FOX, Hon. Charles James (1749-1806), of St. Anne's Hill, Chertsey, Surr.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Constituency

Dates

1768 - 1774
1774 - 1780
1780 - 1784
1784 - 4 Mar. 1785
4 Mar. 1785 - 13 Sept. 1806

Family and Education

b. 24 Jan. 1749, 2nd surv. s. of Henry Fox, 1st Baron Holland, by Lady Georgiana Caroline Lennox (cr. Baroness Holland 3 May 1762), da. of Charles Lennox, 2nd Duke of Richmond. educ. Wandsworth sch. 1757; Eton 1758-64; Hertford, Oxf. 1764-6; L. Inn 1764; Grand Tour 1766-7. m. 28 Sept. 1795, Elizabeth Bridget Blane alias Armistead, s.p. legit.

Offices Held

Paymaster of widows’ pensions, War Office 1761-70; ld. of Admiralty Feb. 1770-Feb. 1772, of Treasury Jan. 1773-Feb. 1774; PC 30 Mar. 1782, struck off 9 May 1798, rest. 5 Feb. 1806; sec. of state for Foreign affairs Mar.-July 1782, Apr.-Dec. 1783, Feb. 1806- d.

 

Biography

When in 1820 there was a competiton among them to write a suitable inscription for the national monument in Fox’s memory, his Whig disciples could not agree on his salient achievements: whereupon it was agreed that ‘the monument is to be without any inscription but C. J. Fox’. Westmacott’s monument in Westminster Abbey shows him on a mattress, falling into the arms of Liberty, with Peace reclining on his knee and an African thanking him for his aid in the cause of freedom. His objectives, at any rate, were clearly stated. He summed them up in his election address to the Westminster voters in 1790:

To preserve to the people their due weight in the scale of the constitution, to withstand the encroachments, whether of prerogative or of influence; and, above all, to keep alive that spirit of liberty to which this country owes all her greatness, are the objects of my political life.1

Fox’s political career was given its impetus by his father’s grudge against King George III, which he converted into a vendetta, sanctified by the avowed programme of the Rockingham Whig party to reduce the baleful influence of the crown. To make this party his own was his aim: he was already its freebooting spokesman in the House of Commons on Rockingham’s death in 1782 and, rather than see it enlist under the banner of Lord Shelburne, the King’s choice as premier, he was prepared to resign office and split the party, bestowing its nominal lead on the Duke of Portland. He went on to defy party conscience by coalescing with Lord North to take power by forcing the King’s hand. When George III toppled this coalition over the India bill, the battle between Fox and the King was out in the open: Fox lost, but his party survived, proscribed and endowed with martyrs and ready to fight for its view of the constitution against the King and Pitt, the minister of his choice. The Whig Club was founded as a sounding board for party opinion; and the development of a party fund-raising, publicity and electoral organization, supervised by the Duke of Portland and William Adam, was intended to win wider public support. Fox secured a personal triumph against Pitt by retrieving his seat for Westminster on scrutiny in 1785 and had the satisfaction of seeing his party capture the other seat in 1788, but the weakness of his position was underlined by two of the major issues on which he challenged Pitt’s ministry during that Parliament.

Both issues, the prosecution of Warren Hastings and the Regency crisis, indicated that Fox was not in command of his party generals. He was no match for Burke’s fanaticism on the Indian question, and his own apathy, together with Pitt’s decision to take the matter out of the party struggle and smother it, combined to destroy its effectiveness: in 1790 the minister could allow the impeachment to be revived in a new Parliament in the confidence that it could lead only to the discomfiture of opposition, Fox’s growing indifference being a public fact by then, though he paid lip-service to the crusade and remained a critic of expansionist war and of Company rule in India. The Regency, of which Fox had greater hopes, proved a snare and a delusion: before he arrived on the scene Sheridan, always a more ardent courtier of the Prince of Wales than he, had taken the initiative in compromising with Lord Chancellor Thurlow. Fox, gambling on the King’s incurability, rejected this in favour of an unrestricted Regency, which enabled Pitt to espouse the argument for constitutional safeguards: so Fox subsequently depended on Sheridan to curb Burke’s excessive zeal for the cause of an unlimited Regency. In response to his critics, Fox shifted the ground of his opposition to Pitt’s proposals and then withdrew to wait on events, which let him down and reduced him to abject submission. He could never reconcile Sheridan and Burke, but he had the consolation of seeing that neither of them could impose their will on the party, which still looked to him for the lead; and that, although it was divided at the top, the rank and file remained constant.

The French revolution destroyed this uneasy equilibrium: Fox welcomed it, seeing only a parallel with the English revolution of 1688; Sheridan was even more enthusiastic; but Burke set his face against it from the start and quarrelled publicly with Sheridan, with a side glance at Fox, in February 1790. Fox did not wish to be drawn, preferring the middle ground, and a Fox Club at once sprang into being to rally to his lead. He sought to avoid a confrontation with Burke, though hurt by his desertion of the cause of religious disablement, and ignored Burke’s Reflections, his distaste for which ended his intellectual pupillage to him, as he refused to give up his favourable impression of the French revolution. On 1 Mar. 1791 he was at odds with Burke in debate over his wish to remove disabilities not only for Catholics, but for all dissenters. On 15 Apr., in a speech designed to frustrate the ministry’s threat to go to war with Russia, an issue on which opposition rallied to his call, he stated his approbation of events in France, and he again admitted it in the preliminary debate on the Quebec bill, 21 Apr. Although it was now Sheridan’s turn to attempt to keep the peace between them, the inevitable collision between Fox and Burke, joyfully anticipated by ministerialists and encouraged by Fox’s own ‘light troops’, took place in the debate on the Quebec bill, 6 May. Fox vindicated the French revolution by reference to the same ‘rights of man’ as had justified the English one a century before and wept at the loss of Burke’s friendship; but by a tactical manoeuvre, which the necessity of coming to terms with the aristocratic prejudices of the Whig grandees had taught him, he explained in debate five days later that his creed of the rights of man involved King, Lords and Commons and not an assault on rank and property; though he was more jealous of the power of the crown than of the power of the people.

Purging the party of the influence of Burke was not a congenial task to Fox, but the affection and political loyalty of his followers sustained him. Sheridan was restrained by him from his excessive zeal for the revolution and against Burke, and Fox avoided attending the dinner in honour of the revolution, 14 July 1791. (He went to Ascot instead.) On 7 June the Whig Club had rallied in support of Fox’s bid, which succeeded next session, to extend the freedom of the press by mitigating the libel laws (on which question his debt to Burke went unacknowledged) and had nothing to say about the revolution.2 Burke’s Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs of August 1791, an assault on Fox as the champion of the sovereignty of the people, was ignored by him: he was being f’ted by the faithful grandees of the north at the time and during that tour the emphasis was on his success in opposition to the ministry’s warlike posturing against Spain and Russia.3 At this time (but not subsequently, apart from pleas to spare the lives of the King and Queen) Fox was even prepared to urge moderation upon the French revolutionaries: though when adverse comment was made on this in the French assembly, he realized that it could do him no good and in opposing the address, 31 Jan. 1792, he deprecated outside interference in French affairs. In the ensuing session his wish was rather to make the folly of blind confidence in Pitt, whether in finance or foreign policy, the rallying point of opposition.

By 1792, however, Fox was facing a challenge not from the right but from the left of the Whig party. On 16 Mar. he assured Earl Fitzwilliam,4 apropos of parliamentary reform: ‘I am more bound by former declarations and consistency, than by any strong opinion I entertain in its favour’. Yet many of the association of the Friends of the People, founded on 11 Apr. to promote reform, were his friends. Believing as he did that extremism, whether on the right (as in the case of the Birmingham riots in January) or on the left, would produce a confusion and alarm favourable to despotic government, he was irritated by this association and declined joining them; but he did not wish altogether to discourage his younger followers.5 So on 18 Apr. he supported Sheridan’s motion for burgh reform and on 30 Apr., but with some reservations, Grey’s motion for parliamentary reform, as a good Whig cause. The reservations gave him freedom of action, but he did nothing to please the conservative Whigs by his attempt to secure the repeal of the penal statutes against religious nonconformity, with special reference to Unitarians, 11 May 1792. When Pitt issued the proclamation against sedition, Fox saw it as a bid to wean away from him the conservative Whigs, who were consulted by ministers on the subject, but he asserted himself to hold the party together and the debate of 25 May 1792 passed without rancour. On 2 June the Friends of the People, who usually met at Brooks’s Club, where Fox held court, thanked him for his support of Grey’s motion; while on 6 June at the Whig Club he satisfied the conservative grandees by coming out against the current agitation of parliamentary reform as divisive, and by emphasizing his independence of the Friends.6 This tactical manoeuvre was by now at straining point, but he made up for it by complete success in preventing ministers, egged on by Burke, from weaning the Duke of Portland away from him that summer by overtures for a coalition. Fox paid lip-service to the idea of a coalition, but he was able to represent it to Portland as a trick to undermine the Whig party: to prove this, he encouraged Portland to parley and gave his blessing to the negotiation, provided Pitt was displaced by it, knowing that Portland would stipulate Fox’s inclusion; neither Pitt’s colleagues nor the King would hear of this and Fox was vindicated in Portland’s eyes, while he saw for himself both that the King was still averse to him and that the Whig grandees were reluctant to leave him in isolation, ‘to head the discontents of the country’.7

