Fox, Charles James (1749–1806), politician, was born on 24 January 1749 in Conduit Street, London, the second son of Henry Fox, later first Baron Holland (1705–1774), politician, and Lady (Georgiana) Caroline Lennox, suo jure Baroness Holland of Holland (1723–1774), daughter of the second duke of Richmond [see Fox, (Georgiana) Caroline, Baroness Holland of Holland]. He had an elder brother, Stephen, later second Baron Holland (1745–1774), a minor politician until his early death, and a younger brother, Henry Edward Fox (1755–1811), who had a distinguished military career. This was a close-knit family and Fox enjoyed loving relationships with all his immediate connections. Through his mother's family he was a direct descendant of Charles II, and he was given the distinctly Stuart names of Charles and James. This was an unlikely beginning for the future leader of the whig party. There were other un-whiggish aspects to Fox's inheritance. His father was held responsible for completing the removal of the whig party from office in 1762–3, and was never forgiven for this. Since Fox proved to be the most filial of sons, his father's enemies became his own. A son's affection also prompted Fox, throughout his political career, to defend his father's reputation and actions across a whole range of topics, notably against charges that he had embezzled huge amounts of public money while acting as paymaster-general. With some confidence Henry Fox hoped to ‘build’ on his son ‘for many hours of Comfort’ (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 16).
The close, emotional involvement of father and son was established early. Henry Fox found Charles ‘infinitely engaging & clever & pretty’ (Mitchell,Charles James Fox, 4), and preferred him to all other companions at meals from the time that the boy was three years old. Accordingly little or no restraint was put on his son's whims and desires; state papers could be thrown onto the fire, watches destroyed, or garden walls built or demolished with no sanctions or punishment meted out. It was known around Europe that Charles Fox had had the most indulgent of upbringings, as evidenced in Les amours et les aventures du Lord Fox (1785, 17–18). Free of all discipline and restraint when a child, Fox in turn found it impossible to restrain others. A major failing in his political leadership was his inability to impose authority on others, particularly if they were young. It was always a maxim of his that ‘he did not like to discourage the young ones’ (C. Grey, The Life and Opinions of the Second Earl Grey, 1913, 11). Critics endlessly returned to the theme that Fox's own career had been blasted by the indiscipline and wilfulness that characterized so many of his actions.
Fox had dark, swarthy features and was extremely hirsute; at his birth his father had likened him to a monkey. He had a rounded face, dominated by luxuriant eyebrows; the whigs lived by nicknames and his was the Eyebrow. A dandy in youth, he was unkempt in middle age; caricaturists delighted in portraying him as unshaven, with clothes in disorder. Inclined to corpulence by nature, Fox's dissipated lifestyle did nothing to counter a tendency to be overweight. He enjoyed riding and cricket but, in the latter game, a combination of impulsiveness and too much weight led to his being run out between wickets.
As in all other aspects of his upbringing Fox was given carte blanche about his education. By his own choice he went, first, at the age of seven, to Mr Pampellone's school in Wandsworth and then, on 22 June 1758, he enrolled in Dame Milward's House at Eton College. There he encountered such men as the second duke of Leinster, Lord John Townshend, Earl Fitzwilliam, James Hare, and the fifth earl of Carlisle, all of whom were to be lifelong friends and associates. He called them ‘the Gang’ (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 7). He quickly established himself as a classical scholar of note, and Eton was moved to publish some of his Latin writings. In 1763 he was taken to Paris by his father. The boy was given a substantial amount of money with which to gamble and the ever-indulgent father arranged for him to lose his virginity to a certain Madame de Quallens. He briefly returned to Eton but, perhaps predictably after these experiences, he was asked to leave early in 1764, as he was ‘too witty to live there—and a little too wicked’ (The World, 3 Feb 1787).
In the autumn of 1764 Fox entered Hart Hall, Oxford, where his tutor was William Newcombe. There he took some interest in mathematics and deepened his classical repertory, but he left the university without a degree and with a mild contempt for its ‘nonsenses’ (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 8). Of more importance were renewed visits to Paris, which he described as ‘such a nurture in Education [as] was never seen’ (ibid., 9). He returned there in April–May 1765, accompanied by his mother and elder brother. Between September 1766 and August 1768 he made an extensive grand tour, partly in the company of Etonian friends, which took in Paris, Lyons, Lausanne, and many Italian cities. He was interviewed by Voltaire at Ferney and stayed with Gibbon in Switzerland. More particularly he met leading figures in French society, with whom he established friendships that would, in the long term, carry the most profound political consequences. Among these were the duc d'Orléans, the marquis de Lafayette, and the duc de Lauzun. The last became co-owner with Fox of a number of racehorses. Further visits to the French capital in 1769 and 1771 confirmed Fox's place among the European élite, whose reputations were made or damned in Parisian salons. Fox returned to England in the height of French fashion, as what was called a petit maître, or Macaroni. Such preferences began to establish in the public mind Fox's reputation for things alien and un-English, a point of criticism that dogged him for the whole of his political life.
This distinctive upbringing led Fox to lead a private life that was considered exotic, scandalous, attractive, and larger than life. Nor was it really private. Fox was the subject of more caricatures than any other person in the late eighteenth century (N. K. Robinson, Edmund Burke: a Life in Caricature, 1996, 7–8). His peccadilloes and vices were paraded before the public without interruption. Journalists and pamphleteers joyfully joined the hunt. Rarely can the private life of a major statesman have been subjected to such comment and ridicule. Two aspects of his life commanded particular attention. First, Fox was properly recognized as the doyen of the gambling craze that disturbed so many family fortunes in the last decades of the eighteenth century. His winnings and losses were on a heroic scale. Between 1772 and 1774 his father was required to pay off £120,000 of debt incurred at Newmarket and at the gaming tables in Brooks's Club. Between 1781 and 1784 Fox was twice sold up as a bankrupt, to the terrible embarrassment of friends such as Carlisle, who had stood as sureties for his debts. In the 1780s he borrowed heavily from the banker Thomas Coutts. In 1793 his friends raised £61,000 to buy him an annuity but, in spite of this provision, Fox left £10,000 of debt at his death. Throughout his life his private finances were a shambles and were quite often ‘more the subject of conversation than any other topic’ (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 101). Inevitably, too, immoderate drinking was the natural accompaniment of inveterate gambling.
Second, Fox's relationships with women had a considerable notoriety, even for a period when the mistress or the lover was an unremarkable feature of London life. On the grand tour there had been a Kitty, an Angelina, and a silversmith's wife in Nice. Having returned to London he took up with ‘an Irish woman more beautiful than words’, called Mrs Holmes (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 12). In 1782 he had an affair with Perdita Robinson, the actress, and in 1783–4 he was probably the lover of Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire. At times these women were shared with old friends from school and politics. In 1784 or 1785, however, he met Elizabeth Bridget Armitstead (1750–1842), a former mistress of the prince of Wales, and they began living together. They were married in secret in September 1795 but it was not until 1802 that she was acknowledged in public. Under her influence Fox's life became increasingly domesticated. His London home, in South Street, was sold in March 1798. Henceforth they lived exclusively at St Anne's Hill in Surrey, in a villa purchased in 1784. In spite of this reformation of manners Fox was remembered for his earlier excesses. It was thought that the character of Charles Surface in Sheridan's School for Scandal was built on his escapades, as were certain themes of Samuel Foote's The Cozeners.
There can be no doubt but that this history severely damaged Fox's prospects. George III regarded him as beyond morality and as the prince of Wales's tutor in debauchery. Equally, many voters refused to support a man who was so often and so openly profligate. Conversely such considerations never influenced Fox's decisions. The world within which he moved was a narrow one. Insulated by circles of admiring friends, who forgave him everything, he considered all opinion coming from outside these ranks to be nearly worthless. He rarely recognized this avalanche of moral disapproval as threatening; indeed he collected the very caricatures that showed him up in the worst possible light. For such indifference he paid a heavy penalty. As Lord Carlisle observed, ‘the respect of the world was not easily retrievable, he became so callous to what was said of him, as never to repress a single thought, or even temper a single expression when he was before the public’ (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 14). Even before his political career had started Fox had firmly established a reputation that militated against the possibility of success.
