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RETURN TO ENGLAND AND MARRIAGE
The session of 1799 was as usual a very busy one for the supporters of Abolition. They had, after long and careful consultation, concocted a measure for confining the Slave Trade within certain limits on the coast of Africa ; and in the month of March Henry Thornton brought it forward in the House of Commons. The Bill survived the difficulties caused by reluctant friends and determined adversaries, and on the end of May passed successfully through the Lower House; but only to meet with severe opposition in the House of Lords, where the struggle over it was prolonged till the 5th of July, when it was defeated on the second reading. During this period Mr. Wilberforce and his friends watched daily over the interests of the Bill; selecting with great care the witnesses who were to be examined at the bar of the House, and consulting incessantly with the counsel whom they employed.
One of these was Mr. James Stephen, whose name has a familiar sound to all who are acquainted with the history of the hundred years which have elapsed since 1799. His descendants, several of whom have borne his own baptismal name, have distinguished themselves by singular gifts and powers of mind in many varied walks of life; in literature, at the bar, in colonial politics, and in India. Mr. Stephen himself was a brilliant and versatile man, full of enthusiasm and energy. He studied law, and was called to the bar in England; after which he went out to the West Indies, where he had relations residing in St. Christopher, who were able to promise him a good opening for practice. The vessel in which he sailed touched at Barbados; and some instances of brutality shown to slaves, of which he was an accidental witness while on shore there, shocked him to such a degree that he made a solemn vow never to have anything to do with slavery, and kept his vow in spite of every
temptation to the contrary and the advantages which offered themselves to him afterwards.
In the winter of 1788 he visited England, and made acquaintance with Mr. Wilberforce, who quickly perceived the capacity of his new friend, and endeavoured to enlist him in the band of allies. But although Stephen's generous sympathies were all against the continuance of the misery inflicted by the Slave Trade, he had a wife and a family of young children dependent upon his exertions; and his sense of duty to them was sufficiently strong to restrain him from a public advocacy of Abolition while still practising at the West Indian bar, where already the sacrifices he had made to his sentiments had entailed upon him very considerable losses.
But his position at St. Christopher had practically become untenable ; and in 1794 he severed his connection with the West Indian bar, and returned to England, where he began to appear at the Prize Appeal Court of the Privy Council, and where his talents secured him, before long, the leading business. He now openly identified himself with the cause of Abolition. His ardour and knowledge of the subject made his aid to it quite invaluable, and it is amusing to find Mr. Wilberforce writing meekly in his diary in 1798: 'Stephen frankly and kindly reproving me for not pleading the cause of the slaves watchfully enough, and guarding it in the case of Trinidad, and Spain's late proposals. I doubt. Pitt promises repeal of the proclamation for trade in Spanish colonies.'
Mr. Wilberforce's warm affection for Pitt rendered him sensitive on the score of attacks upon the great minister. His feelings were shared in a large measure by Henry Thornton, who was a personal friend of Pitt's, and were at any rate religiously respected by the rest of the band; but Mr. Stephen, coming fresh into the contest, had no misgivings to impede his utterance. When, notwithstanding an earnest appeal from him, couched in terms which reflected unreservedly on Pitt's apparent assent to a plan for the forcible removal of Creole slaves from their homes in the older islands in order to undertake the unhealthy labour of clearing new lands which had been vacated by the removal of the Carib tribes after the insurrection in St. Vincent and the conquest of Trinidad, Mr. Wilberforce still hesitated about proceeding to make a public attack upon the
minister, his answer called forth a really awful denunciation from Mr. Stephen.
'I still clearly think,' he wrote, that you have been improperly silent; and that when you see the Government loading the bloody altars of commerce, the idol of this Carthage, with an increase of human victims, and building new altars for the same execrable purpose while the sword of Almighty vengeance seems uplifted over us for that very offence, you are bound by the situation wherein you have placed yourself to cry aloud against it. You are even the rather bound to do so because those high-priests of Moloch, Lord Liverpool and Mr. Dundas, are your political, and Mr. Pitt also your private friends.'
Considering that Mr. Wilberforce had already succeeded by earnest remonstrances with Pitt in obtaining the rescinding of the objectionable proclamation, his answer to this passionate letter may be termed angelic. It is too long to quote, but the gentleness and humility which mark it go far to explain the tenderness of affection with which even the failings of Wilberforce were regarded by those around him. Mr. Stephen's vehement zeal, though directed against himself, seemed to him only matter for admiration; and the tie between the two men, so dissimilar and yet so closely in sympathy, was further cemented when in the year 1800 Mr. Stephen, who had become a widower, married Mr. Wilberforce's only sister, Mrs. Clarke, the widow of Dr. Clarke, vicar of Trinity Church, Hull.