If the Whig grandees hoped to be able to follow Fox into hostility to the French revolution after the September massacres of 1792, they were disappointed: Fox, though dismayed, was for appreciation of the plight of the French revolutionaries in their confrontation with the reactionary armies of Austria and Prussia, and continued to expect the emergence of a Whiggish party in France, while looking forward to the overthrow of Pitt’s administration at home. His moderate position and waiting game were becoming increasingly untenable as revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries polarized and he was now harassed by both sides simultaneously. Sheridan and Grey tugged him to the left, while on the right the case against him was thus stated by Lord Carlisle:

Fox’s unfortunate encomium of the French revolution: the dispute with Burke: his dashing so deeply into the slave trade: the little management he has had about the Church: his conversation and speeches concerning the association (though I acquit him of any real love of reform of Parliament) have given his enemies of late great advantage ground and have made it easier for them to increase the apprehensions of the world at large at his reaching a principal seat of power.

Burke, after a last unsuccessful bid to bend Fox towards Pitt in November 1792, attempted to detach Portland and Fitzwilliam, the pillars of the Whig aristocratic interest, from him. Fox, loath to be drawn either way, realized that events had obscured the themes of his political life and highlighted new ones which he did not relish. He was now goaded into taking his stand. Deprecating the growth of loyal associations, he refused to see any danger of French domination in Europe, even when the French regime pledged itself to assist revolutionaries abroad after their victory at Jemappes, and he told Portland and the Whig Club so, 4 Dec. 1792. He suspected that Portland and Fitzwilliam would find this hard to swallow and on 13 Dec., in defiance of their wish to let the address, with its home defence proposals, go unamended, he attacked Pitt’s policy as alarmist, contrived like the Popish plot, surrendering Parliament to the executive and playing into the hands of extremists, to the exclusion of ‘that middle order of men, who have hitherto preserved to this country all that is dear in life’. To this he added the cry of 1784 that Pitt had always intended to undermine the constitution. His amendment was supported by only 50 votes, reported to consist of 21 reformers, four Lansdowne Members and the rest personally attached to Fox; but he stood by it and on 14 and 15 Dec. moved for negotiation with the de facto government of France to avert war in alliance with the reactionary powers who had recently partitioned Poland. These motions were negatived without a division, but enabled him to base his opposition to war with revolutionary France on the premise that it would be a pretext to trim liberty at home and ally with despots abroad to restore the monarchical government the French people had rejected. His stand prevented the dissolution of the Whig party and made what was left of it his own. On 17 Dec. he explained his views, as usual, in such a way as to retain his hold on the grandees, eschewing republicanism: he criticized the revolutionaries’ treatment of the French royal family, approved the furbishing of the navy, joined a Westminster loyalist association and avoided the Friends of the Liberty of the Press, who were allied to the Friends of the People. This balancing act reached its reductio ad absurdum when he protested in the House on 24 Dec. against the dismissal of two army officers for subscribing to a pro-French fund and next day addressed a loyalist Westminster meeting; still more when Portland, lobbied by his alarmist friends to renounce Fox, did so on 31 Dec. in the Lords, while his son in the Commons the same day countermanded his father’s declaration at Fox’s instigation.8 Lord Loughborough alone deserted Fox for office at this juncture.

Fox’s next step, A letter ... to the worthy and independent electors of Westminster (26 Jan. 1793), an elaboration of his speech against the aliens bill on 4 Jan., calling for more evidence to justify the ministerial crusade against Jacobinism and for negotiation with the French regime, misfired. The meeting of the ‘third party’ at William Windham’s house on 10 Feb. was an omen that the tail was wagging the head, that Fox was now considered beyond the pale and, as Windham put it, must depend on a revolution for power. The Prince of Wales, too, despaired of him. A few weeks later the Portland Whigs, though not their embarrassed leader, left the Whig Club and it became a Foxite garrison. On the outbreak of war with France, Fox would have no truck with coalition: he had regarded the war scare as Pitt’s ‘Popish plot’ and he now denounced hostilities in debate as a war of kings against peoples, 1, 12, 18 Feb. 1793. He was in a minority of 44. Forced to swallow the war, he supported parliamentary reform short of universal suffrage, 21 Feb., and criticized new revenue appointments that increased crown patronage, 24 May. He made a last plea for the ‘mildness, philanthropy and liberality’ of the 18th century against a new age of political bigotry of which Burke, of all men, was the apostle: ‘He would support ministers in carrying on the war, but he would not agree to undermine the constitution.’ So he took a stand against the surrender of constitutional liberty due to panic on the questions of barracks and the traitorous correspondence bill; on 2 and 7 May supported the Friends of the People’s call for parliamentary reform; and, following the defeat of the French at Neerwinden, called on 17 June for peace negotiations, the refusal of which, he believed, vindicated his view that the war was a monarchical crusade. This stand caused Fox to be labelled ‘a dangerous statesman’ by the corps diplomatique, alienated Windham and his ‘third party’ and deeply disturbed and divided the Portland Whigs, but he was supported by a staunch opposition rump that guaranteed him the leadership of his party and now mustered more than £60,000 to defray his debts and raise an annuity of £2,000 for him. His magnetism, moreover, drew the more influential Friends of the People away from their more radical co-agitators for reform.9

Fox was impeached by Burke on 54 counts in his Observations on the conduct of the minority of September 1793, intended as the intellectual justification of the Whig grandees’ desertion: ‘Mr Pitt may be the worst of men, and Mr Fox may be the best; but, at present, the former is in the interest of the country, and of the order of things long established in Europe; Mr Fox is not’. Despite Fox’s lingering hopes and bids to placate them, Fitzwilliam could not now be won back to him and Portland was attentive to measures, not men, and prepared to support the war, though not at present to join the cabinet. Declaring this on 20 Jan. 1794, Portland made his peace with the ‘third party’ and with Pitt’s government and finally gave up Fox, who could now give vent to his bitterness. On the address next day, he claimed that the French were justified in extremism, confronted as they were with an enemy who sought to force them to renounce opinions for which they had already sacrificed their lives. His minority was 59. He saw his task as a Sisyphean one, in the face of unbridled executives on both sides of the Channel. He admitted that he could scarcely wish for an English victory which must increase the power of the crown: ‘It seemed some way as if I had the world to begin anew, and, if I could have done it with honour, what I should best have liked would have been to retire from politics’. He was a champion of the transported radicals, Muir and Palmer, an issue which he had hoped would prevent the desertion of men of talent such as Thomas Grenville*, but it secured little support in the House. The fuel which the case provided for the reform of Scottish criminal law was the only subject on which he appealed to his former friends. He criticized the employment of foreign mercenaries, the inadequacy of subsidized allies, the neglect of naval protection for commerce and the tax burden entailed by war, encouraging Whitbread’s call for peace negotiations, 6 Mar. 1794. He had no stomach to battle with Portland when given an opportunity to contest his local interest in Nottinghamshire. He was in fact sick of politics and confined himself to registering his protest against government measures, with the backing of about 55 steady followers and without any appreciable result in terms of public opinion. He deplored the conduct of the war, the raising of a voluntary subscription (for which he would have substituted taxation of office-holders), the enlistment of émigrés, the ill-treatment of his old friend Lafayette, and above all the suspension of habeas corpus, on which the Foxite Whigs were not consulted by ministers: all of which proved to him that the war was a crusade against liberty. In defiance of this, he supported the removal of religious disabilities at home from dissenters and Catholics. His elaborate motion for peace negotiations, 30 May 1794, was defeated by 208 votes to 55.