Of all his family Fox was closest to his niece Caroline and his nephew Henry, later third Baron Holland. After the death of their father, Stephen Fox, second Baron Holland, in 1774, Fox, although not their official guardian, appointed himself as their guide and mentor. Both children developed a keen interest in politics. They also provided an invaluable link to the first marquess of Lansdowne, who was also their uncle, a family link much exploited in 1782 and again in the 1790s. In particular Fox took great trouble with the upbringing of his nephew, the heir to the family's name and reputation. As Holland remembered, Fox ‘seemed to take pleasure in awakening my ambition, and directing it, both by conversation and correspondence’ (Mitchell, Holland House, 41). Fox determined when Holland should embark on the grand tour and arranged introductions and programmes. Since the boy also shared Fox's literary interests he received letters from his uncle that were tutorials on what it was appropriate for a whig to like and believe. The result was that Holland became his uncle's creature. It was assumed that Fox was grooming his nephew to take over the leadership of the party, a project that was thwarted by Holland's failure to overcome a speech impediment and by his controversial marriage.
In July 1797 Holland married Elizabeth, Lady Webster, whom he had met in Italy. As a divorced woman she carried a notoriety that was only sharpened by the most powerful of personalities. Macaulay described her as ‘a bold looking woman, with the remains of a fine figure, and the air of Queen Elizabeth’ (J. Clive, Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1973, 210). Fox disapproved of the match and refused to attend the wedding; in his view Holland had destroyed any chance of a prominent political career. The new Lady Holland, with some justice, pronounced herself ‘extremely afraid of my Uncle Charles’ (Mitchell, Holland House, 39). Only with difficulty were relations restored; Fox was never the sort of man who could hold on to a grievance beyond a certain time. On the other hand, to venerate Fox fitted Holland's inclinations and his wife's ambitions. Their famous uncle gave them a status which virtually every other factor in their lives would have denied them. Holland House, standing in the middle of Holland Park and within easy access of London, therefore became the centre of Foxite social life and the temple in which Fox himself was revered [see also Holland House set]. From 1797 until 1840 Holland House was a salon with a clear purpose. Holland transmitted his uncle's values into the nineteenth century, and associated new generations of the rich and talented in their trusteeship. In a real sense Fox's affection for and care of his nephew was returned in full measure.
Fox was elected to parliament on 10 May 1768, when only nineteen years of age and therefore technically ineligible to stand. His father had bought the representation of Midhurst in Sussex. Fox quickly established himself as someone of exceptional ability and promise. A talented orator, he allegedly addressed the Commons 254 times between 1768 and 1774. If true, this would suggest that this was the period in which Fox took politics most seriously in the whole of his career. Predictably his views were those of his father. Remembering Henry Fox's ill treatment by the Rockingham whigs, the son became a supporter of the Grafton and North ministries. At this stage his opinions were quite the opposite of those that could be expected of a future populist. He was prominent in the campaign to punish John Wilkes for challenging parliament, and both Fox and his brother were manhandled by London crowds for their pains. As he lectured the Commons on 25 March 1771:
What acquaintance have the people at large with the arena of political rectitude, with the connections of kingdoms, the resources of national strength, the abilities of minister, or even with their own dispositions? … I pay no regard whatever to the voice of the people: it is their duty to do what is proper, without considering what may be agreeable. (Speeches, 1.13–14)
In these years relations between Fox and Lord North were congenial; each respected the other and they frequently met socially. Fox had been elected to the Club and to the Dilettanti. Their later collaboration in the coalition ministry of 1783–4 was built on the memory of these years. Accordingly Fox had no quarrel with North's American policies, even those which tended to the coercion of the colonists, nor with his attempt to regulate the British presence in India. It seemed that Fox could look forward to a most promising future as a ministerialist. Between 1772 and 1774, however, this easy progress was shattered. Twice Fox was appointed to government office and twice he resigned for reasons that the political world at large found hard to understand.
In February 1770 Fox was given a place on the Admiralty board. He resigned it on 15 February 1772 in protest against the passing of the Royal Marriages Act. In requiring the immediate descendants of monarchs to win the approval of the sovereign before marrying, the act cast doubt on the relationship of Fox's parents, his mother being descended from Charles II. In December 1772 he was appointed to the Treasury board, where his attention to business seemed to confirm all his earlier promise. Unfortunately he surrendered this post in February 1774, ostensibly to mark his indignation at the government's feeble response to the printers, who had shown contempt for the rules of parliamentary procedure by printing reports of parliamentary debates. In fact he and his family had felt increasingly slighted by Lord North, who had refused their persistent claims that the Holland barony should be raised to an earldom. Both resignations were therefore prompted by family considerations rather than by any sharp disagreements about major policies. At this stage of his career Fox could be said to have had no politics except family politics.
For a young man of twenty-five to take the offers of public office so lightly was critically noted. At best it was described as capricious. George III took it to be presumption. Taken in conjunction with Fox's private life doubts were expressed about whether Fox could take anything quite seriously. His later inattention to politics, involving yet another resignation and a period of secession from parliament, seemed to follow a pattern.
Since Fox had not been born a whig, whiggery was in a sense thrust upon him. He drifted into association with the Rockingham party as a convert. Quite when the process of conversion was complete is difficult to pinpoint. His own nephew found the question hard to answer in his history of the whig party. It was certainly a slow process, but certain factors were pushing him inexorably in that direction. The first was an antipathy to the king that grew into the most bitter suspicion; no two men could have been more different in temperament. After 1774 Fox came increasingly to accept the whig theory that George III was intent upon undermining parliamentary government in the hope of establishing an authoritarian regime based on continental models. When, in April 1780, John Dunning's resolution passed the Commons, Fox, declaring that the influence of the crown had grown so dangerously that restraints needed to be applied, thought the occasion ‘glorious’. In his view:
the question now was … whether that beautiful fabric [the English constitution] … was to be maintained in that freedom … for which blood had been spilt; or whether we were to submit to that system of despotism, which had so many advocates in this country. (24 April 1780, Speeches, 1.261)
In arriving at this position Fox owed a great deal to the ministrations of Edmund Burke, who after 1774 made a point of seeking him out. Thereafter Fox always regarded him as his mentor in politics. Inevitably these views led Fox to revise his opinion of North, who was increasingly seen as ‘the blundering pilot’, the real, if reluctant, abetter of George III's ambitions (26 Oct 1775, Speeches, 1.44).
As Fox moved away from the crown, radicals of all kinds welcomed him with enthusiasm. In July 1780 he was elected MP for the populous and prestigious constituency of Westminster, which he was to represent with only a brief interruption until his death. He acquired the title Man of the People. This new position naturally involved a greater commitment to reform politics. By temperament and education Fox had always been a friend to slaves and to religious dissenters of all kinds. Now he began to take a higher profile in debates on parliamentary reform. In public speeches he could be found advocating shorter parliaments and dramatic extensions of the franchise. Such behaviour opened up a discrepancy between his public and private views that remained unchanged until he died. In public Fox was an advanced parliamentary reformer; in private he regarded the issue with fatalism or a mild enthusiasm. As far as it had merit reform could be used against the executive power of the crown.
Even as Fox swallowed small doses of whiggery there was still everything to play for. He retained a personal liking for Lord North, though thinking him weak. North, in turn, deeply respected Fox's abilities. Between Fox and the king there was a profound animosity but not yet of a type to provoke a royal veto on Fox's re-entering office. Between the spring of 1778 and the summer of 1780 there were several negotiations designed to facilitate this. As Fox himself observed in 1778, ‘I shall be told by prudent friends that I am under no sort of engagement to any set of men, I certainly am not’ (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 44). There was still some distance to travel before Fox could shake off family loyalties and wholeheartedly embrace the Rockingham party.
As far as Fox did reconsider his political affiliations in these years it was the question of the American War of Independence that prompted him to do so. Connections with America became a point of family honour. After Fox's death his nephew proudly reflected on ‘the predilection it is so gratifying to think that the Americans have for our name’ (Mitchell,Charles James Fox, 26). The members of the Fox Club always wore buff and blue, the colours of the uniforms in Washington's army. Inevitably Fox's views were deeply influenced by personal connections. He occasionally corresponded with Thomas Jefferson and, on a further visit to Paris between November 1776 and January 1777, he had met Benjamin Franklin. During the war itself Fox was provided with information by General Burgoyne, who, before military adventures took him across the Atlantic, had been one of Fox's gambling cronies at Brooks's. On the general's death in 1792 Fox assumed responsibility for his children.
