith was the son of a prosperous London merchant. Both his mother’s and his father’s families were Dissenters. He was educated at a Dissenters’ school at Ware and then at the Dissenters’ Academy at Daventry where Joseph Priestley had studied. The family wealth enabled him to enter and remain in Parliament, to have country and town houses, and to entertain hospitably. (He also built up an impressive art collection.)

Smith, like many other Protestant Dissenters, sympathised with the cause of the French revolutionaries. He was opposed to England’s going to war with France in 1793. It may well have been this that brought him success in the election of 1802 since Norwich merchants had been badly hit by the war.

William Roscoe (1753-1831)

William Roscoe was a Liverpool Unitarian who was, briefly but importantly, a member of Parliament in the critical 1806-7 period when the Act for the Abolition of the slave trade in the British Colonies was passed.

Whereas William Smith was on comparatively supportive ground in Norwich, Roscoe was, in Liverpool, among many prosperous ship-owners for whom the slave trade was profitable.

By profession an attorney, Roscoe was also a man of letters, an historian and an abolitionist. His first publicised opposition to the slave trade was in a poem of 1777.

Despite his opposition to the slave trade being well known in Liverpool, Roscoe was elected as its member of Parliament in 1806. He spoke in support of the anti-slavery bill.

Roscoe said,'For thirty years I have never ceased to condemn this inhuman traffic and I consider it the greatest happiness in my life to lift up my voice on this occasion against it with the friends of the future of humanity.’

His return to his home town in 1807 after the dissolution of Parliament was met with aggressive scenes! He was defeated at the next election. Roscoe was also in favour of Catholic emancipation (the removal of barriers to memb ers of the Roman Catholic faith preventing them from taking public office or becoming members of Parliament). Today, if known at all, Roscoe is remembered for 'The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast', a poem which he wrote for his son, and which was published in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1806 and separately in 1807.

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