When in July 1794 Portland and his friends joined the cabinet, Fox, insulated by a protective circle entirely committed to him, faced the consequences of his exclusion from Pitt’s ‘one great family’ of state. He was now sole spokesman and social leader of a group of ‘blue and buffs’, many of them aristocratic libertarians younger than himself and born to politics with the French revolution, but jealous guardians of his reputation: a totem of resistance to the loss of liberties and immune to the vagaries of publicity and patronage, he was reckoned irrelevant and irresponsible outside his own charmed circle, but among them irresistible. His spell was admitted by those who had left him: Thomas Pelham* was sure that Fox ‘from the frankness and sincerity of his character has convinced more people than any man in Parliament’.10 Behind the mask of defiance, however, he was dejected as never before: it was no comfort to him that Portland’s coalition with Pitt proved an uneasy one, in which the Whig legacy was soon squandered by Fitzwilliam’s fiasco as lord lieutenant in Ireland.

Fox’s consolation lay in his salvage of ‘party ... the only substitute that has been found, or can be found, for public virtue and comprehensive understanding’. It was, he assured his nephew Lord Holland, 5 Oct. 1794, the only preventive against the ‘euthanasia of absolute monarchy’ and ‘by far the best system, if not the only one, for supporting the cause of liberty in this country’.11 He could not hope to overthrow the government, unless it was defeated in war, as North’s had been in the war of American independence; but government had to answer for its proceedings and was confronted with an opposition which, if not numerous, was steady, purified by schism and clung to the embryonic institutions which only a few years before seemed to be developing it into an alternative government.

In the debate on the address, 30 Dec. 1794, in approbation of Wilberforce’s pacific amendment, Fox alleged, ‘Both the present and the American war were owing to a Court party in this country, that hated the very name of liberty; and to an indifference, amounting to barbarity, in the minister, to the distresses of the people’. He hoped that public petitions would support this view. Rejoicing in the acquittal of the radical ‘felons’, he reprobated the continuation of the suspension of habeas corpus, 5 Jan. 1795. He assailed Pitt’s pretensions as a minister at war, with particular reference to the allies’ subsidies and the boosting of the army at the expense of the navy, 5, 7, 21, 22 Jan. After instigating a call of the House, he supported Grey’s motion for peace negotiations, 26 Jan., and himself moved against the suspension of civil liberty, 28 Jan. In February he was a firm critic of the loan to the Emperor of Austria. On 24 Mar. he summed up his case against ministers in a motion for the state of the nation, defeated by 219 votes to 63, adding the plight of Ireland, following Fitzwilliam’s dismissal, to his recital. Concluding that an unrepresentative House could offer no adequate resistance to the growing arbitrariness of government, he was satisfied that if inquiry into their conduct were permitted, it would lead to their removal.12 On 27 May, supporting Wilberforce’s motion for peace, he insisted that pacifism and Jacobinism were not synonymous and wondered why, in view of previous experience, it should be supposed that a restoration of royalty in France offered any security for peace. Faced at this time with the ticklish problem of the Prince of Wales’s debts, he contrived a case by complaining that public control over his finances was a humiliating substitute for the King’s coming to his aid or the sale of the duchy of Cornwall.

Fox’s amendment to the address, 29 Oct. 1795, rested his case against ministers on their failure to initiate negotiations with France. The ensuing bills to secure the King’s safety and to prevent seditious assemblies provided him with fresh animus. They were a deadly blow to the liberty of the land, because it was not prescriptive: ‘except for the rights of man, the rights of Englishmen could have no existence’; without public meetings, there could be no free expression of public opinion, which was being banned on insufficient evidence, no distinction being made between the discontented and the disaffected:

if the people are so degraded as to prefer slavery to liberty, I will not talk of retiring from public life, but I will say, that I can no longer be a profitable servant to such a people ... I affirm, that no attack which the unfortunate family of Stuart made upon the liberties of the country was more alarming and atrocious than that which is intended by the present bills.

He opposed their basis tooth and nail and, chairing a Westminster meeting on 16 Nov., cropped and powderless, encouraged public petitions against them, many of which he presented himself. Amending them was out of the question, as the bills were unconstitutional. Resistance to them, he exclaimed, was more a matter of prudence than of morality, for they were ‘a departure from ... the principles of the constitution’, which he was horrified to see justified in ‘divine right’ terms by authoritarian pamphleteers such as John Reeves. He still looked forward to a ‘rational’ rather than a ‘radical’ reform of Parliament. He induced the Whig Club to sponsor an association for the repeal of the two bills, calling for the restoration of the rights vindicated in 1688.13 He continued to plead for peace, on Sheridan’s and Grey’s motions, 9 Dec. 1795, 15 Feb. 1796, and produced petitions as evidence of public demand for it. All along he had been a prominent advocate of the immediate abolition of the slave trade; linking it to his opposition to a government that acted ‘upon the principles of slavery’, he campaigned for it with renewed intensity in the spring of 1796. He likewise condemned the ‘tyranny’ of the Game Laws and the severity of the criminal code. He concluded the session with a censure on the failure to negotiate peace, 10 May 1796: it was defeated by 216 votes to 42.

As the need for peace was the rallying cry of Fox’s election campaign in 1796, he took what credit he could for the ministerial disposition to negotiate, announced in the King’s speech, 6 Oct., and did not oppose the address, but regretted that so much blood and money and constitutional freedom had been sacrificed. Peace was his boast at the Westminster dinner held on the anniversary of his election for that seat every October. He went on to oppose Pitt’s home defence measures, disparaging the alarm of French invasion as a mere ministerial pretext to curtail liberty. The grant of a loan to the Austrian emperor and the outbreak of war with Spain gave the lie to the government’s pacific intentions, and Pitt’s raising the imperial loan without parliamentary consent seemed to him a matter for impeachment. The impeachment failed by 185 votes to 81, 14 Dec. On 30 Dec. he lamented the failure of peace negotiations and declared that a change of ministers was a prerequisite for peace. His censure, which lasted three-and-a-half hours, was rebuffed by 212 votes to 37.14

This setback dismayed Fox, particularly as he felt that a campaign of public meetings would be ‘urging people against the grain’. He informed his wife, 15 Jan. 1797:

I do heartily wish I could retire altogether from politics with honour, for as to doing good I am convinced it is out of my power. Indeed I begin to think that it is not impossible for us to secede with honour, and if so the sooner the better. Erskine writes me word that he is drawing up and has nearly finished a declaration or manifesto for us, and if he has done it well, I do not see why we should not publish it next month and immediately cease from attending Parliament.15

This secession was to take place after a motion on the state of the nation to impeach ministers: but it was delayed by the Bank crisis. He demanded an inquiry into the stoppage of cash payments, 27, 28 Feb., 1 Mar., but despite a ‘blaze of eloquence’, failed to obtain a place on the secret committee by 144 votes to 53. On 9 Mar. he conceded the necessity for a temporary restriction on payment in specie, but next day described the resort to paper currency as an indication of ministerial bankruptcy: ‘the real cause of all our calamities has been that ... the crown has swallowed up the whole government’. He failed in a bid to regulate the Bank’s advances to government and prevent collusion between the Bank and the ministry. On 13 Mar. he was denied admission to the committee of finance for the inquiry into places and pensions by 148 votes to 75. His critical motion on the state of Ireland, which called for Catholic relief, was defeated on 23 Mar. by 220 votes to 84. On 3 Apr. he endorsed a motion for the removal of ministers at a Palace Yard meeting. Subsequently he steadily combated the Bank indemnity bill and the imperial loan and supported the resumption of peace negotiations. The King now regarded him as ‘an open enemy of his country’.16 He seconded the censure of government after the naval mutiny, 10 May. On 23 May he failed by 260 votes to 52 to secure the repeal of the seditious meetings bill with the concluding admonishment ‘You should therefore not contract the sentiments of the people, you should expand them’.

Fox’s secession followed a sustained plea for parliamentary reform on Grey’s motion, 26 May 1797. Denying that it was Jacobinical, he claimed: ‘In making the people of England a constituent part of the government of England, you do no more than restore the genuine edifice designed and framed by our ancestors’. But he did not lean too strongly on the shaky argument of an ancestral constitution: it was the example of ‘the ancient democracies’ that fired him:

Whatever may be objected to them on account of the turbulency of the passions which they engender; their short duration, and their disgusting vices, they have exacted from the common suffrage of mankind the palm of strength and vigour ... we see that, by the mere force and spirit of this principle, France has brought all Europe to her feet ... they have exemplified the doctrine, that if you wish for power, you must look to liberty ... I wish you to be restored to a vigour that shall make you equal to your emergency.