Fortified with these contacts Fox rapidly became associated with the American cause. In important parliamentary speeches he emerged as one of North's major critics. Within a month of his second resignation from office, in April 1774, he was to be found voting against the government's American measures on the grounds of their inexpediency. He told the Commons that he:
imputed all the present disturbances to the persisting in taxation, and said the Americans had now discovered that taxation was used as a punishment, and that it was bad policy to use power to punish with, nor was it prudent to risk more in the contest than was necessary. (6 March 1775, Memorials and Correspondence, 1.138)
When such policies led to violence in America, Fox was not surprised but could only take pleasure in the discomfiture of North. Lord Carlisle observed that all bad news from America was ‘a great cause of amusement to Charles’ (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 27).
From the outbreak of hostilities Fox believed that the war would be a long-drawn-out affair and that the Americans had a real chance of emerging as victors. Neither opinion was fashionable and some regarded such views as unpatriotic, even treasonable. Taking this line, however, Fox, even as early as 1776, began to consider the granting of independence to America as the lesser evil. Joyfully he joined those attacking Sandwich and Germain for their perceived incompetence in managing warfare and, more importantly, he gradually came to see himself and his American friends as joint victims of George III. Fox began to think in Manichaean terms; perhaps the king's refusal to listen to American claims about taxation and representation was not merely a misreading of a difficult problem but rather part of an attack on the representative ideal on both sides of the Atlantic. The American issue came increasingly to be symbolic of even wider concerns and fully justified Fox in orchestrating the fall of North's government in March 1782.
Between March 1782 and March 1784 British politics was convulsed by a series of crises which collectively came to be the determining experience in Fox's own career. All his future decisions could somehow be traced back to the events of these years. As a point of reference, even the French Revolution never had a comparable impact on Fox's thinking.
On 25 March 1782 Fox was appointed foreign secretary in a ministry that was jointly led by Rockingham and Shelburne. From the start it was an unhappy experience and, although it was Rockingham's sudden death in July that formally dissolved the experiment, it was a ministry dead in all but name long before that. Fox believed that George III had engineered its demise. He had used Thurlow, the lord chancellor, as a royal spy in the cabinet. More seriously, he had encouraged Shelburne to thwart Rockinghamite initiatives at every turn. In particular Fox found that his representative in Paris, Thomas Grenville, who was in charge of negotiations with the French, met nothing but obstruction from Richard Oswald, Shelburne's nominee as negotiator with the Americans. It was an impossible situation, and Fox had determined to resign even before Rockingham's death brought matters to a head.
The Shelburne administration, which ran from July 1782 until February 1783, was totally preoccupied with the finalization of peace terms with America and France. When details of the treaty became known Fox felt obliged to oppose anything Shelburne suggested, after his experiences of the previous summer, while Lord North equally objected to them as reflecting unfairly on his twelve-year administration. On this single conjunction of interests was born the Fox–North coalition. Later it would become infamous, as the union of men who had vilified each other for much of the American war. Crucially, however, at the moment of its formation it was accepted without comment as the reunion of two men who had worked together, between 1769 and 1774, with mutual respect and harmony. Its birth was marked by one startling aspect, however: George III was given no role in determining who should hold any government office. After the Thurlow experience of the previous summer Fox could not allow any royal nomination.
The Fox–North coalition was in office from March to December 1783. Its ending was as dramatic as its birth. On 27 November the coalition's East India Bill, which was designed to put the administration of India onto a new footing, passed the Commons by the comfortable majority of 229 to 120. On 15 December it was defeated in the Lords by eight votes, but only because the king had intervened decisively in the legislative process. Bishops and lords of the royal household had been threatened and cajoled. Fox was appalled. He warned the Commons that ‘We shall certainly lose our liberty, when the deliberations of Parliament are decided—not by the legal and the usual—but by the illegal and extraordinary exertions of prerogative’ (17 Dec 1783, Speeches, 2.275). When the king nominated William Pitt as prime minister, Fox therefore felt justified in opposing the appointment, and government came to a standstill as he used his majority in the Commons to obstruct the new minister's measures. The crisis was resolved only in March 1784, when the king dissolved parliament. In the ensuing election Fox lost the argument decisively and Pitt was returned with a substantial majority.
There emerged sharply contrasting responses to the tangled politics of these years. In Fox's view the delinquency of George III had been proved over and over again. There was no longer any doubt about his wish to subvert parliamentary institutions. The destruction of the Shelburne–Rockingham and Fox–North ministries had been premeditated and brutally executed. Publicly and blatantly the wishes of the Commons had been overturned. So brazen had been the king's behaviour that Fox began to liken him to Stuart monarchs of unfortunate memory. Equally, the dissolving of parliament three years early, in March 1784, and the extensive manipulation of the subsequent election by John Robinson, on the king's behalf, also substantiated fears. If monarchs could always remove parliamentary obstruction by the weapon of dissolution the real power of the legislature was much compromised. In Fox's view these events had permanently overturned the long-established metaphor of the balanced constitution, whereby liberty was secured by legislative and executive checking excess in each other. George III was intent on making executive power supreme. The only possible response was to make similar claims for the House of Commons, particularly with respect to the nomination of ministers. Fox henceforth argued for a total revision of the rules of the political game.
Alternatively it could be held that it was Fox himself who was threatening the notion of balance in the constitution. The maxim of the monarch's right to nominate ministers had never been so challenged before. Nor had the right to call and dissolve parliaments been contested. Both had been seen as legitimate aspects of the executive's prerogative powers. Fox was therefore accused of twice foisting himself upon an unwilling monarch, finding allies anywhere, and snatching at any idea that might suit his purpose. In the caricatures of these months he was depicted as Oliver Cromwell, the scourge of kings, or as Guy Fawkes, intent upon blowing up accepted usages. In particular he was accused of trying to replace monarchy with the oligarchical domination of himself and his aristocratic friends. Voters in the election of March 1784 had to decide whether liberty was more threatened by despotism or oligarchy. On this point Fox lost overwhelmingly; even leaders of the parliamentary reform movement, like John Jebb and Christopher Wyvill, voted for Pitt. In taking this decision many such men associated what looked like reckless politics with the vagaries of Fox's private life. There seemed to be a pattern linking the politician and the private individual.
Those supporters of Fox who survived the 1784 election increasingly called themselves Foxite rather than whig. The change of name betokened a new agenda in politics. There was now only one point of reference. George III wished to be a despot on the continental model. Fox referred to the king as Satan. Every point of Foxite politics had the curbing of the executive as its end. Even the Reform Bill of 1832, enacted by Charles Grey, Fox's political heir, had this as its primary objective. Fox's interpretation of the events of 1782–4 anchored the views of his followers for half a century.
As in so much else Fox's responses to the problems raised by Ireland were conditioned by family connections and by his antipathy to George III. Unlike most contemporary politicians he had visited Ireland, in the summer of 1777, accompanied by Lord John Townshend. They had toured Killarney and had a long stay in Dublin, where they met Henry Grattan and Lord Charlemont, future leaders of the volunteer movement. Another prominent patriot was the duke of Leinster, Fox's uncle. This family connection confirmed Fox's sympathies for the Irish cause, and he assured his uncle in 1780 that he ‘never missed an opportunity of declaring in public as well as in private, how much I wished you success in all the points you were likely to push’ (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 35). The fact that the king was hesitant about meeting Irish claims merely added another reason for assisting the volunteers.
In retrospect it became a great point of pride for Fox that, although the life of the Shelburne–Rockingham government was only three months, its main legislative achievement was the granting of a limited measure of home rule to Ireland, with the establishment of parliamentary sovereignty in Dublin. It seemed that this action wisely prevented the Irish situation from developing along American lines. The 1782 settlement was, however, in Fox's view, a final one. There were to be no more concessions or revisions. Ireland was to be required to contribute to her own defence, and there was to be ‘some clear understanding with respect to what we are to expect from Ireland’ under this heading (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 251). Further Irish issues were subordinate to the central debate in Westminster politics about George III and his nominee, Pitt. When the latter proposed a commercial treaty with the Dublin parliament Fox opposed it in a series of speeches between February and July 1785. Quite simply he was anxious to deny Pitt any legislative triumph, even if his Irish friends suffered as a consequence. After 1785 Fox's relations with Henry Grattan and Henry Flood cooled.
