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History

Charles James Fox: biography

Charles James Fox

This biography was written in 2006 for the Dictionary of Liberal Thought.

Charles James Fox (1749 – 1806) was leader of the Whigs during the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. He was the first acknowledged “leader of the opposition” in Parliament and repeatedly argued in favour of the preservation of individual liberties at a time when Britain was frequently at war and there were many concerns about treasonous plots. Although not an original thinker himself, his dedication to the cause of individual liberty provided an important lead for his party then and subsequently.

Key ideas

  • Support for civil liberties;
  • Backing for much of the revolution in France and for American independence;
  • Religious toleration and opposition to the slave trade; and
  • The supremacy of Parliament, which needed to be kept free of control and corruption

Biography

Fox was born in London on 24 January 1749 into the political establishment. His mother was the great-granddaughter of Charles II and his father had served Prime Minister Walpole.

The key traits of life were present from an early age: willingness and aptitude for hard work, heavy drinking and gambling, and a talent and intelligence that charmed many. One of his close friends, the Duchess of Devonshire, described how, “His conversation is like a brilliant player at billiards, the strokes follow one another piff puff.”

Regardless of the law that you had to be 21 to be an MP, he was first elected to Parliament for Midhurst, in Sussex, in March 1768 when he was still under-age. By the time he was 21 he was not only an MP but also a serving as a Lord of the Admiralty.

His early political views were conservative and he made his name as a Parliamentary orator in 1769 opposing the free speech cause celebre of the time, John Wilkes.

Things started to change when he fell out with George III over the Royal Marriage Bill. It would restrict the rights of the monarch’s sons to marry and was a sensitive issue for Fox, whose mother has suffered strong disapproval from her family over her own marriage. Then came the War of American Independence, where he backed the colonists.

By the late 1770s he was clearly a Whig, regularly attacking the conduct of the war in America and opposing restrictions on civil liberties such as the 1777 suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. He became Foreign Secretary but was in a minority in the new cabinet in supporting independence for the American colonies and reforms in the public finances and administration.

He therefore soon returned to opposition, splitting his Whig colleagues in the process. He subsequently regained office in coalition with the Tories under Lord North. Their somewhat unlikely coalition proved deeply unpopular, and was hindered by the King’s opposition– caused in part by his dislike of the fact that Fox, with his dissolute lifestyle, was a poor influence on the King’s eldest son. When it fell, Pitt became Prime Minister and, through assiduous work and clever politics, gradually established himself in power.

Revolution in France and the subsequent war marked out the dividing lines for the rest of Fox’s career. Fox was greatly excited by the French Revolution, praising it long after many other people in Britain had began to temper their views in the face of its growing extremism and fears of revolution at home. It followed that he was not keen on war with France either. Both views kept the Whigs fractured, with many backing the war and the government. Only Fox and a small band of supporters were left to carry the flame, opposing restrictions on civil liberties, questioning the conduct of the war and wanting reform at home.

Political manoeuvrings as governments came and went did not result in Fox regaining office – particularly because of the continued hostility of the King. However, on Pitt’s death in 1806, Fox finally returned to office as Foreign Secretary. He had only a few months in office before his death on 13 September 1806.

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 15.

Ideas

Fox consistently believed in Parliament being both dominant and free. For most of his years this therefore meant opposing the powers of the monarch and supporting reform. However, it was therefore not inconsistent of him early in his career to have opposed the rights of the press (as they were seen as interfering with the free exercise of judgement within Parliament) nor to be opposed to more radical democracy notions such as those in Tom Paine’s Rights of Man – which would weaken Parliament by giving in his eyes too much power to the public.

His major contributions were not an original thinker, but as a leader and an orator. As an orator the force of his speeches was based more on clear arguments and nimble debate rather than original thought, great eloquence or rhetoric. His success as a leader is highly debatable – he never became Prime Minister, his band of followers in the Commons was frequently very small and he did not have any sustained success in uniting the various Whig factions – but he did ensure that the case to defend civil liberties, support moderate reform and restrict the monarchy’s powers was consistently argued.

Though his gambling made him a somewhat disreputable figure in the eyes of many, he was also principled, standing by his views rather than desperately seeking power and the money that could come with it, even when his large gambling debts would have tempted many others into going for the money. Even the apparent utterly cynical power-seeking coalition with North was motivated largely by a shared hostility to the monarch.

The War of American Independence and then the French Revolution created a clear ideological gulf between Fox and his followers, and the Tories. For Fox, the correct response to trouble was toleration and liberalism rather than repression and crackdowns. He believed the latter were more likely to trigger revolution than the former. In addition, he believed in was important to restrain the power of the monarchy, not just because of any monarch’s potentially despotic tendencies but also because financial waste and corruption could too easily follow.

He doubted much of the evidence presented by the government as to plots and treasonable activity in Britain in order to justify a range of repressive acts, such as the suspension of Habeas Corpus in 1794. It was in a failed attempt to oppose this that Fox warned of the “despotism of monarchy” and that “we were to be put under the dominion of wild passion, and when our pretended alarms were to be made the pretexts for destroying the first principles of the very system which we affected to revere.”

Whether or not Fox was right in his views that revolution was not being seriously plotted is an issue which historians have debated. What is clear, though, is that he left the Whigs with a clear legacy in favour of civil liberties. This was to become a defining feature of the Liberal Party when it emerged latter in the nineteenth century. Indeed, 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, strong preference for peace rather than war and an optimistic belief in progress through appropriate policies.

Further reading

S Ayling, Fox, 1971
IM Davies, The harlot and the statesman: the story of Elizabeth Armistead and Charles James Fox, 1986
JW Derry, Charles James Fox, 1972
LG Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 1992
D Powell, Charles James Fox: man of the people 1969
D Schweiztner, Charles James Fox: a bibliography 1991

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