3267. Robert Southey to William Wilberforce, 17 March 1819

3267. Robert Southey to William Wilberforce, 17 March 1819 ⁠* 

My dear Sir

Thank you for your auger, – as well as for your congratulations. – Had I written to you since the event, of course it would have been mentioned, – but I did not dream of troubling you with an Extraordinary Gazette upon the occasion. [1]  Matter for congratulation it is, – a great danger (for such it has been) having, by Gods blessing, been past thro. The infant is large & to all appearance strong & healthy: – the mother is at present entirely lame, – but we hope & trust that this affection will soon pass away, & in all other respects she is doing well.

Surely I have represented that the salvation of souls was Wesleys [2]  prime motive, & that the organization of Methodism (which is as perfect as that of the Jesuits) grew out of the accidents & circumstances which occurred in his pursuit of that great object. But I certainly think that he had much more ambition than he was himself conscious of, – & that in this respect both Law [3]  & Zinzendorff [4]  judged of him rightly. I have taken & am taking very great pains in with this book, in making myself thoroughly acquainted (as far as that can be done from his own writings, & others) with Wesleys conduct & opinions, & I have learnt enough to know that neither Dr Whitehead, nor Dr Coke & his colleagues can be called faithful biographers. [5]  To any other merit they make no pretension; but they are guilty of great sins of omission, keeping out of sight very much which is necessary to a full understanding of Wesleys life & character. – The chapter which you have seen regards him at that part of his career when he had decidedly chosen his object, – but was yet all abroad concerning the means, – before he separated from the Moravians, & called in the assistance of lay-preachers. It does not regard him prospectively.

You ask me concerning a purpose which I entertained two or three years ago of writing a paper upon the West Indies. [6]  I meant to have prepared an historical sketch of those islands (which seem from the hour of their discovery to have lain under a curse); for the purpose of enforcing the necessity of registering the slaves, & holding out the gradual emancipation of the negroes, & the ultimate amalgamation of all casts & colours as the measures to which we should look on, unless we prefer the continuance of enormous guilt, & the certainty, sooner or later, of the visitation which in its natural & proper consequences, it must draw on. But when Murray understood upon what principle I meant to write, he entreated me to forbear. I know not what mistaken notion was in his head, – nor to whom he had listened. Neither did I care to enquire, for I had an opportunity in distant prospect of expressing myself upon those subjects without restraint. One of my brothers (a Sea-Captain) has occupied his leisure for many years upon a chronological history of the West Indies. [7]  Both the subject & the manner were suggested by me. The subject does not well admit of any other manner, being in itself xx broken & discontinuous: – & the manner is th such as to make relieve a writer from any uncomfortable notions about style, who had not been accustomed to literary composition. He has made great progress, & done his part elaborately. And what I have to say will be xxxxx embodied in his annals, in the form of introductory chapters, & general views & reflections – in their proper place. – My brother has been in the West Indies, & brought back with him as honest an abhorrence of slavery as he took out.

While you abolish transportation as a punishment, I hope you will encourage it as much as possible as one of the great preventatives of guilt & misery. And I sincerely wish it could be made the punishment for those libels which affect the peace of society, – there it is the appropriate punishment, preventing a repetition of the offence, & curing the offender by change of climate. How many hundreds & thousands whose minds have been poisoned, might have had their hearts sound & their principles of religion & loyalty untainted at this hour, if Cobbett & Leigh Hunt, instead of being condemned to imprisonment, & exasperated by the sentence, – had been sent out of the country which they were endeavouring to set on fire. [8]  I would not have treated them as common criminals in the deportation, nor have imposed any other restriction upon them upon on their arrival in New Holland, [9]  than that they should return t no more.

If you are in town in the beginning of May, or the latter end of April, I shall find my way to your breakfast table, if you will allow, one of the first mornings after my arrival.

farewell my dear Sir, & believe me

yrs with affectionate respect

Robert Southey.

Keswick. 17 March. 1819.


* Endorsement: March 1819/ Xx Mr Southey/ abt Wesleys Chr/ & Life Brothers/ W. Inds Publick
MS: Bodleian Library, MS Wilbeforce, c.3. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] Charles Cuthbert Southey was born on 24 February 1819. BACK

[2] John Wesley (1703–1791; DNB), the subject of Southey’s The Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism (1820). BACK

[3] William Law (1686–1761; DNB), Anglican priest, theologian and mystic. BACK

[4] Nikolaus Zinzendorf (1700–1760), German landowner and Bishop of the Moravian Church; key figure in the eighteenth-century evangelical revival. BACK

[5] John Whitehead (c. 1740–1804; DNB), Life of the Rev. John Wesley, M.A. (1793–1796); Thomas Coke (1747–1814; DNB) and Henry Moore (1751–1844; DNB), The Life of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M. (1792). Both of these books were ‘official’ lives of Wesley, approved by his followers. BACK

[6] For the Quarterly Review; Southey did not write this paper. BACK

[7] Thomas Southey, Chronological History of the West Indies (1827). BACK

[8] Cobbett was imprisoned in 1810–1812 for condemning the flogging of some militiamen at Ely; and Leigh Hunt served two years in 1813–1815 for criticizing the Prince Regent. However, both men were able to continue editing their newspapers from prison. BACK

[9] Australia. BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)


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