Fox's sympathy for Ireland's grievances quickened again in the 1790s as part of his preoccupation with George III's intentions in government. One of the leaders of Irish patriotism was now Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Leinster's son and Fox's favourite cousin. His death in the Irish rising of 1798 affected Fox deeply and he came to be seen as a martyr of the king's despotic ambitions, which also threatened Fox himself. On the other hand Fox could not support Fitzgerald's demands for an independent Irish state. Ambivalence therefore came to characterize Fox's views. He took little part in the crisis surrounding the Act of Union in 1800, beyond supporting the general principle of religious toleration, as he always did. The mishandling of the Irish situation by Pitt and the king had, in his view, produced a situation where only extreme options were available, and thus the Foxite was left without a relevant policy.
After 1784 Fox was happiest when an issue could be directly related back to the debates of that year; then he was at his most sure-footed. The impeachment of Warren Hastings fitted the pattern neatly. Before 1783 Fox, unlike Burke, had shown little or no interest in Indian affairs. It so happened, however, that the Fox–North coalition government had been brought down by the defeat of its India Bill. To prove that the bill had been necessary by proving the delinquency of Warren Hastings, governor-general of Bengal, was in turn to demonstrate the malignancy of the king in destroying it. As far as Fox was concerned the impeachment of Hastings was less about India than about the crisis of 1782–4 in England. In this respect he diverged sharply from Burke, who increasingly complained about Fox's behaviour. As one of Fox's aunts observed, ‘The Trial … is likely to be a party business, and, of course, no justice done’ (Fitzgerald, 183). Fox was appointed one of the managers of the impeachment by the House of Commons. In February 1788 he opened the charge that Hastings had gravely misused Chet Singh, the ruler of Benares, in a speech that was widely recognized as an oratorical tour de force. Almost immediately afterwards he lost interest in the whole proceedings, much to Burke's discomfiture. Once the connection between the pursuit of Hastings and the death of the coalition government had been established in the public mind Fox saw the trial increasingly as tiresome and devoid of interest.
The same narrow focus determined Fox's role in the regency crisis, which ran from early November 1788 to early March 1789, during George III's supposed bout of madness. Fox was in Italy when the crisis broke and did not reach London until late November. He then became ill and was in Bath from 27 January to 21 February 1789. Essentially, therefore, his party's response to the crisis was left to Sheridan and Grey, who unfortunately offered different policies. Fox sided with the latter in demanding that the prince of Wales be given full rights of regency, with no conditions being set by the Commons. The prince, although a deep embarrassment to Fox in such matters as his secret marriage to Mrs Fitzherbert, was a true party man in his distaste for the king. His assumption of full powers would give Fox the opportunity to reverse the defeat of 1784, even if his denial of the right of the Commons to set terms sat oddly with his claims for that body enunciated only four years earlier. This inconsistency was noted by contemporaries, who accused Fox of snatching at any idea that would bring him power. Caricaturists showed him as Falstaff suborning the prince of Wales. Fox's defence lay in the fact that his absences and illness prevented him from being a central figure in the drama and in the thought that, if executive power was to be guarded against, it could be safely entrusted to the prince of Wales, if not to his father.
Very early in life Fox pronounced himself a confirmed Francophile, and thereafter he never changed his mind. He spoke and read the language fluently and, as a young man, conspicuously dressed in the French style. He was cosmopolitan by temperament and his frequent visits to Paris had confirmed this inclination. His circle of acquaintance was wide but certain men became his particular friends; Lafayette, Noailles, Talleyrand, Orléans, and Lauzun were those he knew best and liked most. Not surprisingly, perhaps, they were all to be found in that section of the French aristocracy which welcomed the events of 1789. The first four were to become prominent politicians, the last, as duc de Biron, a leading general. Some had also fought for Washington, thereby linking in their own careers events in England, France, and America. Whenever Foxites visited Paris these men arranged their programmes. This was true of Holland's visit in 1791 and of Fox's in 1802. In particular huge numbers of Foxites poured into the French capital between 1789 and 1791 in order to witness the revolution and to bring first-hand reports back to England.
Educated in the same classical culture, polished in the same salon society, and travellers with common friends, these men came to call themselves citizens of the world. They claimed to have no substantial national loyalties. Fox called his Parisian friends ‘French Whigs’, while Talleyrand referred to the Foxites as ‘our masters’ (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 109). Lafayette, in writing to Fox in 1800, appealed to ‘Cette Sympathie de Liberté et de patriotisme qui Unira toujours, j'ose le dire, Certaines Ames’ (‘That sympathy for liberty and patriotism which will, always, I dare to say, unite certain souls’; Mitchell, Charles James Fox and the Disintegration of the Whig Party, 154). Citizens of the world thought of politics in simple terms. On one side were despots and intolerant churches; on the other stood the friends of representative government and toleration. In the 1770s Lafayette had fought for Washington, and Fox had supported him in the Commons. Between 1782 and 1784 Foxites had received letters of encouragement from their American and French friends. In 1789 Fox and Jefferson welcomed the fall of absolute monarchy in France. Over these years the battlefield changed but not the purpose of the battle. Lafayette assured Holland that ‘Si nos deux pais peuvent avoir dans le même tems [sic] une administration libérale, la cause du genre humain est gagnée’ (‘If our two countries could have a liberal administration, the cause of human kind is won’; Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 109).
Fox's loyalties were not national but were offered to people like himself at home or abroad. This carried the advantage that he would always have first-hand information about French events. But there was also the disadvantage that cosmopolitanism was suspect in the minds of those who did not share it. Very soon after 1789 the caricaturist began to show Fox in the guise of the Jacobin, certainly un-English and possibly traitorous.
Fox's reaction to news of the fall of the Bastille was, famously, ‘How much the greatest event it is that ever happened in the world, & how much the best’ (30 July 1789, Memorials and Correspondence, 2.361). His French friends were at last in charge of their country's affairs. The violence of the summer of 1789 was regrettable but that soon passed, and for the next two years they were intent on turning an absolute monarchy into a constitutional state. Even if American models were followed more closely than English ones Fox could only approve of a constitution, completed in 1791, that included a propertied franchise, religious toleration, and an assault on the institution of slavery. It appeared so sensible and so whiggish. All his friends who visited France in these years confirmed this interpretation. So involved was Fox in these events that he occasionally intervened directly. He decided to write to Barnave, for example, to urge continued moderation after the French king's flight to Varennes in 1791. The habit of directly interfering in the politics of other countries became a Foxite trait that, on more than one occasion, irritated Pittite governments. All of this led Fox to misunderstand the dynamic of the revolution. For him, it was essentially a French adaptation of the revolution of 1688 in England, when in fact it increasingly proved itself to be something quite different.
Predictably Fox had no sympathy with the arguments put forward in Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in November 1790. Burke's belief that the revolution represented a profound threat to the ideas of propertied government, organized religion, and prescriptive values in politics, bringing with it confusion and violence, seemed strangely at odds with what Fox knew of France at first hand. He read the book but found it ‘in very bad taste’ and ‘favouring Tory principles’ (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 113). Both Burke and Fox had seen absolutist France as a threat to England but now the former believed that the menace had deepened, while the latter thought that it had been removed. In Fox's view there was no reason why a constitutional France should attack parliamentary England. In April 1791 Fox told the House of Commons that he ‘admired the new constitution of France, considered altogether, as the most stupendous and glorious edifice of liberty’. France was now a country ‘from which neither insult nor injustice was to be dreaded’ (15 April 1791, Speeches, 4.199).
If war threatened in these years, it came from an altogether different direction. In the autumn of 1790 Fox was active in securing a peaceful outcome to a dispute with Spain over Nootka Sound, on the west coast of America. In March–April 1791 he performed a similar function in helping to resolve difficulties with Russia over the ownership of the fortress of Ochakov on the Black Sea. On this occasion he sent a personal emissary, Sir Robert Adair, to St Petersburg. A grateful Catherine the Great placed a bust of Fox in a cabinet, between those of Cicero and Demosthenes. In an immediate sense Fox could contrast the potentially disruptive nature of traditional dynastic politics with the quiet constitution making in France.
