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Charles James Fox

Charles James Fox

The English parliamentarian Charles James Fox (1749-1806) won the reputation of being the champion of individual liberties against the oppressive tendencies of government and was known as the "Man of the People."

The third son of Henry Fox, 1st Baron Holland, Charles James Fox seemed destined almost from birth to follow his father's political career. Although he held high office for a shorter time than his father, he became more famous and far better loved. He also seemed destined to continue with William Pitt the Younger the intense political rivalry that their fathers had begun.

Of his two older brothers, one died in infancy and the other was sickly, so the father heaped affection and attention on Charles. Overindulged in his youth, Charles never developed the qualities of restraint or self-discipline. Indeed, Charles's father apparently preferred to encourage a lack of inhibition, for he introduced his son at a tender age to an extravagant and dissipated way of life that was to remain with him always.

Fox's carefree, easygoing manner and his great personal charm won for him a large number of friends, although many people were shocked by his wild and irresponsible behavior. He was completely self-indulgent and undisciplined, and his manner of life was thoroughly irregular. Nothing better typifies that aspect of his character than his later relationship with his mistress, Mrs. Elizabeth Armistead. After his connection with her had lasted more than 10 years, he married her in 1795 but kept the marriage a secret until 1802.

Early Career

Fox began his political career in 1768, when his father secured his election to Parliament as representative for the pocket borough of Midhurst. He was only 19, still technically too young to take his seat, but that did not deter him. For several years he voted with the government. Thus almost his first political act was to stand with the administration against John Wilkes, the popular symbol of liberty.

In 1770 Fox took a minor office in the new North ministry as a junior lord commissioner of the Admiralty. In this capacity he continued to support the government, speaking against the freedom of the press to report parliamentary debates. Following a disagreement with the ministry over the Royal Marriage Bill in 1772, he resigned his Admiralty post. Fox later held a position on the Treasury Board, but he remained there for less than a year; King George III dismissed him in annoyance over his conduct.

So began Fox's long period of opposition. During the following years he fought the government, chiefly over the American colonies, opposing measure after measure. When the American conflict ended and North's ministry fell, it seemed that Fox's time had arrived. But he had so antagonized the King that he could attain high office only with difficulty, and for a short time.

In 1782 Fox was secretary of state in Rockingham's ministry for a few months and was able to help pass a bill granting Ireland its legislative independence from Great Britain. When Rockingham died, Fox refused to serve under his successor, Shelburne. In 1783 Fox was again for a few months secretary of state, but this was in the notorious Fox-North coalition that was anathema to the King, who took the first opportunity to bring it down. In this period Fox succeeded in getting settled upon the prince regent enough money for his private establishment. He also introduced a bill for the reform of the East India Company, but over this issue the King managed to topple the coalition.

With William Pitt's advent to power, Fox once more began a long sojourn in opposition. He did support Pitt's unsuccessful bill to reform Parliament, but he opposed almost every other bill brought forward by the government. The role he played in pursuing the impeachment proceedings against Warren Hastings did not redound to his credit, nor did his stand in the Regency crisis speak well for his judgment.

Later Career

Fox greeted the outbreak of the French Revolution with rapture, as did many Englishmen. Later, the excesses of the Revolution caused many of its former English supporters to shake their heads, but Fox's admiration remained unabated. Even after Britain and France drifted into war, he continued to praise the revolutionary events and principles. He opposed various security measures that Pitt brought forward, such as the Alien Act, the Treason Bill, the Seditious Meeting Bill, and the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. In popular esteem he became little better than a traitor, especially after his comment that he took pleasure in seeing France gain advantage over England while English policy remained so mistaken. His opposition to the war and his praise for France also cost him much of his parliamentary following.

On Pitt's death, in January 1806, Fox once more had a chance at high office, serving as foreign secretary in Grenville's ministry. In this capacity Fox managed to pass through Parliament the abolition of the slave trade—a bill that had been defeated when Pitt had introduced it years before. But at this point his career was cut short. He died on September 13 and was buried in Westminster Abbey beside Pitt.

Historical Perspective

Just as in his lifetime he aroused intense feelings, whether of adoration or of hatred, so after his death Fox continued to arouse intense feelings among his chroniclers. Some insist that he deserved his reputation as the champion of liberty, while others insist with equal conviction that he was a shallow opportunist whose oratory was mere posturing, an often successful attempt to gain notoriety and popularity.

