Fox, Charles James

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Fox, Charles James

FOX, CHARLES JAMES. (1749–1806). British politician. Fox was born in London on 24 January 1749, the second son of the politician Henry Fox (later first baron Holland) and Caroline Lennox, daughter of the second duke of Richmond. Closely attached to his father and two brothers, Fox was brought up virtually without restraints, a background that is said to explain his later colorful lifestyle and his inability to provide firm leadership to others. Fox was educated, by his own choice, at a school in Wandsworth and (from June 1758) at Eton, where he began long friendships with a circle he called "the Gang" and that included Lord Carlisle. He also established a reputation as an able classical scholar. In 1763 he left school for a sojourn in Paris, where Henry Fox encouraged his fourteen-year-old son to gamble heavily and arranged for him to lose his virginity. It is hardly surprising that soon after his return to Eton in the autumn of 1764 young Fox was asked to leave. He went straight on to Oxford, where he enjoyed mathematics and classics, but was too ill disciplined to stay for a degree. His learning was then continued by another visit to Paris in the spring of 1765 and by a long grand tour through France, Switzerland, and Italy. On this journey he encountered numerous women, as well as Edward Gibbon, Voltaire, the duc d'Orleans, and Lafayette.

He began his political life as his beloved father's ally and protégé and therefore no friend of the Whigs, who had never forgiven Henry for accepting office under Lord Bute. In 1768, when he was nineteen and legally too young to be elected, Charles James entered Parliament as member for Midhurst in Sussex, a seat purchased by his father. Predictably he took up against the Rockinghamites and supported the ministries of Grafton and North. He supported the attempts to punish John Wilkes for defying Parliament over the Middlesex election and had no particular objection to either ministry's American policies until 1774. He got on well with North and in February 1770 became a lord of Admiralty at the age of twenty-one. His move toward a more radical stance came out of family considerations, not political principle.

The first problem was the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, which required the immediate descendants of royalty to obtain the sovereign's consent before marrying. As Fox's mother was a direct descendant of Charles II, and especially as hers had been a runaway marriage, Fox may have felt it reflected on his own legitimacy. In 1753 Henry, for rather similar reasons, had opposed the earl of Hardwicke's marriage act against clandestine marriages. Now, on 15 February Charles James resigned from the Admiralty in protest. In December he was found a place on the Treasury board, only to resign that office in February 1774 after the North ministry failed to raise the Holland barony to an earldom. These flimsy, even capricious, grounds for the laying down of public office marked him down as a man who could not, for the moment at least, be taken very seriously.

Excluded from office by his own actions, from 1774 Fox drifted into the orbit of the Rockingham Whigs. This drift was not purely political opportunism; and it was very slow. One reason was a growing mutual dislike between himself and George III, who disapproved of Fox's libertine habits. Under the tutelage of Edmund Burke, Fox gradually came to share the Whig delusion that George was deliberately moving toward a royal absolutism. Fox now saw his friend North as the weak, possibly unwitting or unwilling, instrument of George's designs. Though still looking over his shoulder at fresh opportunities for office, Fox found himself publicly advocating more frequent elections and a wider franchise, ideas that in private he found only mildly appealing.

What really swung Fox into opposition was the approach of the War of American Independence, which from the first he feared would be a long and probably unsuccessful contest. In April 1774 he spoke and voted against the Coercive Acts and was not surprised when violence followed. As early as 1776 Fox began to think American independence better than a costly and humiliating war. He attacked the earl of Sandwich and Lord George Germain for incompetence and gradually began to associate the Americans with himself as fellow victims of George III: from there it was only a short step to perceiving a trans-Atlantic royal plot against liberty. As ever, Fox's changing opinions were shaped by personal contacts. He exchanged letters with Thomas Jefferson and met Benjamin Franklin in Paris in the winter of 1776–1777. General John Burgoyne, one of his high-living gambling cronies, wrote to him from America between 1775 and 1777. His brilliant speeches marked him as the leader of opposition to the war in the Commons, and in 1782 he concerted the moves that brought down North's government.

Fox now became foreign secretary in the short-lived Rockingham administration. It was not a happy experience. Fox found it nigh impossible to work with the earl of Shelburne, the home secretary, and, predictably, suspected George III of using the Lord Chancellor and Shelburne to frustrate the Paris peace negotiations. Fox's chief negotiator in Paris, Thomas Grenville, certainly met with obstruction from Shelburne's man Richard Oswald. Fox had already decided to resign when Rockingham's death on 1 July 1782 put an end to the ministry. The new Shelburne ministry negotiated separate treaties with France and the United States, but at a price, which allowed Fox and North to combine forces to bring Shelburne down in February 1783. The Fox-North coalition (MarchDecember 1783) was later vilified as a cynical union of convenience between sworn enemies, but at the time it was accepted as a partnership of men who had worked well together in the past and still held each other in high regard. They had no choice but to accept the peace terms they had just censured; the alternative was to restart the fighting, a political if not a military impossibility. They fell when George III intervened to have Fox's India bill defeated in the Lords, thus providing him with an excuse to sack his ministers and bring in the younger William Pitt.

Fox, already paranoid about royal plotting, was appalled at the king's behavior and blocked every ministerial measure he could until the election of 1784 gave Pitt a comfortable majority. Thereafter British politics resolved into a duel between the two. In 1788 Fox opened the prosecution of Warren Hastings as a means of protest against the king's destruction of his own India bill. He supported the prince regent's claims during the Regency crisis of 1788–1789 because he was at odds with George III. He opposed the war against revolutionary and Napoleonic France on the grounds that even a perverted liberty was preferable to a coalition of despots—particularly a coalition joined by George III and Pitt. His illusion that he could patch up a peace by chatting with his friend Talleyrand was rudely shattered when he became foreign secretary in the "ministry of all the talents" in January 1806, and only his death on 13 September saved him from total humiliation.