After the overthrow of the French monarchy in August 1792 Fox's views had, of necessity, to be remodelled. Quite clearly the revolution was now taking a different path from that followed by England in 1688. He was appalled by the violence of the Jacobin republic. The September massacres disgusted him. The execution of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and some of his friends, such as Biron, were examples of ‘wild extravagance & unfeeling cruelty’ that ‘stained the noblest cause that ever was in the hands of Men’ (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 131). Equally the constitutional experiments of the Directory failed to impress him. He was only too well aware that they were vitiated by corruption and a lack of genuine commitment to parliamentary values. From the summer of 1792, therefore, Fox found himself in the uncomfortable position of having no option in France that he could positively favour.
In reordering his thoughts Fox first tried to apportion blame for the revolution's descent into violence, and once again his thoughts turned to the mismanagement of kings. First, as George III was a reluctant constitutionalist, so Louis XVI's ‘fate was in a great degree owing to his avowed connection with the nobility of that country; a nobility whose views were hostile to the interests of the people’ (25 Nov 1795, Speeches, 6.41). One of the principal reasons for the failure of the 1791 constitution had been Louis's refusal to play his part in good faith. His monarchical misbehaviour was compounded, in Fox's view, by the fact that his fellow rulers declared war on France in 1792–3. Despots joined in the first coalition and then attacked the revolution in order to snuff out whatever was liberal in its make-up. In doing so the war took on an ideological sharpness of focus, being despotism against constitutionalism. Fox was not surprised that Pitt and George III entered the coalition against France on 1 February 1793. Once this situation was in place Fox's choice became clear. Nothing in France attracted him but every alternative was worse. French liberty, however perverted and misdirected, had to be preferred to despotisms in arms. As he wrote to Mrs Armitstead:
Any thing that proves that it is not in the power of Kings and Princes by their great armies to have every thing their own way is of such good example that without any good will to the French one can not help being delighted by it, and you know I have a natural partiality to what some people call rebels. (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 125)
Another crucial factor in Fox's thinking that led to the same conclusion was an insistence that it was France that had been attacked; the terror was a dreadful example of defensive measures to meet a national crisis. Fox never abandoned, until the last few months of life, the notion that successive French governments really wanted peace, if only European despots would allow it. In particular the British government, by pouring subsidies into Europe, was intent on keeping the war going. In August 1795 Fox, typically, told his nephew:
Peace is the wish of the French of Italy Spain Germany and all the world, and Great Britain alone the cause of preventing its accomplishment, and this not for any point of honour or even interest, but merely lest there should be an example in the modern world of a great powerful Republic. (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 162)
If France was pacific and Britain was the aggressor it was only right to offer sympathy to the former. To many of Fox's contemporaries this was an idiosyncratic reading of events that bordered on treason.
The establishment of Napoleonic France changed little in Fox's thinking. The new regime had originated in a coup d'état directed against a representative system, however defective. It was therefore ‘a very bad beginning … the manner of the thing quite odious’ (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 166). On the other hand coalitions of despots still would give France no peace, which was what Napoleon most desired. Fox reasoned that someone who had come to power by a coup, who was faced with civil war within France itself, and who faced financial problems on a huge scale must have wanted a peace above all things. If he was to survive at all Napoleon had to be ‘moderate, wise, and … pacifick’ (ibid., 167); only English money and the enduring resentments of George III and Pitt kept the war going. When a peace with Napoleon was finally signed at Amiens in 1802, Fox was relieved and delighted. Controversially, in his eyes, it was none the worse for being a peace that was generous in its terms to the French:
However it may have happened, it is an excellent thing, and I do not like it the worse for its being so very triumphant a peace for France … Bonaparte's triumph is now complete indeed, and, since there is to be no political liberty in the world, I really believe he is the fittest person to be the master. (Memorials and Correspondence, 3.34)
The coming of peace allowed the resumption of cross-channel visiting. Foxites flooded into Paris. Fox himself was in France from 20 July to 17 November 1802, accompanied by his wife, the Hollands, and many others. Talleyrand and Lafayette acted as hosts and introduced Fox to leading figures from the revolutionary period, such as Sieyès and Barère. Fox and his party were so fêted that their activities were kept under surveillance by officials from the British embassy. Fox had three interviews with Napoleon himself, on 2 and 3 September and 7 October. None of them went well. Conversation degenerated into arguments about how free the press should be and how useful or pernicious was the existence of a standing army in a state. Napoleon tried hard to impress his visitor but Fox saw and heard little to please him.
English caricaturists were merciless in representing this visit as yet another example of Fox's willingness to fawn on anything French. Gillray's Introduction of Citizen Volpone and his Suite in Paris was typical. Such criticism was damaging but unfair. Fox returned home with all his previous views confirmed: Napoleon was the enemy of representative government, and a soldier before all else. At the same time he had brought some sort of order back to France, was tolerant in religious matters, and had a creative energy that was awesome. In choosing between evils Bonaparte was the least objectionable. Fox never developed that extravagant admiration for Napoleon that soon afterwards came to flavour the politics of Holland House.
When Fox took charge of English foreign policy once more—when the ‘ministry of all the talents’ came into office in January 1806—he still had a firm belief that peace with France was always possible. The resumption of war in 1803 had been England's fault yet again. Peace was a matter of an hour's conversation with his old friend Talleyrand, now in charge of France's foreign relations. It was a startling and horrific experience to discover that the French were in fact anything but pacific in intention. There were protracted disputes about the future of Sicily, Switzerland, Hanover, and Malta. Mortally ill, Fox's last months were saddened by the necessity of accepting that his assessment of Bonaparte had been sadly awry. His opponents took pleasure in noting that ‘Charley Fox eats his former opinions daily and even ostentatiously’ (H. Sandford, Thomas Poole and his Friends, 1888, 2.160). In this narrow sense Fox's death, in September 1806, was a mercy; his position had begun to appear ridiculous, not least to himself. According to one critic he ‘should have died, for his fame, a little sooner’ (ibid.). It was an inglorious ending to an association with France that had in so many other ways proved fruitful and enriching.
The whig party confronted the challenges of the French Revolution in a debilitated condition. Some years before 1784 antagonisms had been engendered within the party that merely festered in the 1790s. Burke, both in the impeachment of Warren Hastings and in the regency crisis, felt himself to be the Nestor of the party, whose words and manner were increasingly ignored and even ridiculed. Sheridan, Grey, and Tierney were younger men, whose ambition was of the hurrying kind. It was Fox's responsibility, as party leader, to keep these men together. In this he failed dramatically. The years of the French Revolution graphically underlined his deficiencies as leader. He had neither the will to discipline nor the inclination to pamper. He was often absent from London, and too frequently he only intervened when a crisis was beyond repair. As early as 1791 he was talking privately of retiring from politics altogether. In 1794 he claimed to want nothing more than ‘a lodge in some vast Wilderness’ (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 132).
The first confrontation was with Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in November 1790, argued that the French experiment, based on natural rights theory rather than prescription, was therefore subversive of all property-based politics. Whigs should consequently oppose it. Fox's interpretation, that the French were merely following English models, was untenable. In theory Fox should have been able to contain these arguments. Burke had been his tutor in whiggery and was always a respected friend. In the House of Commons itself he admitted that ‘he was indebted to his right honourable friend for the greatest share of the political knowledge he possessed,—his political education had been formed under him,—his instructions had invariably governed his principles’ (2 March 1790, Speeches, 4.72). Yet there was no cosseting of Burke. As a result, on 6 May 1791 Burke interrupted a speech in the Commons to announce that all association with Fox was at an end. Both men were in tears. Burke never spoke to Fox again, and on his deathbed in 1797 refused a last interview with his former friend. With his departure the true ownership of the whig legacy could be disputed.
On the other wing of the party Sheridan, too, was causing trouble. He had attended celebrations in London on 14 July 1790, celebrating the fall of the Bastille. More seriously, in April 1792, he and Grey founded an Association of the Friends of the People. Such activity threatened to give whiggery a populist, even democratic, reputation. Fox detested such initiatives; he had disliked Paine's writings on the revolution as much as Burke's. But such was his reluctance to discipline these young men that terrible damage to party unity was done.
