When I taught one of my writing classes, the students were required to write an argument paper. However, many of them could not differentiate between an argument and an assertion or statement. An article in Salvo Magazine demonstrated that even some textbooks can’t tell the difference (here). An assertion is a statement. An argument takes the statement and presents evidence to support the statement. I was amazed how many students asserted a belief but provided no sound reasons why they believed something or, more importantly, how they expected their readers to accept their proposition.

Though I’ve referred to William Wilberforce in another post, this week I look at one of his first speeches that exposed the inhuman treatment of slaves in 18th century Britain (read the speech here). As the reader may imagine, there were people with a great deal of financial interest who resisted abolition, not to mention their belief that Africans were an inferior race. I believe that Wilberforce had to marshal not only his oratorical skills but the facts of his case in order to persuade his audience. In other words, assertions weren’t sufficient; he focused on facts from eyewitnesses and facts from government documents to present his case to Parliament.

Wilberforce’s Argument

He begins by stating that the need to abolish the slave trade was vital, and he hoped that all his listeners would be of the same opinion by the end of his presentation. He appeals to their “cool and impartial reason,” and doesn’t attempt to place blame on those who disagree but on himself, all of Parliament, and the British nation as a whole. He believed that there was shared guilt for allowing such a shameful and inhuman practice to continue. By beginning this way, he doesn’t inflame the resistance of his argument, and he doesn’t engage in an ad hominem argument.

The Middle Transit

The middle transit referred to the travel of the slave ships from ports in Africa to the West Indies. It was this portion of the slave trade that became the subject of this particular speech (read the full speech here). There had been eyewitness testimony of the terrible treatment of slaves once they reached the sugar plantations. Dr. James Ramsey had seen it firsthand, and he came back to England and immediately joined the abolition movement. However, Wilberforce focuses his argument about the treatment of Africans onboard the slave ships.

The biggest misinformation campaign came from one of the Liverpool delegates. A Mr. Norris painted a rosy picture of the treatment of slaves on board the ships. First, he insisted that accommodations were suitable and comfortable, even perfumed with pleasant aromas from frankincense and lime juice, and they are given water to wash. Second, they were fed well. Third, they were provided with amusements such as song, dance, and games of chance. The women and girls are also given items to entertain themselves with crafts.

Evidence to the Contrary

Here is where Wilberforce’s argument turns to the facts of his case. Having begun with statements proposed by the slave trading industry, he presents facts from both eyewitnesses and official documents contradicting his opponent. Physicians who visited the slave ships had testified that slaves are stowed so close together, there is no room to step around them. Frankincense, really? One Sir George Yonge testified that the stench where the slaves were accommodated was intolerable. Other doctors who had visited the ships could barely breath from the foul air.

The singing and dancing alluded to by Mr. Norris was true . . . sort of. Another eyewitness, a sailor, testified that slaves were forced to dance by the “terror of the lash,” and the songs were mournful cries of anguish at leaving their homeland, not happy sounds of joy. Finally, the proportion of deaths on the ships which was gathered from official documents loaned even more evidence to the false testimony about how the slaves were treated.

Wilberforce knew there was a moral and religious case for abolishing the slave trade, there were times in other speeches he developed that argument further. However, in this first salvo against the trade, he showed them the facts of how slaves were treated, and appealed to the necessity of the abolition of slavery because doing so was founded in “rectitude and universal benevolence.” Furthermore, he concluded by appealing to the Divine Doctrine, “That sympathy is the great source of humanity.”

The Long Fight

I write this to demonstrate the importance of making a valid argument with facts and evidence. “Facts are stubborn things,” quipped John Adams, our second president. Thus Wilberforce used facts to contradict his opponents. Without them, he could have simply made plenty of assertions about his religious belief as the great reason for his cause. Those would have been legitimate reasons, but we have to be amazed that he focused primarily on demonstrating the inhumane facts about what was going on.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that even with such persuasive force, the trade did not immediately end. About two and a half decades would pass before Parliament outlawed the trading of human beings, and it would not be for another decade and a half that slaves in all of the British empire would be emancipated.

Some things don’t change quickly, whether because of money, an entrenched ideology, a bad habit, or an accepted, but evil, societal norm. Although Wilberforce at times had an inflated optimism that things would change soon, he also knew that developing a legitimate argument was the first step.

© 2023 Robert T. Weber, Words Done Right LLC