British statesman and orator
Born 1749 Died 1806
Charles James Fox was the third son of Henry Fox, 1st Baron Holland, and his wife, Lady Caroline Lennox, eldest daughter of Charles Lennox, 2nd Duke of Richmond. He was born at 9 Conduit Street, Westminster, on the 24th of January 1749. The father, who treated his children with extreme indulgence, allowed him to choose his school, and he elected to go to one kept at Wandsworth by a French refugee, named Pampelonne. In a very short time he asked to be sent to Eton, where he went in 1757. At Eton he did no more work than was acceptable to him, but he had an inborn love of literature, and he laid the foundation of that knowledge of the classic languages which in after years was the delight of his life. The vehemence of his temper was controlled by an affectionate disposition. When quite a boy he checked his own tendency to fits of passion on learning that his father trusted him to cure his defects.
That he learnt anything, and that he grew up an amiable and magnanimous man, were solely due to his natural worth, for no one ever owed less to education or to family example. The relations of Lord Holland to his sons would be difficult to parallel. He not only treated them, and in particular Charles, as friends and companions in pleasure from the first, but he did his best to encourage them in dissipation. In 1763 he took Charles for a tour on the continent, introduced him to the most immoral society of the time and gave him money with which to gamble. The boy came back to Eton a precocious rake. It was his good fortune that he did go back, for he was subjected to a wholesome course of ridicule by the other boys, and was flogged by Dr Barnard, the headmaster.
In 1764 Charles proceeded to Hertford College, Oxford. At Oxford, as at Eton, he read literature from natural liking, and he paid some attention to mathematics. His often quoted saying that he found mathematics entertaining was probably meant as a jest at the expense of Sir G. Macartney, to whom he was writing, and who was known to maintain that it was useless. His own account of his school and college training, given in a letter to the same correspondent (6th August 1767), is:
"I employed almost my whole time at Oxford in the mathematical and classical knowledge, but more particularly in the latter, so that I understand Latin and Greek tolerably well. I am totally ignorant in every part of useful knowledge. I am more convinced every day how little advantage there is in being what at school and the university is called a good scholar: one receives a good deal of amusement from it, but that is all. At present I read nothing but Italian, which I am immoderately fond of, particularly of the poetry. . . . As for French, I am far from being so thorough a master of it as I could wish, but I know so much of it that I could perfect myself in it at any time with very little trouble, especially if I pass three or four months in France."
The passage is characteristic. It shows at once his love of good literature and his thoroughness. Fox's youth was disorderly, but it was never indolent. He was incapable of half doing anything which he did at all. He did perfect himself in French, and he showed no less determination to master mere sports. At a later period when he had grown fat he accounted for his skill in taking cut balls at tennis by saying that he was a very painstaking man. He was all his life a great and steady walker.
The disorders of his early years were notorious, and were a common subject of gossip. In the spring of 1767 he left Oxford and joined his father on the continent during a tour in France and Italy. In 1768 Lord Holland bought the pocket borough of Midhurst for him, and he entered on his parliamentary career, and on London society, in 1769. Within the next few years Lord Holland reaped to the full the reward for all that was good, and whatever was evil, in the training he had given his son. The affection of Charles Fox for his father was unbounded, but the passion for gambling which had been instilled in him as a boy proved the ruin of the family fortune. He kept racehorses, and bet on them largely. On the racecourse he was successful, and it is another proof of his native thoroughness that he gained a reputation as a handicapper. It is said that he won more than he lost on the course.
At the gambling table he was unfortunate, and there can be little question that he was fleeced both in London and in Paris by unscrupulous players of his own social rank, who took advantage of his generosity and whose worthlessness he knew. In the ardour of his passion Fox took his losses and their consequences with an attractive gaiety. He called the room in which he did business with the Jew moneylenders his "Jerusalem chamber". When his elder brother had a son, and his prospects were injured, he said that the boy was "a second Messiah", who had appeared for the destruction of the Jews. He had his jest, and they had his estate. In 1774 Lord Holland had to find £140,000 to pay the gambling debts of his sons. For years Charles lived in pecuniary embarrassment, and during his later years, when he had given up gambling, he was supported by the contributions of wealthy friends, who in 1793 formed a fund of £70,000 for his benefit.
