James Stephen was born in Poole, Dorset and spent part of his childhood in a debtors' prison, when his father got into financial trouble. Despite this he became a newspaper reporter and a brilliant Lawyer.
As a young man he was described as rough and bad-tempered. At one point he got himself involved with two women at the same time. One of them, who was having his child, was his best friend's fiancée. To avoid a scandal, he fled to Barbados in 1783. Later, he held an official post at St Kitts.
Shortly after arriving at Barbados, he attended a trial where several enslaved people, generally believed to be innocent, were found guilty of murder. Sometime later, he witnessed two enslaved people condemned on the flimsiest of evidence and burned alive. The horror of these events changed Stephen's life. He began to correspond with Wilberforce, sending information back about the inhumane treatment of the enslaved.
When he returned to England, he became part of a group of evangelical Christians working with Wilberforce and married his sister, Sarah, in 1800. He also became acquainted with many in the abolition movement, including William Allen.
He used his sharp legal mind to argue from a practical standpoint. For example, he claimed it would be easier to keep the British West Indies secure from potential French interests, if the conditions of the ensalved were improved. He opposed the use of slave labour in Trinidad when it became a British territory in 1797, recommending Crown land should only be issued to those supporting immigration of free Africans.
In October, 1805, during the struggle with Napoleon, he published a book ‘War in Disguise; or, 'The Friends of the Neutral Flags'. This led, in 1806, to a new 'Foreign Slave Trade Act' which, viewed as a war measure, was quickly passed. It banned any British subject participating in the Slave Trade to the French colonies. This was a very clever tactic as it effectively prohibited two-thirds of the British Slave Trade. Stephen also provided the legal advice needed during the drafting of the 1807 bill to abolish the Slave Trade.
He became an MP in 1808 and Director of the 'Africa Institution for the Registration of Slaves'. He proposed a bill to require the accurate registration of all enslaved people, to prevent British colonists illicitly importing enslaved Africans. The bill brought to light many abuses and helped swing public opinion against slavery in the British colonies; however, the government would not support the bill and, in 1815, Stephen resigned from Parliament.
In 1826, he issued 'An Address to the People and Electors of England', urging the election of Members of Parliament who would not be "tools of the West India interest". This paved the way for the second Abolition Bill. He died in 1832, before the act was passed in 1833 but two of his sons remained active abolitionists.