Fox's politics were always conditioned by family considerations, friendships, and his overwhelming distrust of George III, and his support for the American Revolution was based on expediency rather than principle. He was never a radical or convinced parliamentary reformer, and whatever political ideals he possessed did not run deep. His great oratory, unlike the younger Pitt's, was of an essentially destructive kind. These were hardly the qualifications of a great minister, but perhaps Fox's greatest talent lay elsewhere: as the supreme opposition spokesman of his age.

SEE ALSO Diplomacy of the American Revolution; Franklin, Benjamin; George III; Germain, George Sackville;Intolerable (or Coercive) Acts; Jefferson, Thomas; Lafayette, Marquis de; Rockingham, Charles Watson-Wentworth, second Marquess of; Sandwich, John Montagu, fourth earl of; Shelburne, William Petty Fitzmaurice, earl of.


Derry, John W. Charles James Fox. London: Batsford, 1972.

Reid, Loren. Charles James Fox: A Man for the People. London: Longman, 1969; Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1969.

Schweitzer, David. Charles James Fox, 1749–1806: A Bibliography. New York: Greenwood, 1991.

                              revised by John Oliphant

Charles James Fox

views updated May 21 2018

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. □

Fox, Charles James

views updated Jun 08 2018


FOX, CHARLES JAMES (1749–1806), English politician.

Charles James Fox led the main political opposition connection in Britain from 1784 until his death in September 1806. Born on 24 January 1749, he was educated at Eton and Oxford, and was elected to Parliament on 10 May 1768 for the borough of Midhurst. He briefly held minor offices at the Admiralty Board and at the Treasury Board between 1770 and 1774 under Lord North's (Frederick North, prime minister, 1770–1782) administration. From this point on, Fox became an unyielding critic of the influence of the crown and a fierce opponent of North and his policy toward the American colonists, arguing for the recognition of American independence. He also adopted other more liberal causes than he had previously supported, such as moderate parliamentary reform and the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts (which discriminated against non-Anglicans).

After the fall of North in March 1782, Fox became foreign secretary under Charles Watson-Wentworth, the Marquis of Rockingham, but he resigned in June 1782 after Rockingham's death because he was unable to agree with the home secretary, William Petty, Earl of Shelburne, over the American peace terms. He then, to the surprise of many, allied himself and the Rockingham Whigs with North, with whom he defeated Shelburne in the House of Commons, and then forced the king to yield the government, in February 1783. The Fox-North coalition lasted in power only until December 1783, when George III (r. 1760–1820) dismissed them—having secured the defeat of their East India Bill in the House of Lords—and replaced them with the administration of William Pitt the Younger, who was able to keep Fox out of office until February 1806. Fox believed that this maneuvering by the king was an unconstitutional intervention and a monumental injustice, and it determined his politics for the rest of his life.

Foiled in his hopes of political advancement by the king's recovery from serious illness in 1788 and 1789, Fox's attitude to the French Revolution was shaped partly by his response to events in France but also by his resolve to establish and maintain a permanent party of opposition in Parliament. He had long been an ardent francophile, and he associated the early events of the revolution in France with those of the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688 and with the American Revolution. While some of the old Rockingham connection, under William Henry Cavendish Bentinck, the Duke of Portland, gradually changed sides between 1791 and 1794 to support Pitt over the issue of the war against France, Fox and a rump of some sixty-six members of Parliament continued to view George III and Pitt as greater enemies to British liberties than armed French revolutionaries. To Fox, the British war against France was not provoked by any serious threat to national security. Rather, it was another evidence of corruption in high places within Britain. The later violence of the Terror dismayed him deeply, although in public the Foxites excused it on the grounds of the long reign of absolutist oppression, which had created a pent-up flood of frustration and fury to be unleashed by the revolution.

Fox divided Parliament over the war even when he had no chance of defeating Pitt in a vote, partly to record opposition to government policy and partly to maintain as ense of party with in his own ranks. From October 1797 until 1801, however, he seceded from Parliament in an attempt to impress on the country how little notice was taken of argument and reason in the House of Commons. Historians disagree over how far Fox and his followers in Parliament supported radicals outside Parliament in the 1790s. It is clear that they dabbled in popular politics, associated with provincial radicals, supported them at their trials for treason and made some inflammatory speeches outside Parliament. However, most scholars also emphasize their more conservative tendencies. Certainly Fox himself never explicitly supported universal manhood suffrage, even if he toasted popular sovereignty in 1798, when government repression was at its height and he was anxious to rouse a show of public hostility to the government.

After Pitt's death in January 1806, George III reluctantly accepted Fox as foreign secretary in the administration of William Grenville, better known as the "Ministry of All the Talents" (1806–1807). Fox tried to negotiate peace with France during his brief tenure of office, but he was already in poor health by the time he entered government, and he died on 13 September 1806. A brilliant parliamentary speaker and a man of considerable personal charm, he nevertheless failed to achieve much in tangible political terms other than the basis of a legitimate party of opposition.

See alsoFrench Revolution; Great Britain; Tories; Whigs.


Graham, Jenny. The Nation, the Law, and the King: Reform Politics in England, 1789–1799. Lanham, Md., and Oxford, U.K., 2000. Argues that Fox and his followers were much more sympathetic to and supportive of the radicals outside Parliament than most historians allow.

Mitchell, Leslie. Charles James Fox. Oxford, U.K., 1992.

O'Gorman, Frank. The Whig Party and the French Revolution. London, 1967.

Emma Vincent Macleod

Fox, Charles James

views updated Jun 11 2018

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


Ayling, S. , Fox (1991).

Fox, Charles James

views updated May 21 2018

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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