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 on Charles James Fox

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 Biography 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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