William Wilberforce, the hero of the abolitionist movement, and patron saint of all evangelicals who hate it when liberals paint them as regressive on social issues, did drugs.
Wilberforce was probably not quite as heroic as portrayed in the film “Amazing Grace”, nor, probably, as insufferably pious. (I kept thinking, as I watched the film, that if Wilberforce had been this maudlin and humourless in real life, I might myself have voted against abolition.) The role of Thomas Clarkson seems historically correct– but the heart of the director isn’t in it. We get clear displays of Wilberforce’s physical sufferings (he had some form of digestive ailment) as if he alone paid a personal price for the abolition of slavery. This is the process of conferring sainthood upon someone who, though eminently worthy of honour, had faults we will soon know nothing about. Unless we think in terms of, “that I cared too much”.
In actual fact, many historians feel that Wilberforce was too gullible and respectful of authority to lead the movement, and that slavery would have been abolished earlier (and without quite so many “exceptions”) had a more forceful leader taken up the cause. In fact, at least one historian observed that Wilberforce was finally moved to lead the movement when his friend, William Pitt (the Prime-minister), pointed out that another leader was preparing to take up that role and he– Wilberforce– wouldn’t get credit for it if that happened.
He was also– wait for it– God help him!– a drug addict.
Yes he was. Wilberforce used opium for most of his life, on a very regular basis. The movie “Amazing Grace” honorably makes a point of showing his regular use of laudanum. Dickens also used it. So did Edgar Allen Poe. Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, was prescribed laudanum for a sleeping disorder. She became addicted. She was later committed to an asylum.
Interestingly, laudanum is still available by prescription in the U.S. It can be used to treat diarrhea.
Anyway, the support cast of “Amazing Grace” is brilliant, and the sets are wonderful, but Ioan Gruffud is a complete disaster as Wilberforce and drags down the entire film.
From Wilberforce’s son’s biography:
His returning health was in a great measure the effect of a proper use of opium, a remedy to which even Dr. Pitcairne’s judgment could scarcely make him have recourse; yet it was to this medicine that he now owed his life, as well as the comparative vigor of his later years. So sparing was he always in its use, that as a stimulant he never knew its power, and as a remedy for his specific weakness he had not to increase its quantity during the last twenty years he lived. ‘If I take,’ he would often say, ‘but a single glass of wine, I can feel its effect, but I never know when I have taken my dose of opium by my feelings.’ Its intermission was too soon perceived by the recurrence of disorder.
All very nice, but unconvincing. Wilberforce’s son is quite careful to assert that his famous dad was “sparing” in the use of a known narcotic, yet he tried and failed several times to stop using it. It’s hard to understand why, if he had no consciousness of it’s effects, he would make the attempt.
What exactly is laudanum?
Added December 30, 2008: Apparently George Washington took laudanum because of his teeth.