William Wilberforce’s abolition speech, delivered in the House of Commons on May 12, 1789, is one of the most celebrated and significant speeches in the history of the British Parliament. It marked a pivotal moment in the campaign against the slave trade. In his speech, Wilberforce laid out a comprehensive and compelling argument against the slave trade, appealing to morality, economics, and humanity.

In this speech, he uses powerful logic and highly descriptive examples to make his point, emphasizing the power of presenting well-defined and insurmountable evidence of a position in discourse. While we often focus on storytelling and emotions as appeals for marketers, this speech is an excellent example of how reason and evidence can also serve as powerful rhetorical tools.

Paint a Vivid Picture of the Problem

Wilberforce began by addressing the moral depravity of the slave trade, emphasizing the inhumanity and brutality inflicted upon enslaved Africans. He detailed the horrific conditions of the Middle Passage and the suffering endured by enslaved people both during the journey and in the colonies. By appealing to the conscience of his fellow members of Parliament, he sought to awaken a sense of moral responsibility towards the African victims of the trade.

His first step is to detail the experience of these enslaved people as he understands it, stating that “I must speak of the transit of the enslaved people in the West Indies. This, I confess, in my own opinion, is the most wretched part of the whole subject.”

He then continues to spare no one the details:

“Let anyone imagine to himself 6 or 700 of these wretches chained two and two, surrounded with every object that is nauseous and disgusting, diseased, and struggling under every kind of wretchedness! How can we bear to think of such a scene as this? One would think it had been determined to heap upon them all the varieties of bodily pain, to blunt the feelings of the mind.”

Wilberforce also detailed the treatment of enslaved people upon their arrival in the colonies, where they were subjected to further brutality and dehumanization. He described the harsh labor conditions in the plantations, the punitive measures used to enforce discipline, and the complete disregard for the enslaved people’s health, well-being, and familial bonds.

By painting a vivid picture of the suffering endured by the kidnapped Africans, Wilberforce sought to expose the stark contrast between the professed values of justice and humanity held by British society and the cruel reality of the slave trade.

This approach serves multiple purposes. First, it counters the claims of slaves that the kidnapped Africans were treated well–a point that Wilberforce refutes point by point. It also shows the assembled Parliament that the underlying horror of the slave trade has real, material effects on human beings that are beyond the pale of society.

Sometimes, we can get hung up on unpleasant facts that distract an audience. However, in marketing, especially B2B marketing, we can also embrace that frank discussions of challenges, concerns, and limitations can speak to our audience’s heads and hearts. This displays a sense of honesty and integrity and creates a sense of connection that doesn’t rely on emotional appeals but doesn’t exclude them.

Make a Clear Call to Action

Wilberforce’s argument for the abolition of the slave trade was rooted in moral persuasion and logical reasoning, demonstrating that ending the trade was in Britain’s moral and strategic interests.

Wilberforce argued that the slave trade was fundamentally at odds with the principles of justice, humanity, and the Christian values professed by British society:

“The Slave Trade, in its very nature, is the source of such kind of tragedies, nor has then been a single person, almost, before the Privy Council, who does not add something, by his testimony, to the mass of evidence upon this point… Some, nay, most, have admitted the Slave Trade to be the chief cause of wars in Africa.”

Wilberforce also presented logical arguments related to Britain’s strategic interests, highlighting how abolition could benefit the nation beyond the immediate moral considerations. He challenged the economic arguments for the slave trade by suggesting that Britain’s economy could adapt and thrive through alternative means. He cites several arguments from merchants and the ruling class about how abolition will ruin the economy and counters that:

“I believe, indeed, the trade hangs upon a thread… It is a lottery, in which some men have made large fortunes… while others follow the example of a few lucky adventurers and lose money by it.”

Furthermore, he slaps down arguments that if Britain doesn’t do it, then other European powers will take it up and have an unfair advantage:

“There is one other argument… that, if we relinquish the slave trade, France will take it up… I trust–nay, I am sure–they will not. France is too enlightened a nation to begin pushing scandalous and ruinous traffic.”

Here, he doesn’t mean “ruinous” in a moral sense but an economic one… essentially, they understand better than England that the Slave Trade is a dead end.

His arguments are many, but all flow around a common idea that the trade of people is “ruinous” to the country because it isn’t sustainable, it’s a moral rot, and the world has already started to move on from it–leaving Britain a pariah if they continue.

This argument may seem cold and calculating, but it has power. If those in Parliament don’t see Africans as people, then Wilberforce can appeal to their arguments of economy and influence.

Again, we can learn something from this in B2B marketing. Sometimes, emotional appeals are great. In other cases, logically addressing arguments and positions is just as powerful. This calls for clarity, understanding, and preparation that moves beyond keywords and pain points into a deeper connection with customers trying to solve real problems in their business.

Marketer’s Takeaway

In weaving together evidence and logic, Wilberforce created a compelling case that abolition was in Britain’s best interest, both morally and strategically. While these truths were not necessarily welcome in the UK at the time, they could be spoken by someone in Wilberforce’s situation specifically because of his position, ethos, and the reasoned way he explained why, exactly, it was in the listener’s best interest to adopt his way of thinking.

We can learn the value of such arguments here. We often lean on storytelling and emotional engagement with pain points in marketing. Sometimes, however, you need to break it down for a reader/listener/customer so that they see the benefit of taking action.

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