His public career did not supply him with a check on habits of dissipation in the shape of the responsibilities of office. He began, as was to be expected in his father's son, by supporting the court; and in 1770, when only twenty-one, he was appointed a junior lord of the admiralty with Lord North. During the violent conflict over the Middlesex election (see John Wilkes) he took the unpopular side, and vehemently asserted the right of the House of Commons to exclude Wilkes. In 1772 during the proceedings against Crosby and Olivera part of the 'Wilkes and liberty' agitation he and Lord North were attacked by a mob and rolled in the mud. But Fox's character was incompatible with ministerial service under King George III. The king, himself a man of orderly life, detested him as a gambler and a rake. And Fox was too independent to please a master who expected obedience.
In February 1772 he threw up his place to be free to oppose the Royal Marriage Act, on which the king's heart was set. He returned to office as junior lord of the treasury in December. But he was insubordinate; his sympathy with the American colonies, which were now beginning to resist the claims of the mother country to tax them, made him intolerable to the king and he was dismissed in February 1774. The death of his father on the 1st of July of that year removed an influence which tended to keep him subordinate to the court, and his friendship for Burke drew him into close alliance with the Rockingham Whigs. From the first his ability had won him admiration in the House of Commons. He had prepared to distinguish himself as an orator by the elaborate cultivation of his voice, which was naturally harsh and shrill. His argumentative force was recognized at once, but the full scope of his powers was first shown on the 2nd of February 1775, when he spoke on the disputes with the colonies. The speech is unfortunately lost, but Gibbon, who heard it, told his friend Holroyd (afterwards Earl of Sheffield) that Fox, taking the vast compass of the question before us, discovered powers for regular debate which neither his friends hoped nor his enemies dreaded.
His great political career dates from that day. It is unique among the careers of British statesmen of the first rank, for it was passed almost wholly in opposition. Except for a few months in 1782 and 1783, and again for a few months before his death in 1806, he was out of office. If he was absolutely sincere in the statement he made to his friend Fitzpatrick, in a letter of the 3rd of February 1778, his life was all he could have wished. "I am", he wrote, "certainly ambitious by nature, but I really have, or think I have, totally subdued that passion. I have still asmuch vanity as ever, which is a happier passion by far, because great reputation I think I may acquire and keep, great situation I never can acquire, nor if acquired keep, without making sacrifices that I never will make." His words show that he judged himself and read the future accurately. Yet it was certainly a cause of bitter disappointment to him that he had to stand by while the country was in his opinion not only misgoverned, but led to ruin.
His reputation as an orator and a political critic, which was great from the first and grew as he lived, most assuredly did not console him for his impotence as a statesman. Of the causes which rendered his brilliant capacity useless for the purpose of obtaining practical success the most important, perhaps the only one of real importance, was his personal character. Lord John Russell (afterwards Earl Russell), his friendly biographer, has to confess that Fox might have joined in the confession of Mirabeau: "The public cause suffers for the immoralities of my youth". His reputation as a rake and gambler was so well established at the very beginning of his career that when he was dismissed from office in 1774 there was a general belief among the vulgar that he had been detected in actual theft. His perfect openness, the notoriety of his bankruptcies and of the seizure of his books and furniture in execution, kept him before the world as a model of dissipation.