Those who consider Fox sincere point to his long continuance in the political wilderness of opposition, while those who regard him as a charlatan point to the inconsistency of his stands on various issues. If he did come to believe sincerely in some of the principles he adumbrated, it is nevertheless only fair to add that he often acted thoughtlessly, irresponsibly, with excessive passion, and for the sheer delight of opposing governmental measures.

It is true that Fox never seriously utilized any of his vast fortune to further the reforms to which he professed so ardent an attachment. Furthermore, for the first 9 years of Pitt's ministry Fox really did not substantially differ from the minister on matters of principle and yet obdurately opposed almost his every measure. But after 1793 the French war constituted an issue which truly divided Fox and Pitt—and it was on just this issue that Fox stood most alone, indeed eventually almost without allies.

Further Reading

Memorials and Correspondence of Charles James Fox, edited by Lord John Russell (4 vols., 1853-1857), is very useful. Most of the biographies of Fox are strongly biased for or against him. Among the older studies are John Drinkwater, Charles James Fox (1928), and Christopher Hobhouse, Fox (1934; new ed. 1948). Another study is Loren Reid, Charles James Fox: A Man for the People (1969). Recommended for general historical background are J. Steven Watson, The Reign of George III (1960), and Archibald S. Foord, His Majesty's Opposition: 1714-1830 (1964).

Additional Sources

Ayling, Stanley Edward, Fox: the life of Charles James Fox, London: J. Murray, 1991.

Mitchell, L. G. (Leslie George), Charles James Fox, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Powell, David, Charles James Fox: man of the people, London: Hutchinson, 1989. □

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Fox, Charles James

Fox, Charles James (1749–1806). A brilliant orator and a man of dazzling charm, Fox never fulfilled his immense potential as a politician. The main reason for this was that his political judgement was erratic. At crucial times in his career he committed errors which proved decisive in denying him the office for which he craved.

Fox was educated at Eton and Oxford and entered the House of Commons while still under age in 1768. He held minor office under North but fell foul of the king and the prime minister over the Royal Marriages Act and the admission of reporters to debates in the Commons. Once in opposition Fox was drawn to alliance with the Rockinghamite Whigs. He became a critic of the influence of the crown, an opponent of British policy towards the American colonists, and the advocate of greater collective responsibility within the cabinet, arguing that cabinets should have a greater say in the choice of prime ministers. He favoured recognizing the independence of the American colonies and made no secret of his belief that the influence of the crown was the cause of British humiliation. He supported parliamentary reform, the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, and closer collaboration between parliamentarians and popular reform movements.

When North fell in 1782

Fox became foreign secretary under Rockingham. He wanted to recognize American independence in the hope of securing American goodwill during the peace negotiations but finding himself in disagreement with Shelburne and other colleagues he resigned office on Rockingham's death. This proved to be a grave misjudgement. He was driven to seek new political allies and entered into alliance with his old foe, North. There was nothing inherently disastrous about this. Coalition was an inescapable fact of political life, but working with North was bound to be risky: many MPs remembered the ferocity with which Fox had denounced North as an agent of corruption. By defeating Shelburne over the draft peace terms, Fox and North forced themselves upon the king. When they tried to reform the administration of the East India Company, George III procured the defeat of the India Bill in the Lords, dismissed the coalition, and after installing Pitt as prime minister in December 1783 saw him win a great victory at the 1784 general election. Fox's gamble had failed and he faced the prospect of long years in opposition.

Even when Pitt was defeated over parliamentary reform and Irish free trade, there was little comfort for Fox. When George III became ill in the autumn of 1788 Fox expected that the prince of Wales would call him into office once he had become regent. Fox supported the prince's inherent right to be regent with full powers, but Pitt's advocacy of the need for Parliament to act proved more popular. The king recovered in February 1789 and Fox was blamed by many of his colleagues for mishandling the regency question. His fortunes were again at a low ebb.