He proposed a householder suffrage, supplying an overall electorate of 600,000, as a better guarantee of independent votes than universal suffrage, his objection to the latter being the same as that taken for granted to any demand for votes for women: there would be too many fettered votes. He was also willing to see short Parliaments introduced. In conclusion he argued that, if not soon realized, parliamentary reform might be ‘extorted ... by convulsion’; that to prevent this ministers should resign, and that he was not asking to belong to any new administration, though he would be satisfied to support it. The motion was lost by 258 votes to 93. His speech was considered his finest ever.17 His concluding remarks were given their peculiar relevance by the bid of the ‘armed neutrality’ in the House to form a new government under Lord Moira. Fox was a candidate for inclusion in it and some of his friends made it clear that they would not parley otherwise, but to prevent embarrassment he had gone to the King on 24 May, volunteering to be excluded: ‘The King heard me attentively and seriously but said not one word’.18 No ministry could, however, be formed that excluded Pitt and Fox.

Fox justified his secession at the Whig Club and retreated to his beloved St. Anne’s Hill, declaring that only great events would draw him back to Westminster. This line of action was particularly congenial to his chosen lieutenant Charles Grey*, as well as to Whitbread and Erskine; less so to the restless Sheridan and the ambitious Tierney. As Fox relished the pleasures of literature in his rural retreat and became less amenable to his associates’ plans of action, he left to them the burden of proof that any given issue was momentous enough to stir him into attendance. Nothing came of his rebellious hints that he should give up his seat, and his offer to do so at his anniversary dinner in October 1797, at which he justified his conduct, was cried down. He remained impervious to ministerial rebuke, attending only the Whig Club, and that without enthusiasm because of the bickering there on the merits of secession. To Grey he wrote candidly, 5 Oct. 1797:

whether [the decision to secede] was ever quite right, I have always had my doubts; but having taken it, I think it far best to adhere to it; with the exception perhaps of going to the House once in the session to move either reform or general inquiry, but even in regard to this exception I am not very decided, unless there should be great encouragement to it out of doors.19

One exception was Pitt’s tripling of the assessed taxes: Fox, pressed by his constituents to attend, did so in company with Sheridan and denounced it on 14 Dec. 1797. He had long marvelled at the patience, not to call it stupidity, with which the country had borne its wartime tax burden and welcomed indications that the public had become restive: but his solution was total reform and he pledged himself to take part in no government that did not assent to ‘a thorough and perfect reform of all our abuses’. On 4 Jan. 1798, in a bitter exchange with Wilberforce, he denied that he was personally unpopular in the country and assured ministers that the tax was. On 3 Apr. 1798 (as on 15 May the year before) he was ‘teased’ into attendance to renew his former pleas for the abolition of the slave trade, and on 22 June he spoke in favour of Lord George Cavendish’s motion for a new deal for Ireland. Ireland, he bitterly reflected in private, could only benefit by a French invasion, England could not: ‘England will be Per servir sempre o vincitrice o vinta’. He concluded:

it is bad enough to be obliged to be passively obedient to the present system, but when one has just made up one’s mind to that, to feel onself in a situation where one must make active exertions in support and for the establishment of such a tyranny is the very Devil.

Lord Wycombe was confident that a French invasion would find Fox teaching his wife Greek.20

Fox’s disillusionment was readily confused by his critics with disloyalty. He was quoted as saying that he would replace Pitt’s cabinet by the first nine men he met on the road from London to Windsor. He rejected the Prince of Wales’s suggestion that associating himself with a loyal declaration would redeem his reputation and resisted similar suggestions from his own followers.21 The only reputation he wished for was to have taken ‘no part’ in the ministry’s discreditable proceedings, and if no good was to be done in Parliament he declined action out of doors, which could only be ‘by ways in which I never will take a share’.22 Nevertheless when in May 1798 he repeated at the Whig Club the toast to the sovereignty of the people, for making which, at Fox’s birthday dinner in January, the Duke of Norfolk had been dismissed from his lord lieutenancy, he was expelled from the Privy Council. Pitt admitted to Dundas, 5 May:

our friends are very eager for some parliamentary notice of Fox’s speech. The objection to prosecuting him is certainly very great from the chance of acquittal and a triumph, but it has been suggested that he might be ordered to attend, and if he avows the speech might be reprimanded by the Speaker. If he deserves it, the printer might be prosecuted with success. If after a reprimand he offers a new insult (as he probably would at the next meeting of the Club) he might be sent to the Tower for the remainder of the session, which would assert the authority of the House, as much as expulsion, and save the inconvenience of a Westminster contest.23

The only effect on Fox was one of liberation: he proceeded to Maidstone to give evidence on behalf of Arthur O’Connor and Lord Thanet on their trial for treason. He had no wish to attend Parliament in future and was happy to be left out of any projects for a change of government. His contempt for the House as it was then constituted, expressed at his Westminster anniversary dinner in October 1798, was such, thought Canning, that if he were not expelled, it could never hold up its head again. Pitt again threatened ‘some parliamentary notice of it’. In December Fox toasted ‘O’Connor and Liberty’ at the Whig Club. Thereafter he acquiesced in the admonitions of his entourage to avoid public meetings, or at least tone down his speeches.24

Fox disapproved the terms of the Irish union, but did not himself attend the debates. He even refused Wilberforce’s plea to attend on the slave trade, 21 Feb. 1799, explaining that it stood no chance while the present ministry lasted, which was tantamount to doubting Pitt’s sincerity in championing abolition. Not once did he attend that session. It was in vain that his nephew begged him either to attend regularly or at least to offer ‘your system of government to the country’ in a general motion. Lord Grenville’s curt rebuff of Buonaparte’s peace overture in December 1799 made him relent: Holland urged, ‘You owe the experiment to yourself and your friends and the country’. Fox was reluctant, but saw that a blow struck in or out of Parliament—for he set great store by public petitions from London and Yorkshire—would be a rallying point for opposition. On 3 Feb. 1800 he appeared in the House ‘to make one more effort to convince the public’, as Grey put it, ‘how impossible it is that a tolerable peace should ever be made by ministers’. The House was crowded and riveted by the renewal of the former rivalry in debate between himself and Pitt. Fox invited Pitt to concede that the war against France had been a total failure and that now, in a ‘new era’ of it, Pitt had no new arguments to advance in its favour, although it was further away from settlement than ever. Reviewing the disastrous reluctance to resort to negotiation or mediation from the start, he rebuked the latest refusal to treat with powerful sarcasm. He received 64 votes against 260.25

Although he protested that this would probably be his last appearance in the House, and the indications of public response to his appeal for peace were not particularly encouraging, Fox announced at the Whig Club that he would attend, but only occasionally. Subsequently he urged Grey to attend instead and by November 1800 he wished Grey, who had turned against secession, to take the lead for opposition. When a regular opposition was then proposed, he felt called on only for his accessit. In practice, however, the shortcomings of Grey, Sheridan and Tierney and their mutual jealousies made him an indispensable arbiter of his party’s policy; and public opinion remained, in Fox’s phrase, ‘terribly subdued’.26 In December 1800 he monitored Grey’s line in debate and at the time of Pitt’s resignation was encouraging public meetings, except in his own constituency, to call for the removal of ministers rather than for reform. He did not altogether rule out his own attendance, but rather wished it to be clamoured for.27

Fox at first believed Pitt’s replacement as minister by Addington to be ‘some juggle, which will shortly end in reinstating Pitt himself’, and then that it was a ‘purely royal’ manoeuvre, but at length proposed to put the new ministry to the test by attending a motion on the state of the nation made by Grey, to find out if the House was ‘to make itself as abject a tool of this ministry as it was of the last’, as he wrote to William Smith*, 17 Feb. 1801. He took his seat on 2 Mar., his friends rallying to him at Fitzwilliam’s town house. He had resolved that, after Grey’s motion, he would attend no more unless the Catholic question came on, and then only for that; and he made it clear that if his constituents required more of him, he had no particular wish to be in another Parliament, finding attendance and secession equally ineffective.28 Should the King’s illness lead to a Regency under which the Prince of Wales invited the Whigs into office, Fox would decline the lead in favour of Lord Moira, though his friends were ill-disposed to this plan without him: he admitted that he would have preferred to see Grey or the Duke of Bedford at their head, but thought it right that the Prince’s closest friend among them should preside.29 In fact, the Prince kept aloof from such arrangements.

