Charles James Fox, 1749-1806

Charles James Fox was born in London on 24 January 1749. His family was firmly placed within the political establishment, with his mother being the great-granddaughter of Charles II and his father having faithfully served Walpole for many years.

From his early years, Fox mixed both a willingness and aptitude for hard work with periods of dissolute behaviour, marked particularly by drink and heavy gambling. His education at Eton was interrupted by a four-month trip to the continent, which involved much gambling. However, on his return he continued with his studies and at Hertford College, Oxford even found delight in studying mathematics.

He was first elected to Parliament for Midhurst, in Sussex, in March 1768. This was technically a breach of Parliaments rules, as he had not yet reached the qualifying age of twenty-one. This was not the only rule to be bent during his Parliamentary career: it is highly unlikely that he consistently met the property qualifications either. His first years as an MP were marked by a conservative, even reactionary, attitude. He made his name as a Parliamentary orator with a speech in 1769 supporting Colonel Luttrell (Wilkes’ opponent in Middlesex), and, after joining the government in 1770 as a Lord of the Admiralty, frequently spoke out in favour of measures to curb the press.

The two events which marked his shift to support of the Whigs and reform of the system of government were, first, the Royal Marriage Bill, and then the American War of Independence. His mother’s family had disapproved of his parents’ marriage, and consequently Fox opposed restrictions on the rights of people to marry. When the Royal Marriage Bill attempted to restrict, at George III’s behest, the rights of the monarch’s children to marry, he opposed this and came into conflict with the monarch for the first time. He also resigned from the government. Although he returned to the government afterwards, the King forced him out again in 1774.

Fox’s views on the supremacy of Parliament, which had previously led him to oppose Wilkes’ and the rights of the press, now led him – in the context of the American War of Independence – increasingly to criticise the King’s actions and to call for greater powers for Parliament. In this, he increasingly worked with the Whigs who followed Rockingham. By the late 1770s, almost all traces of his earlier views were gone, and he not only regularly attacked the conduct of the war but also opposed measures such as the 1777 suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act.

The force of his speeches, based more on clear arguments and nimble debate rather than great eloquence or rhetoric, made him a significant figure in Parliament. Attacks on alleged misuse of public money, demands for cuts in the Civil List and support for reforms such as annual parliaments also brought him a popular following outside Parliament. Though his side rarely came close to winning a vote, sporadic attempts were made to bring him and the Rockingham Whigs into government. Such plans foundered on the Whigs’ suspicion that they were not being offered a real share of power.

The fall of North’s government in 1782 brought Rockingham to power, with Fox as Foreign Secretary. However, Fox was in a minority even in the new Cabinet over the conduct of the American war, the majority being willing to back the King in continuing to oppose independence and not introduce reform in public finances and administration. He was poised to resign from the government when Rockingham died. The same differences of opinion led him to refuse to serve under the next Prime Minister, Shelburne.

This decision split the Rockingham Whigs, with some in the government and some backing Fox. In opposition, he increasingly cooperated with North, who also opposed the new government. Together, they brought it down and forced the King to appoint Portland as Prime Minister, with Fox and North serving under him. This about-turn in relations between Fox and North brought many accusations of cynical manoeuvring, which Fox did little to dispel with his defence: ‘If men of honour can meet on points of general national concern, I see no reason for calling such a meeting an unnatural junction. It is neither wise nor noble to keep up such animosities forever’.

He had previously taken a principled stand by spurning overtures to bring him into different governments, despite the financial rewards office would have entailed, useful given his large gambling debts. His apparent cynicism in linking up with North was probably largely motivated by his hostility to the King. As Shelburne was the King’s favoured choice for Prime Minister, his coalition with North was the best way of frustrating George. His relations with the King, never good since the Royal Marriages Act, had declined further as he became friendly with the Prince of Wales, and the King saw him as responsible for encouraging dissolute behaviour by his son.

The Fox/North coalition proved to be unpopular, both inside and outside Parliament, and was hindered by the King’s constant conspiring against it. The actual cause of its fall was Fox’s attempt to reform the government of India. Any proposal ran into two problems – serious reform needed both to take some power away from the private East India Company and to set up some alternative source of power. Given the government’s unpopularity, it was easy for opponents to attack the reforms as interfering with the rights of private companies and setting up an unaccountable, potentially corrupt, new form of Indian government.

When Pitt succeeded Portland as Prime Minister, Fox and North still held a great majority in the Commons. However, by assiduously wooing MPs, and by working hard in constituencies, Pitt managed to first whittle the majority down, and then overturn it, in the general election of 1784.

Fox’s closeness to the Prince of Wales meant there was a chance of him becoming Prime Minister – if George III went sufficiently mad, the Prince would become Regent and was widely expected to replace Pitt with Fox. However, the combination of Pitt’s astute tactics and occasional improvements in George III’s health stopped this ever happening.

Fox was greatly excited by the French Revolution, and continued to praise it long after many other people in Britain had – in the face of its growing extremism – began to temper their views. War with France, and fear of revolution at home, led to many of his former supporters shifting to back the government. Fox himself frequently attacked Pitt’s conduct of the war and opposed repressive measures at home, but frequently only enjoyed a very small number of supporters. By the later 1790s he rarely turned up in Parliament, but became increasingly associated with popular discontent with the government and calls for radical reform. In 1798 he was removed from the Privy Council for drinking a toast to our sovereign, the people.

He started attending Parliament again in 1803, with a desire to overthrow the then Prime Minister, Addington. His initial alliance, with Grenville, did not have sufficient strength. As with Shelburne, he met success by cooperating with a previous enemy, Pitt. The fall of Addington led to Pitt becoming Prime Minister once more, though the King blocked Fox from taking any office. On Pitt’s death in 1806, Grenville became Prime Minister, with Fox back as Foreign Secretary. He had only a few months in office before his death on 13 September 1806.

Increasingly during his life Fox became associated with views that modern liberals would recognise belief in power stemming from the people, desire for wide-ranging reform and an optimistic belief in progress through appropriate policies.

Fox married his mistress, Elizabeth Armistead, in 1795, although their marriage was kept secret until 1802. He had one son, who was deaf and dumb and only lived until fifteen.

There have been many biographies and related works, as a result both of his colourful private life and the many political events in which he featured. Some of the more useful biographies are: D. Powell, Charles James Fox, man of the people (Hutchinson, 1989); S. Ayling, Fox (John Murray, 1991); and L. G. Mitchell, Charles James Fox (OUP, 1992). A more colourful biography is I. M. Davies, The harlot and the statesman, the story of Elizabeth Armistead and Charles James Fox (Bourne End, 1986). D. Schweitzer, Charles James Fox, a bibliography (Greenwood, 1991) is a useful source for further works.