When the French Revolution broke out in May 1789 Fox believed that the French were at long last imitating the English Revolution of 1688. But the Foxite party split over the French Revolution, and by 1794 Fox had only 60 supporters in the Commons. Though disgusted by the excesses of the Jacobins, he opposed war with France, arguing the case for a negotiated peace. He bitterly resented the desertion of so many old friends and for a time ceased to attend the Commons.

When Addington resigned in 1804 George III vetoed Pitt's proposal that Fox should be foreign secretary in a grand coalition. Only after Pitt's death in January 1806 was the king compelled to accept Fox as foreign secretary in Grenville's ministry. But he was now in poor health. Attempts to negotiate a peace with Napoleon collapsed ignominiously. The only consolation for Fox in his last days was the condemnation of the slave trade by the House of Commons. In September 1806 Fox died. He became the inspiration for Whig legend. His advocacy of peace, retrenchment, parliamentary reform, and civil and religious liberty inspired many later reformers. One irony was that the hero of Victorian liberals was so un-Victorian in his private life. In his youth Fox had been a compulsive gambler and womanizer. Though he found happiness with his mistress Elizabeth Armistead, whom he married in 1795, he could never manage his private finances.

John W. Derry

Bibliography

Ayling, S. , Fox (1991).

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Fox, Charles James

Charles James Fox, 1749–1806, British statesman and orator, for many years the outstanding parliamentary proponent of liberal reform. He entered Parliament in 1768 and served as lord of the admiralty (1770–72) and as lord of the treasury (1772–74) under Frederick, Lord North. Dismissed by George III, he went into bitter opposition, lending his remarkable oratorical genius to the attack on North's policy in North America.

Despite the king's objection, he became foreign secretary in the marquess of Rockingham's Whig ministry (1782) and helped to secure the repeal of Poynings's Law (see under Poynings, Sir Edward), thus giving Ireland legislative independence. He quarreled with the earl of Shelburne over the negotiation of peace with the former American colonies, France, and Spain, and he resigned when Shelburne succeeded Rockingham. Fox then allied himself with his old enemy, Lord North, to insure Shelburne's defeat, and he became (1783) foreign secretary again, in a coalition with North. This ministry fell in the same year, when George III brought his influence to bear in the House of Lords to secure defeat of Fox's bill vesting the government of India in a commission nominated by Parliament. He was replaced in office by William Pitt, whom he bitterly opposed for the rest of his life.

In 1788, when George III became temporarily insane, Fox wanted an unrestricted regency vested in the prince of Wales (later George IV). This position seemed to belie his strongly professed belief in the supremacy of Parliament and the need to restrict royal power, but the prince, who was Fox's close friend, would have brought Fox and the Whigs back to office. George III recovered, however, and Fox remained out of power.

Fox favored the French Revolution and opposed British intervention in the French Revolutionary Wars. He objected to the suppression of civil liberties in wartime and was the parliamentary spokesman of several reform movements, urging such measures as enlargement of the franchise, parliamentary reform, and political rights for Roman Catholics and dissenters. At Pitt's death he became (1806) for a few months foreign secretary in the "ministry of all the talents." Abolition of the slave trade, which he proposed and urged, was passed in 1807, soon after his death.

Fox combined dissolute habits with remarkable warmth of character and great courage and skill in debate. Although he could be opportunistic as well as idealistic, he is remembered as a great champion of liberty.

See biographies by G. O. Trevelyan (1880, repr. 1971), E. C. P. Lascelles (1936, repr. 1970), J. W. Derry (1972), and D. Schweitzer (1989); E. Eyck, Pitt versus Fox (tr. by E. Northcott, 1950); J. Carswell, The Old Cause (1955); J. Cannon, The Fox-North Coalition (1970); L. G. Mitchell, Charles James Fox and the Disintegration of the Whig Party, 1782–1794 (1971).

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Fox, Charles James

Fox, Charles James (1749–1806) British statesman, the main parliamentary proponent of liberal reform in the late 18th century. Fox entered Parliament in 1768, and served as Lord of the Admiralty (1770–72) and Lord of the Treasury (1773–74). George III dismissed Fox for his opposition to government policy on North America. He became foreign secretary (1782) in Rockingham's government and formed a short-lived coalition government (1783) with Lord North. Thereafter, he led Whig opposition to William Pitt's government, urging the abolition of slavery and the extension of the franchise.

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