Fox received a rough reception, but gave as good as he got when he took part in debate against Lord Temple’s motion to expel John Horne Tooke, 10 Mar. 1801, arguing against procedural novelty and seizing upon the absence of a petition from Horne Tooke’s constituents at Old Sarum as evidence of the case for parliamentary reform. His speech in defence of Grey’s censure motion on 25 Mar. was an indictment of Pitt’s war policy, of which the alienation of the Baltic powers was the latest effect, and of his evasion of Catholic relief, the issue on which he had ostensibly resigned; as well as a scathing welcome to the new ministry which, he was sure, heralded no change of system. Appealing to the House to end ‘the reign of confidence’, he announced that he would attend only at his own discretion if they rejected the motion summarily. They did so. Fox was nevertheless encouraged by Addington’s disclaimer of Pitt’s tutelage and by his wish to make peace with France, and apart from brief sallies in debate on 27 Mar. (against Pitt) and on 4 May (on behalf of Horne Tooke), lay low for the rest of the session, during which his ambitions for Grey received a setback on the latter’s father’s acceptance of a peerage. ‘I see no use in stating in the House of Commons the principles of liberty and justice’, he informed Grey, and consoled him with the thought that the House ‘will shortly entirely cease to be a place of importance’, adding that as ‘the Court, without any invidious consideration of particular characters, is a miserable foundation to build a system of reform and liberty upon’, he foresaw the rise of extra-parliamentary agitation of ‘whatever popular opinions might prevail’.30

Fox rejoiced in the preliminaries of peace at his anniversary dinner in October 1801, announcing that he would not quibble over the terms, however advantageous to France: the crux of it was that the despotic intentions of the allies had been frustrated. Meanwhile, at home, the constitution had to be redeemed. Privately he wrote with more acerbity:

Indemnity for the past and security for the future, are now evidently construed into Ceylon, and Trinidad ... I suspect that there never was joy more universal and unfeigned, and this rascally people are quite overjoyed at receiving from ministers what, if they had dared to ask it could not have been refused them at almost any period of the war ... 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.

On 29 Oct. he announced his support for the address and on 3 Nov. supported the peace preliminaries in a word-shy speech that glossed over some of the indiscretions alleged against his anniversary dinner oration, which was thought so pro-French as ‘to let down the English character’. This time he treated Pitt with civility, and to avoid embarrassing Addington in the debate on the settlement with the Baltic powers soon afterwards, stayed away.31

On 15 Nov. 1801 Fox wrote a political testament to William Smith: as it was improbable that, ‘during this reign at least’, a government would be established in which he could take part, he considered his political life to be over, and only the chapter of accidents prevented him from publicly retiring:

As to many of my friends, I think differently, and as our principles have been in my judgement fairly beat by the power and influence of the crown co-operating with other unfortunate circumstances, I see no reason why they should not endeavour to render the evil as little evil as possible and by supporting (or joining if occasion should offer) the present ministers, prevent the return of worse.

His own political objectives now were some kind of parliamentary reform, abolition of religious tests and of the slave trade, and Catholic relief: all of which he thought unattainable, ‘and while they are so, I personally will have nothing to do with any administration’. Any inclinations of the Addington ministry towards civil liberty would have his support, but otherwise he was too wedded to his ‘old system’ to change his tack:

An old conscientious Jacobite might very well refuse to take the oaths, and yet, when the Brunswick family was completely established, approve the conduct of those who contributed to make the usurped government as beneficial as possible to the country.32

While this statement of his position justified the flirtation of Grey, Tierney and Sheridan with Addington’s administration, it did not lead to their junction, and Fox himself remained aloof. He resumed attendance to defend the Prince of Wales’s claims on the civil list, 15-17 Feb. 1802. On 16 Mar. he paid tribute to the late Duke of Bedford, his coadjutant in the House of Lords, while moving the writ for Tavistock. The duke’s legacy of £2,000 p.a. relieved him of financial anxiety for the rest of his life. At the end of the month he was the leading critic of the civil list arrears and spokesman for the Prince of Wales’s claims on the revenue of the duchy of Cornwall. On 12 Apr. and 7 May, in collusion with Grey, he opposed Belgrave’s attempt to canonize Pitt’s administration. He took no part in the debates on the peace treaty, but reappeared on 10 June to call for a reduced peacetime establishment in the committee of supply: this was regarded as a pre-election reminder to the electors of Westminster that he had digested their petition for the repeal of the income tax and had not given them up: though he assured William Adam that he hoped his appearance was for the last time.33

Fox postponed his decision to offer for re-election at Westminster until the last moment: Sheridan had long been prepared to step into his shoes there and Fox had studiously avoided confrontations with his constituents since his secession, which did not please many. It was Denis O’Bryen who claimed the credit for persuading him to stand for re-election, and though he would not pledge regular attendance in the next Parliament his success at the polls vindicated the decision. He at once proceeded to Paris with his entourage, ostensibly to gather materials for the history of the reign of James II which he had begun writing during his secession, but as England’s leading francophile he was inevitably greeted by Buonaparte with a flowery speech which provoked adverse comment in England. Fox was satisfied that in his ensuing dialogue with Buonaparte he had made a gesture towards peaceful coexistence between England and France. It was during this visit that his secret marriage to Mrs Armistead seven years before was made public. French Laurence, who regarded the whole episode as ‘a new bar’ to power for Fox, commented to Fitzwilliam, 25 Sept. 1802, ‘He neither knows how to be, nor how to cease to be, a public man; and there is a considerable party in the House of Commons which neither knows how to act with him, nor how to quit him’.34

The emergence of a ‘new opposition’ hostile to the peace settlement, led by Lord Grenville and William Windham, was incentive enough to make Fox attend and support the address, 23 Nov. 1802, except on the question of Ireland. There was no case, he insisted, for the anticipation of resumed hostilities with France: the two countries need be no more than commercial rivals. This provoked a clash with Windham, and next day Fox turned on Lord Temple, being privately resolved that, though he did not wish to be minister himself, ‘he was determined to do everything in his power to keep Mr Pitt out of office’. Although he disapproved Addington’s mode of coming into office and wished the peace settlement had been stabilized by a commercial agreement with France, he accordingly supported ministers. He hoped to have a channel of communication with Addington through his friend Lord Lauderdale’s brother, Thomas Maitland*. Irked by an indiscreet speech of Sheridan’s on the army estimates, 8 Dec., which was seized upon by Canning to drive a wedge between them, Fox denied that he was ‘the agent of France’ and rebuked the new opposition for their bellicose language. Creevey reported that his speech, ‘more conclusive and with arguments in favour of peace approaching nearer to demonstration than I could have possibly conceived, was listened to with profound silence but without a solitary tribute of applause’. A political opponent, Viscount Limerick, commented:

Fox was weaker than I ever heard him. He endeavoured without effect to soften down and explain away his late unpopular opinions with respect to France. He repeated what he had said upon former debates and went over and over again the ground already trod by him. He relied principally upon the state of Ireland as a reason against war.

Next day Fox conceded in debate that ‘war was an alternative ever to be preferred to insult and infamy’, but he did not believe Buonaparte had humiliated England and he warned particularly against a quest for continental alliances which would entail war. Grey, who felt unable to subscribe entirely to such pacifism, abdicated the lead in debate which Fox had previously bestowed on him, not without a protest from Fox, who had wished rather to retreat and pursue his new hobby of agriculture.35

In January 1803, suddenly eager for parliamentary attendance, Fox took a town house; but apart from support of the Prince’s claims for the settlement of his debts, found little to engage him in debate in Pitt’s absence. He remarked to Grey, 28 Feb.: ‘the insipidity of the House of Commons is beyond conception, and I think it is catching for, the few times I have thought myself obliged to speak, I felt some way as if I was speaking like Addington, and I really believe I was’. On 9 and 11 Mar. he resisted the additional defence precautions, which augured war, and pinned his hopes on an ‘accommodation’ between England and France to avert it, which would find him prepared to rally to Addington willy nilly: ‘we should in the feel of the country at least’, he assured Grey, ‘be honourably distinguished from the other politicians and parties of the day, who so evidently make war and peace mere engines of attack upon a ministry whom they dislike.’ Addington still looked to Pitt rather than to Fox for support, though in case of war, Fox wished him to be supported, but himself to step down again in favour of Grey. The latter demurred, particularly when Fox suggested that his friends might join the government under the aegis of the Prince of Wales, but Fox was convinced, on Addington’s failure to draw Pitt into office, that ‘the present state of things has certainly given a kind of importance to our party which it has not had of late years’.36