In 1776, when he was leading the resistance to Lord North's colonial policy, he neither abandoned gaming nor his rakish life. He was seldom in bed before five in the morning nor out of it before two at noon. At the most important crisis of his life in 1783, he almost made an ostentation of disorder and of indifference not only to appearances, but even to decency. Horace Walpole has drawn a picture of him at that time which Lord Holland, Fox's beloved and admiring nephew, speaking from his early recollections of his uncle, confesses has some justification. Coming from such an authority the certificate may be held to confirm the substantial accuracy of Walpole. Fox lodged in St James's Street, and as soon as he rose, which was very late, had a levee of his followers and of the gaming club at Brooks's all his disciples. His bristly black person, and shagged breast quite open and rarely purified by any ablutions, was wrapped in a foul linen nightgown and his bushy hair dishevelled. In these cynic weeds and with Epicurean good humour did he dictate his politics, and in this school did the heir of the empire attend his lessons and imbibe them. That this cynic manner, and Epicurean speech, were only the outside of a manly and generous nature was well known to the personal friends of Fox, and is now universally allowed. But by the bulk of his contemporaries, who could not fail to see the weaknesses he ostentatiously displayed, Fox was, not unnaturally, suspected as being immoral and untrustworthy. Therefore when he came into collision with the will of the king he failed to secure the confidence of the nation which was his only support. Nor ought any critical admirer of Fox to deny that George III was not wholly wrong when he said that the great orator was totally destitute of discretion and sound judgment. Fox made many mistakes, due in some cases to vehemence of temperament, and in others only to be ascribed to want of sagacity. That he fought unpopular causes is a very insufficient explanation of his failure as a practical statesman. He could have profited by the reaction which followed popular excitement but for his bad reputation and his want of discretion.
During the eight years between his expulsion from office in 1774 and the fall of Lord North's ministry in March 1782 he may indeed be said to have done one very great thing in politics. He planted the seed of the modern Liberal party as opposed to the pure Whigs. In political allegiance be became a member of the Rockingham party and worked in alliance with the marquis and with Burke, whose influence on him was great. In opposing the attempt to coerce the American colonists, and in assailing the waste and corruption of Lord North's administration, as well as the undue influence of the crown, he was at one with the Rockingham Whigs. During the agitation against corruption, and in favour of honest management of the public money, which was very strong between 1779 and 1782, he and they worked heartily together. It had a considerable effect, and prepared the way for the reforms begun by Burke and continued by Pitt. But if Fox learnt much from Burke he learnt with originality. He declined to accept the revolution settlement as final, or to think with Burke that the constitution of the House of Commons could not be bettered. Fox acquired the conviction that, if the House was to be made an efficient instrument for restraining the interference of the king and for securing good government, it must cease to be filled to a very large extent by the nominees of boroughmongers and the treasury. He became a strong advocate for parliamentary reform. In all ways he was the ardent advocate of what have in later times been known as Liberal causes, the removal of all religious disabilities and tests, the suppression of private interests which hampered the public good, the abolition of the slave trade, and the emancipation of all classes and races of men from the strict control of authority.
A detailed account of his activity from 1774 to 1782 would entail the mention of every crisis of the American War of Independence and of every serious debate in parliament. Throughout the struggle Fox was uniformly opposed to the coercion of the colonies and was the untiring critic of Lord North. While the result must be held to prove that he was right, he prepared future difficulties for himself by the fury of his language. He was the last man in the world to act on the worldly-wise maxim that an enemy should always be treated as if he may one day be a friend, and a friend as if he might become an enemy. On the 29th of November 1779 Fox was wounded in a duel with Mr William Adam, a supporter of Lord North's whom he had savagely denounced. He assailed Lord North with unmeasured invective, directed not only at his policy but at his personal character, though he well knew that the prime minister was an amiable though pliable man, who remained in office against his own wish, in deference to the king who appealed to his loyalty.
When the disasters of the American war had at last made a change of ministry necessary, and the king applied to the Whigs, through the intermediary of Lord Shelburne, Fox made a very serious mistake in persuading the Marquess of Rockingham not to insist on dealing directly with the sovereign. The result was the formation of a cabinet belonging, in Fox's own words, "partly to the king and partly to the country" that is to say, partly of Whigs who wished to restrain the king, and partly of the king's friends, represented by Lord Shelburne, whose real function was to baffle the Whigs. Dissensions began from the first, and were peculiarly acute between Shelburne and Fox, the two secretaries of state. The old division of duties by which the southern secretary had the correspondence with the colonies and the western powers of Europe, and the northern secretary with the others, had been abolished on the formation of the Rockingham cabinet. All foreign affairs were entrusted to Fox. Lord Shelburne meddled in the negotiations for the peace at Paris. He also persuaded his colleagues to grant some rather scandalous pensions, and Fox's acquiescence in this abuse after his recent agitation against Lord North's waste did him injury. When the Marquess of Rockingham died on the 1st of July 1782, and the king offered the premiership to Shelburne, Fox resigned, and was followed by a part of the Rockingham Whigs.