In spite of these pressures Fox was able to hold the allegiance of the bulk of his party until July 1794. In particular such grandees as the duke of Portland, Earl Fitzwilliam, and the earl of Carlisle stayed with him until that late date. Until 1792 they preferred to agree with Fox that the French were merely perpetrating a strangely Gallic version of 1688 in England. After that date Fox held their allegiance by the more blatant argument that to cross to the Pittite benches would be, tacitly, to forgive Pitt for his behaviour in 1783–4. So powerful was that magic that it was not until July 1794 that Portland and his friends could confront such a possibility; but then their fear of France was stronger than their resentment about Pitt. Fox could hardly believe that they ‘would disgrace’ themselves in this manner (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 136).
The defections of 1794 reduced Foxite numbers so dramatically that Fox could no longer be said to be leading a party at all. He and his friends were nothing but a talented lobby group; they had no serious pretensions to government. As recently as 1792–3 there had been semi-serious talks with the aim of Fox joining Pitt in a crisis coalition. All such language was now ruled firmly out of court.
A new situation gave Fox only limited objectives. The first was to keep alive some faint semblance of civil and political liberty. Between 1792 and 1797 Pitt enacted a series of emergency measures that effectively put many civil liberties into abeyance while the war lasted. Fox saw them in a darker context, as the permanent extinction of liberty; George III's tyranny would be established using the excuse of the war. As Fox instructed his nephew in 1795:
There appears to me to be no device at present but between an absolute surrender of the liberties of the People and a vigorous exertion … My view of things is I own very gloomy, and I am convinced that in a few years this Government will become completely absolute, or that confusion will arise of a nature almost as much to be deprecated as despotism itself … This is a great Crisis. (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 140)
Foxites therefore offered what assistance they could to those who were persecuted under these measures; Fox himself was a character witness for Arthur O'Connor when the latter was accused of treason in 1798. Similarly, from 1795 onwards Fox re-established contacts with Wilberforce and Wyvill, both in order to keep the reform movements alive and to co-ordinate the energies of all those who, for whatever reason, might be interested in forming a peace party.
Looking for new allies Fox also began to treat radicals like John Horne Tooke with less condescension. Although steadfastly refusing electoral alliances Fox was seen publicly to consort with radicals, notoriously at a dinner in 1798, at which the toast of ‘Our sovereign lord, the people’ was drunk. For this bravado Fox lost his place on the privy council. This new association with radicals must be kept in perspective, however. In private Fox never subscribed to extravagant forms of parliamentary reform, nor did he agree with radical assessments of the situation in France. His contact with radicals had altogether plainer origins. Quite simply he believed that since 1794 any middle ground in British politics had been removed; nothing was left but the possibility of royal despotism or radicalism. It was not a choice that any Foxite could relish but, if forced to choose, Fox's distaste for George III was still uppermost in his thinking. In 1796 he told his nephew, ‘We as a party I fear can do nothing and the contest must be between the Court and the Democrats’. In such a situation it was prudent to offer the latter a little ‘Aristocratick Leven’ (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 152).
Dismal prognostications such as this fortified Fox in his decision to secede from parliament. From 1797 to 1801 he rarely appeared at Westminster at all. If he had a political role in these years it was through the proxy of his nephew. Action such as this, which could be deemed to be contemptuous of parliament's claims to sovereignty, was highly controversial. Some Pittites argued for Fox's arrest. Some Foxites, such as Sheridan and Tierney, refused to follow their leader's example. But Fox himself believed that he had no choice. As far as he could see the game was up. George III had succeeded in undermining the capacity of Lords and Commons to resist the crown. Civil liberties had been abrogated. He increasingly likened himself to Brutus, the last of the Romans, defeated by the rising tyranny of Pitt as the new Augustus. Many of his own friends were, indeed, already in prison. Politics, in any meaningful sense, had come to an end.
Fox had not anticipated Pitt's resignation in February 1801, which, splitting the king's supporters, once more opened up politics to new configurations. Fox felt compelled to return to public life, but only on his own terms. Psychologically he perhaps never returned. Certainly in the last five years of his life he made very few speeches and only appeared at Westminster irregularly. He still believed that George III, though taking a knock with the loss of Pitt, was ultimately the dominant force in politics. In 1804 he said of the monarchy ‘There is not a power in Europe, no not even Bonaparte's, that is so unlimited’ (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 194). The fact that the king could appoint Henry Addington, the son of his old doctor, as prime minister proved the point. Fox's return to politics was therefore determined less by the hope of office than by the more limited ambition of giving a push to particular measures and policies. Addington, for example, could be supported as long as he promoted peace with France, and ditched immediately hostilities were resumed in May 1803. Fox had not approved of Addington's appointment or administration generally but had merely bolstered ‘Addington's accommodation with France’ (ibid., 201).
In the spring of 1804 Fox entered into a political agreement with the Grenville party. Critics once again observed that Fox apparently had little difficulty in co-operating with a man whom he had vilified for most of the 1790s. Comparisons were easily made, to Fox's disadvantage, with the coalition of 1783. In fact since 1801 the Grenvilles had shown an increasing willingness to stand up to the king and, more particularly, had become committed to both Catholic emancipation and the abolition of the slave trade. As Fox more and more saw politics in terms of single issues, these were two that were dear to his heart. There was therefore sufficient overlap of interests to make a Fox–Grenville alliance plausible. Even so it was always an association of convenience rather than of affection on both sides.
The Fox–Grenville understanding provided the basis for the ‘ministry of all the talents’, which took office in January 1806 and in which Fox was once again foreign secretary. Throughout his last term in office Fox was ill with the disease that would eventually kill him. As has been observed above, his conduct of foreign affairs, involving failed peace negotiations with France, was an unhappy one. It was offset to some extent by his major role in securing the abolition of the slave trade. In one of the last speeches he made in the House of Commons he had the honour of moving the appropriate motion:
So fully am I impressed with the vast importance and necessity of attaining what will be the object of my motion this night, that if, during the almost forty years that I have had the honour of a seat in parliament, I had been so fortunate as to accomplish that, and that only, I should think I had done enough, and could retire from public life with comfort, and the conscious satisfaction, that I had done my duty. (10 June 1806, Speeches, 6.659)
This measure and the Libel Act of 1792 are the only pieces of legislation that can be directly attributed to Fox in a career stretching from 1769 to 1806. His long exclusion from office gave his public life a most unusual character. It only made sense, in his eyes, if taken as evidence of the true malevolence of George III.
Fox's attitudes to reform issues were conditioned by two factors. First, he was not born into a reforming family tradition; unlike Pitt he would have to come to reform by way of education and personal conversion. Second, as a good whig, he was libertarian in matters of individual liberty while being reverential towards institutions that had proved their worth. Predictably, therefore, his performance on reform was patchy and, to many critics, ambiguous.
As has been noted above Fox lived his own life with minimum reference to the opinion of others. He was anxious always to extend this privilege to others. In his view the state and society in general should allow as much freedom of choice and information as was consistent with stability and security. This belief was most clearly expressed in religious matters. Toleration in religion was one of his most consistent objectives. From support for the dissenters' campaign of 1773, to win admittance to Oxford and Cambridge, to their wider campaigns of the 1780s and 1790s, for full civil and political equality, Fox was always their ally. He was equally complaisant towards the claims of Roman Catholics. The Test Actshad been justified by the idea that Catholicism and dissent represented political dangers. He was clear that the passage of time had rendered them harmless. To argue otherwise was to raise an ‘alarm which can be accounted for on no rational principle’ (14 May 1805, Speeches, 6.601). More importantly still, toleration was to be argued for in the language of natural rights. Fox told the Commons that ‘Toleration in religion was one of the great rights of man, and a man ought never to be deprived of what was his natural right’ (19 April 1791,Speeches, 4.192). He was a consistent opponent of both the slave trade and of slavery itself; he told a close friend that he ‘should prefer the abolition of it to any political good that can be gained or even wished, for the Party or the country’ (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 248). Fox's monument in Westminster Abbey is, with some justice, supported by the figure of a weeping black slave.