Fox strove to prevent ministers from drifting into war, speaking for three hours against it, 24 May 1803, in what Lord Henry Petty described as the most ‘astonishing display of human power in any assembly of ancient or modern times’, and urging the case for mediation by the Emperor of Russia, though his motion on the subject, which was lamely acceded to, came on after war had been declared, 27 May. At this time he scorned Pitt’s venture into opposition and on 3 June, though critical of ministers’ conduct, went away with the nucleus of his friends, rather than support Patten’s censure motion on them.37 He had originally intended to support the motion, but was deterred by his friends. He almost at once regretted this negative gesture; had the three groups in opposition united that day, there would have been a minority 160 strong. The same point occurred to the Prince of Wales, who now urged a coalition of opposition. Fox perceived that it was not yet feasible: some of his friends led by Sheridan and the Duke of Norfolk were as afraid of acting with Pitt and the Grenvilles, he observed, as Portland was with the radical Whigs in 1792: but now that war was declared and must be supported, the Grenvillites were the most vigorous exponents of it and Pitt might be shamed into sympathy with them, as his more active friends already were: it only remained for Fox to make it plain to his followers that to support Addington now was ‘an open breach’ with himself and hindered the development of a combined opposition.38 On 18 July 1803, accordingly, he returned to the House on the defence bill and advocated military ideas consistent in tone at least with those of the Grenvilles and Pitt: while on 2 Aug. he moved, with Grenvillite concurrence but in a thin House, for a general council of officers to advise the Duke of York on defence, implicating the Prince of Wales, the refusal of whose offer of patriotic service by the King he deplored at the Prince’s desire. In the event of invasion, Fox intended to offer his services to keep Westminster quiet, or if this were refused, to enlist under the Prince’s banner. In fact, he wished to see the Prince made viceroy of Ireland, which was more likely to be invaded than England, and to champion Catholic relief: but he knew that Sheridan was trying, if unsuccessfully, to get the Prince to come to terms with Addington.39

During the autumn recess of 1803, Fox invited Grey to choose broadly between an anti-Court coalition and inaction as their tactic for the next session. If the former were adopted, the state of Ireland would be a good rallying point for Foxites and Grenvillites and some Pittites, even if their leader demurred: and the definite failure of Sheridan to reconcile the Prince and Addington, to which Fox had remorselessly egged him on, facilitated the accession of the Prince’s friends. Fox was sure that the Prince’s support, for which he angled, ‘would smooth all’. On consulting Henry Grattan* and George Ponsonby*, however, he discovered inhibiting reservations on the Catholic question: he gave it up ‘with more regret ... than I ever felt upon any political subject in my life. It is the only question that can be started to make what can be called a cause against the Court.’ It was the project he had wished for an opportunity to promote since Pitt’s resignation in 1801.40

Fox did not oppose the address, 22 Nov. 1803, and merely regretted the omission of the questions of Russian mediation for peace and of a new deal for Ireland. This led to rumours of a rapprochement between him and Addington, which Sheridan, Tierney and others were working for, but Fox gave them the lie. He passed to the offensive on the army estimates, 9 Dec., in a speech which was complimentary to Windham and the Grenvillites’ notions on military matters and also to the Prince and his friends, but equally critical of Addington and Pitt. In private he had recently opined, ‘by our supporting or even sparing Addington for fear of Pitt, we are making ourselves complete Court fools or absolute cyphers’. He did not share some of his friends’ reluctance to envisage collaboration with Pitt, if their political lines converged.41 Meanwhile his alliance with the Grenvillites was a fait accompli, formalized in January 1804, though, to humour his friends, in a pledge of co-operation rather than as a merger. When Pitt hung back, and those of his friends who thought ‘anything better than Mr Pitt’s return to power’ remonstrated with Fox, he retorted ‘that if he could effect that only, he thought he should do a great deal for the country’. Not even Grey or Lauderdale could now restrain him, though he endeavoured to assuage their anxieties. To Lauderdale he wrote that if he eschewed collaboration like Pitt, ‘I should be left nearly alone as he is, which after the whole course of my life would be a far different thing to me from what it is to him’. Yet he was alive to the probability that Pitt would seek to replace Addington as minister ‘without the odium of opposition’.42

The chief ground of concert between him and the Grenvilles was defence, and on 27 and 29 Feb. 1804 Fox led the attack on the volunteer consolidation bill, which fulfilled his gloomy prophecy of 9 Dec. previous that government would seek to enlist volunteers into the regular army. His views gained Pitt’s partial concurrence. Fox’s allies had given him carte blanche on Irish questions and on 7 Mar., with the additional grievance of his brother Gen. Fox’s recall from Ireland following the rising of 1803, he supported inquiry into the Irish government’s conduct. On 15 Mar., despite his avowed partiality to St. Vincent at the Admiralty and Sheridan’s open disagreement, he supported Pitt’s motion for naval inquiry, though his followers did not rally well.43 On 19 Mar., in collusion with the Grenvilles and this time aided by his stragglers, he castigated ‘the weakness, the incapacity and the imbecility of the present ministers’ and on 22 Mar. rebuked Addington for a shuffling answer to his query about the fate of Russian peace mediation. He had rallied his followers the day before and planned a decisive onslaught on Addington after Easter involving defence, Ireland and the Russian mediation but, finding that Pitt would not concur in a general censure motion and that defence was the only issue on which Pitt was prepared to align with him and the Grenvillites, gave that the preference: if Pitt could not ‘give up the Court’, he was not averse to mustering without him. It was only recently that he had learned of Pitt’s readiness in 1801 to ditch Catholic relief in deference to the King and he acquiesced in Pitt’s ‘full liberty’ to form a new government, if they overthrew Addington, without reference to himself.44 After Easter, pending the combined attack on defence, which was postponed while Pitt flirted with the Court, Fox contrived to make his own points against government on Ireland and Russian mediation, before moving on 23 Apr. for a committee of the House to revise the defence bills. It was generally agreed that Fox’s speech was below par and Pitt’s more effective, but his reply, in which he denied that he and Pitt were united except in opposition to government measures, was thought capital. The minority rose to 204 and two days later Pitt’s motion delivered the coup de grace, though on this occasion it was Fox whose attack was considered more effective.45

Addington did not ‘fall’ until the King had recovered from his illness, which had as usual raised the question of a Regency and the possibility that the Prince of Wales would place his friends in power: but it was Moira rather than Fox or Grey whom the Prince regarded as his minister, despite Fox’s efforts through his drum majorette the Duchess of Devonshire to overcome the Prince’s aversion to Grey. As it was, the King, in his negotiations with Pitt, vetoed the employment of Fox in any broad-bottomed ministry, indicating that he could not meet him and, apparently, that he would rather hazard ‘a civil war’. Nothing came of faint hopes that Fox’s employment as ambassador to Russia might obviate the King’s objection, for Fox’s friends overruled it. He in any case protested that he had no wish for power for himself, willing as he was for his friends to take office. They demurred and so did Lord Grenville and his friends, though under no formal obligation to do so: Fox had in advance confidently hinted at a moral obligation and Grenville’s decision ensured that if Pitt were the ‘winning gamester’, his would be a Pyrrhic victory. Pitt had had no answer ready to the King’s query about Fox:

I think Sir the last time you and I conversed upon the subject of this gentleman was when you proposed to me to dismiss him from the Privy Council. I should be glad to know what this gentleman has since done to change your opinion of him in so extraordinary a manner.46

During the first month of Pitt’s second ministry, Fox and Pitt were not at odds. Fox had been satisfied that Pitt had tried to do what he could for him. Both deplored the alienation of Hanover and the survival of the slave trade. It was Pitt’s additional force bill that prompted Fox into opposition: unlimited recruitment was not his or the Grenvillites’ notion of the general arming they had urged on Addington with Pitt and they embarked on a joint course of opposition to him. On 8 June 1804 Fox bade farewell to Pitt in debate, pointing out that six of Addington’s cabinet ministers were reinstated. On 15 June he rushed in from the refreshment rooms to help defeat amendments to the bill on a surprise division. On 18 June he formally refused his confidence to the ministry and announced his adhesion to Windham’s defence plan. He had already irritated Pitt as the private emissary of a feeler for peace from France which, he hinted, was based on the supposition that Pitt intended to form a comprehensive administration.47

The possibility of Pitt’s making a bid for Fox’s support was mooted in the summer recess of 1804. Fox discounted it, but was embarrassed by the likelihood of being wooed as a by-product of a reconciliation between the King and the Prince of Wales engineered by Pitt through Moira. He felt morally obliged to encourage a reconciliation, but had little fear of its succeeding. In this he proved right: Pitt failed to win over Moira. On the eve of the session of 1805, therefore, Fox envisaged a strong attack on Pitt on the issues of defence, Catholic relief and the outbreak of war with Spain.48 He raised these questions on the address, 15 Jan.; he proposed no amendment, but was treated to a display of Windham’s allegiance. Leaving the question of defence to the latter and supporting Grey in condemnation of the war with Spain, he acted as spokesman for Ireland, denouncing the suspension of habeas corpus there, presenting the Irish Catholic petition on 25 Mar. and losing his motion for Catholic relief, 13 May, by 124 votes to 336. He was also at loggerheads with Pitt over increased taxation, the prospect of fresh continental alliances and the commission of naval inquiry. He joined in the attack on Melville in April, though indifferent as to the mode of punishing him: he at first favoured impeachment, then criminal prosecution, and opposed the eventual preference for the former, though he became one of the management committee. On 14 June when Pitt’s ‘unconstitutional’ loan to Boyd and Benfield was the object of his censure, Fox tactfully alleged that he had never believed him to be guilty of personal corruption, but that Pitt had never shown a proper conscience about the public money. This manoeuvre failed. He wound up his session by a general statement of no confidence in Pitt, on Grey’s motion, in which he called for a union of all the talents of the country, 20 June. To satisfy those of his friends, Thomas William Coke in particular, who remonstrated at any apparent gesture towards a junction with Pitt, he followed it by particular criticism of the renewal of continental alliances in place of a bid for peace and of the plight of Ireland without civil liberty.49