In refusing to serve under Shelburne he was undoubtedly consistent, but his next step was ruinous to himself and his party. On the 4th of February 1783 he formed a coalition with Lord North, based as they declared on mutual goodwill and confidence. Plausible excuses were made for the alliance, but to the country at large this union, formed with a man whom he had denounced for years, had the appearance of an unscrupulous conspiracy to obtain office on any terms. In the House of Commons the coalition was strong enough to drive Shelburne from office on the 24th of February. The king made a prolonged resistance to the pressure put on him to accept Fox and North as his ministers (see William Pitt). On the 2nd of April he was constrained to submit to the formation of a new ministry, in which the Duke of Portland was prime minister and Fox and North were secretaries of state. The new administration was ill liked by some of the followers of both.
Fox increased its unpopularity both in the House and in the country by consenting against the wish of most of his colleagues to ask for the grant of a sum of £100,000 a year to the Prince of Wales. The act had the appearance of a deliberate offence to the king, who was on bad terms with his son. The magnitude of the sum, and his acquiescence in the grant of pensions by the Shelburne ministry, convinced the country that his zeal for economy was hypocritical. The introduction of the India Bill in November 1783 alarmed many vested interests, and offended the king by the provision which gave the patronage of India to a commission to be named by the ministry and removable only by parliament. The coalition, and Fox in particular, were assailed in a torrent of most telling invective and caricature. Encouraged by the growing unpopularity of his ministers, George III gave it to be understood that he would not look upon any member of the House of Lords who voted for the India Bill as his friend. The bill was thrown out in the upper House on the 17th of December, and next day the king dismissed his ministers.
Fox now went into opposition again. The remainder of his life may be divided into four portions; his opposition to Pitt during the session of 1784; his parliamentary activity till his secession in 1797; his retirement till 1800; his return to activity and his short tenure of office before his death in 1806. During the first of these periods he deepened his unpopularity by assailing the undoubted prerogatives of the crown, by claiming for the House of Commons the right to override not only the king and the Lords but the opinion of the country, and by resisting a dissolution. This last pretension came very ill from a statesman who in 1780 had advocated yearly elections. He lost ground daily before the steady good judgment and unblemished character of Pitt. When parliament was dissolved at the end of the session of 1784. the country showed its sentiments by unseating 180 of the followers of Fox and North. Immense harm was done to both by the publication of a book called The Beauties of Fox, North and Burke, a compilation of their abuse of one another in recent years.
Fox himself was elected for Westminster with fewer votes than Admiral Lord Hood, but with a majority over the ministerial candidate, Sir Cecil Wray. The election was marked by an amazing outflow of caricatures and squibs, by weeks of rioting in which Lord Hood's sailors fought pitched battles in St James's Street with Fox's hackney coachmen, and by the intrepid canvassing of Whig ladies. The beautiful Duchess of Devonshire (Georgiana Spencer) is said to have won at least one vote for Fox by kissing a shoemaker who had a romantic idea of what constituted a desirable bribe. The high bailiff refused to make a return, and the confirmation of Fox's election was delayed by the somewhat mean action of the ministry. He had, however, been chosen for Kirkwall, and could fight his cause in the House. In the end he recovered damages from the high bailiff.
In his place in parliament he sometimes supported Pitt and sometimes opposed him with effect. His criticism on the minister's bill for the government of India was sound in principle, though the evils be foresaw did not arise. Little excuse can be made for his opposition to Pitt's commercial policy towards Ireland. But as Fox on this occasion aided the vested interests of some English manufacturers he secured a certain revival of popularity. His support of Pitt's Reform Bill was qualified by a just dislike of the ministers proposal to treat the possession of the franchise by a constituency as a property and not as a trust. His unsuccessful opposition to the commercial treaty with France in 1787 was unwise and most injurious to himself. He committed himself to the proposition that France was the natural enemy of Great Britain, a saying often quoted against him in coming years. It has been excused on the ground that when he said France he meant the aggressive house of Bourbon. A statesman whose words have to be interpreted by an esoteric meaning cannot fairly complain if he is often misunderstood.