On issues where individual rights were less involved Fox was all ambiguity. The pupil of Burke did not undertake institutional change lightly. He had no interest in the kinds of economical reform that so intrigued Pitt. He had nothing to offer the Irish, constitutionally, after 1782. Above all his reaction to parliamentary reform was marked by an enormous disparity between public and private statements. On hustings in Westminster in the early 1780s Fox could find merit in something close to universal suffrage as an antidote to executive power. In private he thought reform might do some small good, particularly after 1784, when a purified House of Commons might be better able to constrain a rampant executive. But there was never great enthusiasm for the project. He voted for the reform bills of 1785, 1792, and 1797 but wished no success to the first, because it had been promoted by Pitt, and heartily wished that the last two had never been brought forward. With justice, committed reformers like John Jebb and Christopher Wyvill deeply suspected that Fox could not be trusted on the issue. After his death these ambiguities were lost in the hagiography that surrounded his name but in historical terms Fox was a reformer sometimes, on some issues, and in some contexts.
Fox had little or no connection with organized religion. He had no record of churchgoing and numbered few clergymen among his friends. Men such as the Revd Henry Bate or William Dickson, bishop of Down, were either rakes in priest's clothing or admirers of Fox's intelligence without religious reference. Most people of strong religious convictions never felt happy in Fox's company; it was hard for them to understand or forgive his private life or his public statements. This fact considerably compromised Fox's standing as a reformer because so many of his contemporaries approached reform with religious promptings. Christopher Wyvill, William Wilberforce, and many dissenters found it hard to work with Fox on reform issues and doubted his motives.
Above all Fox refused to allow that religious prescriptions should constrain the individual in private life, and he detested ostentatious shows of piety. In 1773 he bluntly told the House of Commons that ‘Religion was best understood when least talked of’ (Memorials and Correspondence, 1.71). Such views were inevitably controversial in a society in which the reformation of manners was very much part of the social agenda promoted by the king himself. Fox gave enormous offence, for example, as a junior minister in North's government for supporting a proposal that would have allowed divorced women to marry the co-respondents in their cases. Religion and its claims closely to regulate morality was a legacy of the seventeenth century that Fox refused to accept. In this respect neither Roman Catholicism nor dissent, as religious systems, could hold any attraction.
Fox believed that maintaining a certain distance from revealed religion had positive advantages; it was the only guarantee of well-founded toleration. The diarist Samuel Rogers recorded Fox as saying:
The only foundation for toleration is a degree of Scepticism and without it there can be none, for if a Man believes in the saving of souls, he must soon think about the means; and if, by cutting off one generation, he can save many future ones from Hell-fire, it is his duty to do it. (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 243)
The kind of mild deism that Fox affected allowed all religious systems to be given equal weight and value.
Fox had no belief in an afterlife. When his last secretary, John Trotter, suggested otherwise in a draft biography the passage was removed at the behest of Fox's surviving family. There was no priest at Fox's deathbed and no religious rites accompanied his passing, other than prayers that he allowed to be read, out of consideration for his wife.
Central to Fox's life and career was his view that ‘friendship was the only real happiness in the world’ (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 12). It is vital to understand that Foxite politics was often merely an extension of friendship with Fox, a carrying over of activities at Newmarket and in Brooks's Club into Westminster. Fox was one of the most gifted men of the late eighteenth century. Johnson and Burke recognized him as an equal. He was highly intelligent, amusing, and only spasmodically ambitious. Subscriptions to Brooks's fell away on the infrequent occasions when Fox was called away to office, because one of the principal entertainments was no longer available. Further, Fox never used friendship to mould, influence, or discipline. Friendship never had an ulterior motive. Such passive amiability was calamitous in a party leader but made for compelling friendships. A new phrase, ‘to Charley it’, was coined to express the pleasure of being asked to spend a weekend at Fox's home at St Anne's Hill (Mitchell, Charles James Fox and the Disintegration of the Whig Party, 253).
In return Fox's followers indulged him to an outrageous degree, forgiving him for political misjudgements and personal embarrassments. Many of them became embroiled in Fox's debts but complaint was rare. Those, like George Tierney, who did remonstrate from time to time were very much the exception that underlined a general rule. Strikingly, particularly after 1794, the word ‘whig’ gave way to the word ‘Foxite’ as the appellation under which they were happy to act; as this change of title suggests their politics were simply what Fox said and thought. Foxites were generally a decade or so younger than Fox himself. Most, like Edward Bouverie, ‘invariably voted in favour of almost every motion proposed by the late Charles James Fox, who was one of his dearest and most intimate friends’ (J. Wilson, A Biographical Index of the Present House of Commons, 1806, 442). There was much in this arrangement that was warm and reassuring but it also carried dangers. Fox increasingly cocooned himself within the circle of his friendships, cutting himself off from salutary comment from other quarters. According to one critic ‘The Misfortune of Fox (one misfortune) has been, that he avoids, or at least does not invite the knowledge of what is said out of his own circle’ (Mitchell, Charles James Fox and the Disintegration of the Whig Party, 250). Foxite self-sufficiency was a distinctive, political style, whose exclusiveness was its greatest strength and its major weakness, at one and the same time.
In Foxite circles mutual affection and regard was reinforced by a consciousness of martyrdom. To follow Fox after 1794 was to suffer loss. Professional careers were blighted; sons, like Charles Grey, became embroiled in family disputes with their fathers; Michaelangelo Taylor was disinherited. At best all prospect of office disappeared for a whole generation. Quite properly they were styled ‘Fox's martyrs’. Significantly though, in these trying circumstances, certain Foxites kept a skeleton party apparatus intact. James Perry and theMorning Chronicle remained true to Fox, as did William Adam, the party's general manager. When former friends returned to the fold in the early decades of the nineteenth century they rejoined a party that Foxites had shaped and fashioned. It was in itself no mean achievement of Fox's friends. As Lord John Russell remembered, ‘There were only forty of them, but every one of them is ready to be hanged for Fox’ (Lord John Russell, Recollections and Suggestions, 1875, 268).
In December 1805, just before the ‘ministry of all the talents’ took office, Fox began to exhibit the symptoms of serious illness. It was described as ‘a dropsical complaint’ (Mitchell,Charles James Fox, 236); his legs and abdomen began to be distended with water. On 7 August 1806 he underwent the first of a series of tappings to remove the water but these painful operations were only palliatives. He died at 5.45 p.m. on 13 September 1806 at Chiswick House, west of London, which the duke of Devonshire had loaned him for the period of his illness. There is some doubt about his last words. His secretary recorded them as ‘I die happy; I pity you.’ His wife thought they were ‘It don't signify, my dearest, dearest Liz’ (ibid., 237). In its philosophic detachment this latter version more likely captures the truth. A post-mortem examination revealed a hardened liver, thirty-five gallstones, and no less than 7 pints of a transparent fluid in the abdomen.
By his will Fox left £250 to his nephew, Lord Holland, and to a certain Robert Stephen; there was also an annuity for a Harriet Willoughby. Both of these are assumed to be illegitimate children. Another boy, also carrying a family name, Henry, is mentioned in other sources but not in the will; quite possibly he predeceased Fox. One of these boys was deaf and mute; Fox would communicate with him by using a kind of sign language. The bulk of the estate was left to Mrs Fox.
Fox's funeral took place at Westminster Abbey on 10 October 1806. It was a private, not a public, occasion yet Fox's friends were delighted to observe that the crowds who turned out to pay their respects were at least as numerous as those which had watched Pitt's obsequies nine months earlier. Fox was buried in the north transept of the abbey; his monument, but not his grave, was later moved to the nave, near the west door of the abbey. A monument was commissioned from Westmacott at the enormous cost of £6000. The dying statesman is shown lying on a couch, dressed in a toga; two weeping women, also in classical draperies, stand on one side of the couch, a mourning black slave on the other.
The close friendships that underpinned Foxite politics gave his name a talismanic quality. The youth of so many of his adherents ensured an astonishing longevity to his influence. Whig politics in the first three decades of the nineteenth century cannot be properly understood without taking into account the enduring power of Fox's career and personality. A Fox Club was formed in London as early as 1790. In 1808 it held the first of its Fox dinners, which then became annual events marking Fox's birthday. Very quickly their proceedings became a model to be followed all over the country. Very quickly, too, the nature of the evening became ritualized. Ideally the guest of honour would be one of the ‘martyrs’ from the 1790s or, as Holland described them, ‘the old ones of Claret and Foxite memory’ (Mitchell, Holland House, 51). The miseries and sufferings of Fox's career would then be tearfully rehearsed, after which standard toasts associated Fox's name with reform issues he had known and with topics that had arrived on the political agenda long after his death. His name alone gave whiggish respectability to any point of view. As Grey told a Fox dinner in Newcastle in 1819 ‘What subject is there, whether of foreign or domestic interest, or that in the smallest degree affects our Constitution which does not immediately associate itself with the memory of Mr Fox’ (The Times, 7 Jan 1819). The last recorded dinner took place in Brooks's Club in 1907.