Although the defection of Lord Sidmouth from Pitt’s ministry in July 1805 opened up the prospect of a fresh bid by Pitt to woo the opposition, Fox was confident that, even putting himself out of the question, it would fail ‘in limine’. Lord Grenville was certainly unwilling to parley with Pitt, unless Fox were brought into it, and the royal veto on Fox remained. Fox had stated that he looked forward to a union of talents to form an administration, but was prompted by his adherents’ reaction to qualify this to the effect that the annihilation of Pitt’s ministry was the prerequisite. He was the less tempted by Pitt’s proposal to persuade the King to introduce six of Fox and Grenville’s team into the cabinet. He realized that his friends would not stomach it. Although he had treated Sidmouth and his friends with scorn in debate that session, he was not averse to annexing them to opposition, it being understood that their insignificance did not entitle them to question his established line on major issues such as Catholic relief; and that the junction must be unobtrusive, lest Pitt raise the cry of ‘factious opposition’. An overture from Pitt would have embarrassed Fox, who felt that its inevitable refusal might give the minister favourable ground for a dissolution, but it did not materialize.50 The ensuing débâcle of Pitt’s continental alliance confirmed Fox’s expectations, which were sufficiently gloomy:

it would be good practical justice on us if we were actually to get our death by our extreme love of monarchy and monarchs [2 July 1805].

We will die a slow death rather than a violent one [28 Aug. 1805].

The news is indeed complete, now will this rascally country, of whom none of the three Emperors can speak as ill as I think (tho’ I will not speak), will it still support the Court and Pitt? I incline to think it still will, and, if it does, surely I or any man may retire altogether from Parliament and politics with a safe conscience [31 Dec. 1805].

The system must be completely destroyed now, or never, in this King’s reign at least [January 1806].51

Fox’s intended rally of opposition against the address in January 1806 was frustrated by Pitt’s fatal illness, whereupon he reluctantly agreed to an adjournment. Death was ‘a poor way of getting rid of one’s enemy’, and on 27 Jan. he declined to ‘play the courtier’ by not opposing the public funeral proposed for Pitt: personally he had nothing against him, but politically he could not vote him an ‘excellent statesman’, not even to please Pitt’s cousin, Lord Grenville. It would appear that Fox, who actually felt Pitt’s loss—there was ‘something missing in the world’ and he thought he should ‘pair off’ with him—had been prepared not to vote, but his rebounding aficionado Windham insisted on it. On the same day Grenville, called on by the King to form an administration, said he must consult Fox. The King was currently reported to have been prepared to abdicate rather than admit Fox to power, but he supposed he must ‘swallow the pill’: he ‘expected it to be so and he meant it so’. Fox had rightly predicted that the King would not give in until he had tried to get Lord Hawkesbury to step into Pitt’s shoes.52

When he and Grenville distributed the loaves and fishes on 27 and 28 Jan. 1806, Fox put himself out of the question for the premiership, preferring to be Foreign secretary. Having thus bestowed the Treasury on Grenville, he claimed a right to compensatory arrangements, if not in the cabinet, at least as regards inferior offices. He was disappointed that his favourite, Grey, was not even considered for the Treasury, though certainly well adapted to the Admiralty; likewise that his choice for the lieutenancy of Ireland was at first resisted; that objections were made to Lauderdale being in the cabinet, or even in charge of Indian affairs; and that Robert Adair* could not be his private secretary on account of a French wife. ‘Entre nous’, he confided in Fitzwilliam, ‘the Grenvilles are neither very modest or conciliating. I am in daily troubles of every kind, I fear as a party man I shall make a wretched figure.’ Nevertheless Pitt’s friends were assured that it was Windham and Grey rather than Fox who had vetoed their inclusion in the new government and on 3 Feb. Fox warmly supported the public payment of Pitt’s debts in tribute to his personal integrity, a step he would himself have proposed had not Lascelles moved it. At the same time he undertook the management of the indemnity bill to enable Grenville to retain the office of auditor of the Exchequer with that of first lord of the Treasury. His own friends, however, were disappointed of their share of ‘inferior’ offices, to the extent that Fox felt scarcely able to ‘preserve the reputation of honour and friendship’. There were sulky if unreasonable reactions from many, including the Duke of Northumberland, Ossulston, Whitbread, Tierney, and Glenbervie, who spoke of Fox’s ingratitude to Lord North (dead since 1792). The Grenvilles in their turn complained of the favours exacted by their ‘sleeping partner’ the Prince of Wales, who looked to Fox to obtain them. It was the King who gave least trouble to Fox personally, whatever his reservations about the ministry in general, by being ‘very gracious’ when Fox kissed hands as Foreign secretary and explained away his past: ‘I believe you, Mr Fox, I know you to be a man of honour. I say, I believe you, and thank you for what you have said.’ With that, ‘the Queen spoke very civilly to Mr Fox, and Princess Elizabeth sent him a very civil message’.53

As ‘Mr Secretary Fox’ he had a bold game to play, as government leader in the Commons, which was not made any easier by Grenville’s fastidious, over-scrupulous attitudes. Political opponents readily supposed that Fox was the real premier; it was he who explained, 17 Feb. and that ministers must favour a measure of Catholic relief for Ireland, though they could not name a date, still less approve a repeal of the Act of Union. It was he who forcefully vindicated Ellenborough’s seat in the cabinet, which could not be unconstitutional, precedent apart, since the constitution acknowledged the existence of no ‘cabinet’, 3 Mar. 1806.54 It was he who consented to shield Grenville’s friend the Indian viceroy Wellesley, whose conduct he had himself always disapproved, from impeachment, 17 Mar. It was he who rescued Lord Henry Petty from mauling when the latter presented the budget dictated by Grenville, 28 Mar. It was he who, against medical advice, came to the defence of Windham’s military plan in April and May and felt obliged to sacrifice his old friendship with Philip Francis when the latter joined in the attack on the administration of India. Indian affairs, which he had steered clear of for so long, embarrassed him most in debate in this his last session: his last speech, 19 June 1806, was a bid to save Wellesley from Warren Hastings’s protracted fate. Parliamentary reform, to which he paid lip-service, but which he did not find much supported outside the enclave of metropolitan radicalism, was scarcely an issue: while he at first supported Tierney’s election treating bill, he finally pronounced against it, 9 June 1806.55

In the two objectives that concerned him most Fox, by now a prey to a dropsical complaint, obtained unqualified success in carrying the abolition of the slave trade, 10 June 1806, but, for all his efforts, died 13 Sept. 1806 with no real hope of achieving the other, an armistice with Buonaparte. He had not been able to weather the parliamentary session, and although he retained the upper hand in the House he was visibly struggling against the remorseless energy of younger opponents like Canning. His friends would not hear of a public funeral. Had he survived, he had no intention of accepting a peerage, or even of giving up the Foreign Office (as he hoped, in favour of his nephew Lord Holland) unless peace were obtained: he would retire from office, though not necessarily from the cabinet, at the age of 60.56

Fox’s ‘negligent grandeur’ obscured his brilliance: but his oratory, ‘original, deep, subtle, vehement and expansive’, even if it displayed ‘more argumentative subtlety than philosophy’, was a force to be reckoned with. He never took notes in debate, struggled for the mot juste and only once corrected a speech for the press.57 Even his enemies admitted that he ‘gave some dignity to faction’.58 His sustained plea for ‘the cause of liberty’ (a term he found ‘incapable of strict definition’), with Parliament as its potential citadel and party political endeavour as its buttress, reverberated among the ‘aristocratic leaven’ he had held out as the best hope of popular freedom. Had his posthumous reputation as ‘the Man of the People’ proved lasting, which it evidently did not, he might have been the only English politician of his time whose ideas did not fade during the transition to democracy.59