In 1788 he travelled in Italy, but returned in haste on hearing of the illness of the king. Fox supported the claim of the Prince of Wales to the regency as a right, a doctrine which provoked Pitt into declaring that he would unwhig the gentleman for the rest of his life. The friendship between him and the Prince of Wales (see George IV) was always injurious to Fox. In 1787 he was misled by the prince's ambiguous assurances into denying the marriage with Mrs Fitzherbert. On discovering that he had been deceived he broke off all relations with the prince for a year, but their alliance was renewed. During these years he was always in favour of whatever measures could be described as favourable to emancipation and to humanity. He actively promoted the impeachment of Warren Hastings, which had the support of Pitt. He was always in favour of the abolition of the slave trade (which he actually effected during his short tenure of office in 1806), of the repeal of the Test Acts, and of concessions to the Roman Catholics, both in Great Britain and in Ireland.
The French Revolution affected Fox profoundly. Together with almost all his countrymen he welcomed the meeting of the states-general in 1789 as the downfall of a despotism hostile to Great Britain. But when the development of the Revolution caused a general reaction, he adhered stoutly to his opinion that the Revolution was essentially just and ought not to be condemned for its errors or even for its crimes. As a natural consequence he was the steady opponent of Pitt's foreign policy, which he condemned as a species of crusade against freedom in the interest of despotism. Between 1790 and 1800 his unpopularity reached its height. He was left almost alone in parliament, and was denounced as the enemy of his country. On the 6th of May 1791 occurred the painful scene in the House of Commons, in which Burke renounced his friendship. In 1792 there was some vague talk of a coalition between him and Pitt, which came to nothing. It should be noted that the scene with Burke took place in the course of the debate on the Quebec Bill, in which Fox displayed real statesmanship by criticizing the division of Upper from Lower Canada, and other provisions of the bill, which in the end proved so injurious as to be unworkable. In this year he carried the Libel Bill. In 1792 his ally, the Duke of Portland, and most of his party left him. In 1797 he withdrew from parliament, and only came forward in 1798 to reaffirm the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people at a great Whig dinner. On the 9th of May he was dismissed from the privy council.
The interval of secession was perhaps the happiest in his life. In 1783 he formed a connection with Elizabeth Bridget Cane, commonly known as Mrs Armstead or Armistead, an amiable and well-mannered woman to whom he was passionately attached. In company with her he established himself at St Anne's Hill near Chertsey in Surrey. In 1795 he married her privately, but did not avow his marriage till 1802. In his letters he spoke of her always as 'Mrs Armistead', and some of his friends Mr Coke of Holkham, afterwards Lord Leicester, with whom he stayed every year, being one of them would not invite her to their houses. It is hard to explain this solitary instance of shabby conduct in a thoroughly generous man towards a person to whom he was unalterably attached and who fully deserved his affection. Fox's time at St Annes was largely spent in gardening, in the enjoyment of the country, and in correspondence on literary subjects with his nephew, the 3rd Lord Holland, and with Gilbert Wakefield, the editor of Euripides. His letters show that he had a very sincere love for, and an enlightened appreciation of, good literature. Greek and Italian were his first favourites, but he was well read in English literature and in French, and acquired some knowledge of Spanish. His favourite authors were Euripides, Virgil and Racine, whom he defends against the stock criticisms of the admirers of Corneille with equal zeal and insight.