In the midst of the excitement among his friends about the Slave Limitation Bill, Macaulay arrived at Portsmouth; and leaving his precious cargo of young Africans to go round by sea, landed there himself, and hurried direct to London in order to make the necessary arrangements for their reception. When their comfort should have been secured he hoped to be at liberty to visit his betrothed, in whose company he had only spent two days since their engagement took place in January 1796, and to seeing whom he was naturally looking forward with eager anticipation. His health too had broken down entirely for the time, his strong nerves had been shattered by the strain of unceasing work in a bad climate, and he longed with feverish anxiety for a period of entire rest and relaxation.
But all through his life Macaulay's fate was seldom propitious to the indulgence of his personal wishes, and his surprise
and mortification were extreme when, upon his arrival from Portsmouth at Battersea Rise on Thursday the 23rd of May, he was immediately informed by Mr. Wilberforce and Henry Thornton that his presence in London would be for some time to come absolutely indispensable, and that they had undertaken for him that he should appear at the bar of the House of Lords to give evidence on the following Tuesday. Macaulay's habitual patience seems to have failed him upon this occasion, for his friends had the unwonted task of bringing argument to bear upon him to induce him to fulfil his duty, and they were compelled to reiterate their assurances that, upon his evidence, the fate of the Bill would probably depend. They told him that Lord Grenville, who was making every exertion in his power to support it, had already mentioned in the House of Lords that Mr. Macaulay would appear on the 28th of May; and they reminded him that the time was already too short for the necessary preparation. Mr. Wilberforce and Mr. Thornton had done all that could be done to make the business easier. Upon receiving intelligence of the arrival of the Fairy with her convoy, they had engaged the counsel whom they employed to be in readiness to receive Macaulay's instructions and brief, and for this it was imperative that he should go to town early the next morning. The interval that remained before his examination must necessarily be spent in hard work, so as to employ to the best advantage the abundant materials which his intimate knowledge of the subject would furnish.
The conversation was cut short by Macaulay's increasing indisposition. A sharp attack of African fever came on, and his weakness was so great that he was obliged to retire at once to his bed, quite unequal to the exertion of talking or holding a pen, and the next morning he had the greatest difficulty in keeping the appointment which had been arranged. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that the letter which he sent the next day to Miss Mills should be more querulous in its tone than any other which has come down from him; and from some expressions which he employs in it, and in one or two letters which immediately follow, it is clear that he felt considerable uneasiness as to the effect upon her mind which the delay of his visit would have. It could scarcely be expected that she would take the same view of public duty which the
small band of devoted men did of whose number Macaulay formed one, and it would have been natural that she should consider her own claims upon his time paramount at such a moment. He ends his first letter to her rather pathetically, by saying that his mind is somewhat off its hinge, and that he will not therefore say more at that time from the coffee-house where he had snatched a few minutes, in the midst of his harassing business, to step in to write to her.
As might have been expected, on the Saturday Macaulay was entirely prostrated by fever. At Battersea Rise he was surrounded with every attention and comfort that care and affection could bestow, but his mind was ill at ease. He writes to Miss Mills : 'Do not, I pray you, think unkindly of me, but consider that in what I have done, I have had, next to that of God, your approbation in view. I have acted as I believe you would have advised me to act had you had an opportunity of giving me your advice; and though the sacrifice I have made to duty may seem trivial in the statement, yet I am sure, if it were to be estimated by the pain it has occasioned to me, it would possess no mean magnitude.'
Mr. Thornton was much concerned about the situation, and wrote most kindly to Miss Mills, pressing her to come and stay at Battersea Rise. But Mrs. Thornton was ill and confined to her room; and Miss Mills, whose disposition was retiring and reserved almost to a fault, shrank from coming alone for a first visit to the busy and hospitable house where she was still an entire stranger to the host and hostess, and declined the invitation. She wrote, however, very kindly and affectionately to Macaulay, and thus relieved his mind of much of the anxiety which was weighing upon it; so that he felt now able to devote his thoughts to the serious work before him. On Tuesday the 28th of May, he was summoned to the bar of the House of Lords to be sworn.
TO MISS MILLS.
Battersea Rise, June 1, 1799. MY DEAR SELINA,-Yesterday I was obliged against my will to omit writing. I thought my examination might have come on, and there was much still to prepare. I purposed indeed to have written to you from Mr. Wilberforce's house in