The posthumous deification of Fox took many other forms as well. The bust of him by Joseph Nollekens became an indispensable adornment of whig houses. Locks of his hair and complete sets of his speeches were given as birthday presents in whig families. Portraits and busts appeared everywhere. The duke of Bedford placed a bust of Fox in the centre of his pantheon of whig worthies at Woburn Abbey and a statue in Bloomsbury Square. His portrait hung in the dressing room of Sarah Siddons. In 1811 the prince of Wales took the oaths of office as regent with a bust of Fox at his side. The names Charles or Charles James were the baptismal choices for many boys at whig christenings. In symbol Fox far outlived his natural life. The centre of this worship was his nephew's home at Holland House, whose lobby was dominated by another Westmacott statue of his uncle. Most of the first volume of Holland's Memoirs of the Whig Party during my Time was given over to a discussion of Fox's career and the enduring relevance of his beliefs.
By its very nature the transformation of politics into totems that can properly be called religious did not allow of doubt. The ambiguities and irregularities in Fox's career were smoothed away by the passage of time. The rough edges in his politics, of which there were many, were simply honed away. This is particularly true on reform issues. Two decades or so after his death it would have been a great heresy for a whig to argue that Fox had ever been anything but an uncomplicated friend of change. Sir James Mackintosh, who had known Fox well, could assure those at an Edinburgh Fox dinner in 1823 that ‘it is said those who hold the opinions of Mr Fox are the advocates of Catholic Emancipation and Parliamentary Reform. We are the advocates of Catholic Emancipation and Parliamentary Reform’ (Morning Chronicle, 18 Jan 1823). In historical terms he was only 60 per cent right. By the same generous effect of time passing Fox was accorded posthumous victories. In the debates of 1828–9, which finally allowed full emancipation to dissenters and Catholics, and in those of 1830–32, which finally reformed parliament, Fox's name is invoked again and again. To many whigs in those years these were the final victories in campaigns that Fox himself had initiated. The Foxite cult allowed Fox more success after death than he had ever known in his lifetime.
Inevitably Fox is remembered largely for his role in politics. Almost certainly such an emphasis would have displeased him. Politics, for him, was an absorbing aspect of life but only one among many. Fox's response to Pitt was largely conditioned by sympathy and contempt for someone who seemed to have no life outside politics. By contrast Holland recorded that ‘My Uncle Charles who is confessedly the most indulgent of Politicians is likewise the one, who has the greatest variety of occupations and amusements that bear no relation to these subjects—Fireside Amusements’ (Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 178). After 1784 more and more time was spent at St Anne's Hill, where ‘Nightingales, Flowers, Litterature, History etc.’ were ‘good and substantial reasons for staying here’ (ibid.). After the party splits of 1794 Fox's interests swung dramatically away from politics altogether, to the dismay of some of his young followers who wished to keep up the Westminster battle against Pitt.
Fox's intellectual life operated within specific categories and was far from all-encompassing. Surprisingly he had little or no interest in political or economic theory. He had not hurried to read Burke or Paine on the French Revolution; Godwin was unreadable; Rousseau's Contrat Social was simply ‘too extravagant’ to be of use to a practising politician (7 May 1793, Speeches, 5.115). As for the fashionable claims of political economy Fox dismissed them by telling Grey that he did not ‘mind those things’ (W. E. S. Thomas, The Philosophic Radicals, 1979, 53). He read Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations but thought that half of it could have been ‘omitted with much benefit to the subject’; it was, overall, ‘tedious’ (Trotter, 36). Fox's lack of interest in, or understanding of, financial policy was turned into myth. There was a story current by the mid-nineteenth century that ‘Charles Fox never could understand what Consols were—he knew that they were things that went up and down in the City, and he was always pleased when they went down, because it so annoyed Pitt’ (A. West, Recollections, 1832–1866, 1899, 2.297–8).
Compared to studies such as these literature was in every way preferable and, in particular, the poetry and prose of Greece and Rome, which Fox admired as a schoolboy and continued to read in their original languages for the whole of his adult life. Friendships with classical scholars such as Samuel Parr in early life, and with Gilbert Wakefield after 1796, confirmed these predilections. It was one of Fox's proudest achievements that he established dates for the Greek poet Lycophron that have never since been challenged. Fox also read Spanish, Italian, and French. Letters to his nephew were, to some extent, tutorials in the literatures of these countries. He had a particular liking for the work of Dante, Boccaccio, and Ariosto. In English literature his preferences were firmly for the Augustan poetry of the early eighteenth century. He disliked Romantic literature for its subject matter and the primacy it seemed to give to the outpouring of emotion. Wordsworth sent Fox a presentation copy of the Lyrical Ballads but, in return, received only the frosty comment that the great statesman was ‘not of your faction’ (A. Dyce, Reminiscences and Table Talk of Samuel Rogers, 1903, 88).
Besides literature there was history. Few political creeds were more historically based than whiggery. Many Foxites, in the long wilderness years in opposition, turned to the writing of history for consolation and vindication. Fox was no exception. In 1799 he began work on a project that would be published in 1808 as A History of the Early Part of the Reign of James II. It was researched in London and Paris, with many French and English friends being recruited to help with particular manuscript collections. The work was never completed. The published version deals only with the events of 1685. Fox had hoped to go beyond 1688, in order that the virtues of William III should cast the vices of James II into even greater relief. His choice of topic was hardly accidental. James's reign pointed up a moral:
We are taught, generally, the dangers Englishmen will always be liable to, if, from favour to a Prince upon the throne, or from a confidence, however grounded, that his views are agreeable to our own notions of the constitution, we, in any considerable degree, abate of that vigilant, and unremitting jealousy of the power of the crown which can alone secure to us the effect of those wise laws that have been provided for the benefit of the subject. (C. J. Fox, A History of the Early Part of the Reign of James II, 1808, 103)
For someone who had spent most of his political life opposing what he saw as tyrannical aspirations in George III, these words applied as much to his own day as they did to the circumstances of 1685.
Since Fox's views were thought to have an enduring relevance to subsequent generations the writing-up of his career has been more than usually influenced by party considerations. The careers of few men have been so totally appropriated by other generations. Fox was claimed as forerunner and guide by elements of the British left down to the twentieth century.
Predictably perhaps, in the first half-century after his death the assessment of Fox's career was a family affair. His papers passed first to his nephew, Lord Holland, who drew on them extensively to produce Foreign Reminiscences (1850) and Memoirs of the Whig Party during my Time (1852–4). They were then left to Lord John Russell, who had known Fox and who had been brought up at Holland House. As an act of piety he allegedly destroyed those papers that could in any way embarrass Fox's memory before producing Memorials and Correspondence of Charles James Fox (1853–7) and The Life and Times of Charles James Fox (1859–66). In these early years the only critical works to appear were those written by Fox's last secretary, John Trotter, namely Circumstantial Details of the Long Illness and Last Moments of the Right Hon. Charles James Fox (1806) and Memoirs of the Later Years of the Rt. Hon. C. J. Fox (1811). Both books were publicly repudiated by surviving members of the Fox family.
When whiggery shaded into Liberalism after 1850 the Fox inheritance passed to writers who were no less anxious to claim him as a progenitor of their own views. Five biographies appeared which hoped to fix Fox in the liberal tradition: they were G. O. Trevelyan's The Early History of Charles James Fox (1881), J. L. Hammond's Charles James Fox: a Political Study (1903), J. Drinkwater's Charles James Fox (1928), E. Lascelles's The Life of Charles James Fox (1936), and C. Hobhouse's Fox (1947). Studies which have attempted to place Fox squarely in an eighteenth-century context as a man of his time are therefore comparatively recent: they are L. Reid's Charles James Fox: a Man for the People (1969), J. W. Derry'sCharles James Fox (1972), and L. G. Mitchell's Charles James Fox (1992).
L. G. Mitchell DNB