Fox reappeared in parliament to take part in the vote of censure on ministers for declining Napoleon's overtures for a peace. The fall of Pitt's final ministry and the formation of the Addington cabinet, the peace of Amiens, and the establishment of Napoleon as first consul with all the powers of a military despot, seemed to offer Fox a chance of resuming power in public life. The struggle with Jacobinism was over, and he could have no hesitation in supporting resistance to a successful general who ruled by the sword, and who pursued a policy of perpetual aggression. During 1802 he visited Paris in company with his wife. An account of his journey was published in 1811 by his secretary, Mr Trotter, in an otherwise poor book of reminiscence. It gives an attractive picture of Fox's good-humour, and of his enjoyment of the species of minor comedy which is constantly exhibited in common life. His main purpose in visiting Paris was to superintend the transcription of the correspondence of Barillon, which he needed for his proposed life of James II. The book was never finished, but the fragment he completed was published in 1808, and was translated into French by Armand Carrel in 1846. Fox was not favourably impressed by Napoleon. He saw a good deal of French society, and was himself much admired for his hearty defence of his rival Pitt against a foolish charge of encouraging plots for Napoleon's assassination. On his return he resumed his regular attendance in the House of Commons. The history of the renewal of the war, of the fall of Addington's ministry, and of the formation of Pitt's second administration is so fully dealt with in the article on Pitt that it need not be repeated here.
The death of Pitt left Fox so manifestly the foremost man in public life that the king could no longer hope to exclude him from office. The formation of a ministry was entrusted by the king to Lord Grenville, but when he named Fox as his proposed secretary of state for foreign affairs George III accepted him without demur. Indeed his hostility seems to a large extent to have died out. A long period of office might now have appeared to lie before Fox, but his health was undermined. Had he lived it may be considered as certain that the war with Napoleon wOuld have been conducted with a vigour which was much wanting during the next few years. In domestic politics Fox had no time to do more than insist on the abolition of the slave trade. He, like Pitt, was compelled to bow to the king's invincible determination not to allow the emancipation of the Roman Catholics. When a French adventurer calling himself Guillet de la Gevrillire, whom Fox at first did the honour to take for a spy, came to him with a scheme for the murder of Napoleon, he sent a warning on the 20th of February to Talleyrand. The incident gave him an opportunity for reopen negotiations for peace. A correspondence ensued, and British envoys were sent to Paris. But Fox was soon convinced that the French ministers were playing a false game.
He was resolved not to treat apart from Russia, then the ally of Great Britain, nor to consent to the surrender of Sicily, which Napoleon insisted upon, unless full compensation could be obtained for King Ferdinand. The later stages of the negotiation were not directed by Fox, but by colleagues who took over his work at the foreign office when his health began to fail in the summer of 1806. He showed symptoms of dropsy, and operations only procured him temporary relief. After carrying his motion for the abolition of the slave trade on the 10th of June, he was forced to give up attendance in parliament, and he died in the house of the Duke of Devonshire, at Chiswick, on the 13th of September 1806. His wife survived him till the 8th of July 1842. No children were born of the marriage. Fox is buried in Westminster Abbey by the side of Pitt.
The striking personal appearance of Fox has been rendered very familiar by portraits and by innumerable caricatures. The latter were no doubt deliberately exaggerated, and yet a comparison between the head of Fox in Sayer's plate Carlo Khan's triumphal entry into Leadenhall, and in Abbot's portrait, shows that the caricaturist did not depart from the original. Fox was twice painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, once when young in a group with Lady Sarah Bunbury and Lady Susan Strangeways, and once at full length. A half-length portrait by the German painter, Karl Anton Hickel, is in the National Portrait Gallery, where there is also a terra-cotta bust by Nollekens.
Authorities. The materials for a life of Fox were first collected by his nephew, Lord Holland, and were then revised and rearranged by Mr Allen and Lord John Russell. These materials appear as Memoirs and Correspondence of C. J. Fox (London, 1853-1857). On them Lord John Russell based his Life and Times of C. J. Fox (London, 1859-1866); Sir G. O. Trevelyan's Early History of C. J. Fox (London. 1880) brings new evidence; Charles James Fox, a Political Study, by J. L. Le B. Hammond (London, 1903), is a series of studies written by an extreme admirer. His Speeches were collected and published in 1815. The newspaper articles (e.g. in The Times) published on the occasion of the centenary of his death contain interesting appreciations. See also Lloyd Sanders, The Holland House Circle (1908). (D. H.)
Being the entry for FOX, CHARLES JAMES in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.