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne

Notes

  • 1. Creevey Pprs. ii. 300; Public Advertiser, 14 June 1790; F. O’Gorman, The Whig Party and the French Revolution ; L. Mitchell, C. J. Fox and the Disintegration of the Whig Party, 1782-1794 ; J. Derry, C. J. Fox . The Fox mss in the BL have been cited throughout in preference to Ld. J. Russell’s Mems. and Corresp. of C. J. Fox .
  • 2. H. M. Lubasz, ‘Public opinion comes of age: the laws of libel in the 18th cent.’, Hist. Today (July 1958), viii. 7.
  • 3. Blair Adam mss, Fitzwilliam to Adam, 8 Sept. [1791].
  • 4. Fitzwilliam mss, box 44.
  • 5. Add. 51705, Pelham to Lady Webster, 27 Apr. 1792.
  • 6. Ibid. same to same, 28 May 1792; Minto, ii. 31.
  • 7. Malmesbury Diaries, ii. 460-73; Add. 47561, f. 131; 51845, Sheffield to Lady Webster, 21 July 1792.
  • 8. Fitzwilliam mss, box 44, Portland to Fitzwilliam, 26 Sept., Carlisle to same, 19 Oct., Grenville to same, 15, 24 Nov. 1792; Malmesbury Diaries, ii. 475-6, 491-5; Auckland Jnl. ii. 476, 479; Add. 47568, f. 276; 47570, ff. 199, 201.
  • 9. Diary of Mme d’Arblay ed. Dobson, v. 167; Wentworth Woodhouse mun. F31/7; Add. 37848, f. 58; Portland mss PwF3174; Holland, Mems. Whig Party, i. 61-67.
  • 10. Blair Adam mss, Fox to Adam, 18 Sept. [1793]; Add. 33129, f. 232; 42058, f. 135; 47571, f. 106; 51706, Pelham to Lady Webster, 16 Apr.; 51732, Caroline Fox to Holland, 19 May [1794]; Portland mss PwJa47.
  • 11. Add. 47571, f. 165.
  • 12. Add. 47569, f. 52.
  • 13. Arundel Castle mss, Fox to Norfolk, 28 Dec. 1795.
  • 14. Colchester, i. 77-79; Fitzwilliam mss, box 50, Laurence to Fitzwilliam, 31 Dec. 1796.
  • 15. Add. 47569, f. 71.
  • 16. Grey mss, Grey to Bigge, 23 Feb. 1797; Jnl. of Mary Frampton, 94; Oracle, 4 Apr. 1797; Geo. III Corresp. ii. 1537.
  • 17. Prince of Wales Corresp. iii. 1264; The Times, 29 May 1797.
  • 18. Alnwick mss 58, ff. 184, 186, 201, 204, 215, 217, 219, 223.
  • 19. Morning Chron. 7 June, 11 Oct., 6 Dec. 1797; Whitbread mss W1/866, 870; Leveson Gower, i. 184; Add. 47565, f. 46.
  • 20. Jnl. of Lady Holland, i. 148-9, 164; Add. 47564, f. 31; 47581, ff. 11, 18, 20; 51682, Wycombe to Lady Holland, 23 Mar. 1798.
  • 21. Add. 37308, ff. 69, 106; Jnl. of Lady Holland, i. 180; Waldegrave mss, Whitbread to his wife, 18 Apr. 1798.
  • 22. Add. 47566, f. 16; 47581, f. 14.
  • 23. W. L. Clements Lib. Pitt letters; Geo. III Corresp. iii. 1729.
  • 24. Add. 38744, f. 273; 47566, f. 14; 47581, f. 22; Arundel Castle mss, Suffolk to Norfolk, 8 June 1798; Jnl. of Lady Holland, i. 214, 227; Pellew; Sidmouth, i. 213.
  • 25. Add. 47569, f. 99; 47574, ff. 38, 50, 74; N. Riding RO, Wyvill mss ZFW7/2/125/17; Grey mss, Grey to Bigge, 22 Jan.; The Times, 21 Jan. 5, 6 Feb. 1800.
  • 26. Wyvill mss 7/2/132/2, 6; 150/1; Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 74; Add. 47565, f. 22; 51544, Grey to Holland, 7 Nov.; Lansdowne mss, Tierney to Lansdowne, 19 Nov.; Grey mss, Fox to O’Bryen, Thurs. [20 Nov.]; The Times, 3 Dec. 1800.
  • 27. Wyvill mss 7/2/132/11; Add. 47565, f. 16; Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 126-7; Fitzwilliam mss, box 58, Fox to Fitzwilliam, 1 Feb. 1801.
  • 28. Wyvill mss 7/2/132/17, 26; Add. 47564, f. 83; 47565, f. 27; 47566, ff. 67, 76; The Times, 26, 28 Feb., 2, 3 Mar. 1801.
  • 29. Add. 47581, f. 86; Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 131-2; Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 51.
  • 30. Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 42; Wyvill mss 7/2/150/9, 13; Add. 47565, ff. 37, 41.
  • 31. Grey mss, Tierney to Grey 9, [12], [15], 22 Oct.; Hants RO, Tierney mss 33a; The Times, 12 Oct.; Add. 47564, f. 108; 47565, ff. 48, 50; 47566, ff. 98, 102; 49188, f. 3; Chatsworth mss, Duchess of Devonshire jnl. 5 Nov. 1801; Leveson Gower, i. 305, 306.
  • 32. Add. 47569, f. 111.
  • 33. Add. 47565, ff. 56, 58, 59; 47581, f. 107; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 19 Feb.; The Times, 27 Jan., 16, 18 Feb., 29, 31 Mar., 12 June; Blair Adam mss, Fox to Adam, Wed. [9 June 1802].
  • 34. Add. 47566, ff. 69, 108, 118; 47581, ff. 109, 112; The Times, 8, 29 July; Sidmouth mss, Glenbervie to Addington, 26 Sept. 1802; Jnl. of Lady Holland, ii. 150; Leveson Gower, i. 344, 355; Fitzwilliam mss.
  • 35. Add. 35737, f. 136; 47565, ff. 62, 64, 68; 47581, f. 158; E. Suff. RO, Tomline mss, Rose’s memo, 26, 30 Nov.; Creevey mss, Creevey to Currie, 9 Dec.; Grey mss, Grey to Fox, 5, 17 Dec. 1802.
  • 36. Add. 47565, ff. 73, 74, 77, 79, 80, 83; 51799, Fitzpatrick to Holland, 23 Feb.; Whitbread mss W1/883; Grey mss, Grey to Fox, 15, 19 Mar.; Fitzwilliam mss, box 62, Laurence to Fitzwilliam, 2 Apr., Fox to same, 22 Apr. [1803].
  • 37. Add. 47581, f. 128; 51736, Caroline Fox to Holland, 31 May 1803.
  • 38. Add. 47565, f. 224; 47581, f. 132.
  • 39. Add. 47565, ff. 87, 89, 92, 95; 47566, ff. 153, 161; 47581, f. 134; Grey mss, Grey to Fox, 3 Aug.; Fitzwilliam mss, box 63, Laurence to Fitzwilliam, 11 Aug. 1803.
  • 40. Add. 37843, f. 241; 47565, ff. 96, 100, 105, 238; Prince of Wales Corresp. iv. 1735, 1771, 1774; Grey mss, Grey to Fox, 3, 24 Dec.; Whitbread to Grey, 6 Dec.; Fitzwilliam mss, box 63, Fox to Fitzwilliam, Sunday [29 Nov. 1803].
  • 41. Alnwick mss 61, ff. 209, 217; Whitbread mss W1/888; Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lowther, 14, [23] Nov., 10 Dec. 1803.
  • 42. Stowe mss 170, Grenville to Buckingham, 26 Jan. 1804; Wyvill mss 7/2/161/2; Moore, Sheridan Mems. ii. 324; Corresp. of Rt. Hon. J. Beresford, ii. 277, 281; Add. 47564, f. 197; 47565, ff. 110, 112; 47566, f. 182.
  • 43. Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lowther, 16 Mar. 1804.
  • 44. Add. 41856, ff. 157, 159; 47565, ff. 114, 117, 118, 120, 248; Hope of Luffness mss, A. Hope secret jnl. 24 Mar.; Grey mss, Whitbread to Grey, 31 Mar. 1804; Stanhope, Pitt, iv. 139; Leveson Gower, ii. 419.
  • 45. Harewood mss, Canning to his wife [c. 23 Apr.]; Sidmouth mss, J.H. to Mrs Addington, 24 Apr. 1804; Camden mss C562/129.
  • 46. Add. 37415, f. 202; 40102, f. 133; 41856, f. 169; 47565, ff. 128, 131; 51598, memo of Pitt’s interview with the King; D. M. Stuart, Dearest Bess, 115; Wyvill mss 7/2/164/2; Grey mss, Grey to his wife, 8 May 1804; Rose Diaries, ii. 156.