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Sunday, September 1, 1996

Charles James Fox, Valiant Voice for Liberty

Fox Was the Voice of the Opposition Nearly All His Career

Wartime provides the toughest test for a defender of liberty. That’s when governments everywhere tend to censor, jail, and even execute opponents. Charles James Fox became a legend for defending liberty during not one but two major wars. Uniquely among great British political figures, he spent almost his entire Parliamentary career—38 years—in the Opposition.

“It was the task of Mr. Fox,” noted John Russell, one of his ideological successors, “to vindicate, with partial success, but with brilliant ability, the cause of freedom and the interests of mankind. He resisted the mad perseverance of Lord North in the project of subduing America. He opposed the war undertaken by Mr. Pitt against France, as unnecessary and unjust. He proved himself at all times the friend of religious liberty, and endeavoured to free both the Protestant and Roman Catholic dissenter from disabilities on account of their religious faith. He denounced the slave trade. He supported at all times a reform of the House of Commons.”

Thomas Babington Macaulay, the eloquent English historian, referred to Fox as “the great man whose mighty efforts in the cause of peace, of truth, and of liberty, have made that name immortal.” Macaulay called Fox quite simply “the greatest parliamentary defender of civil and religious liberty.”

Fox gained influence, in part, because he made friends easily. He was cheerful, affectionate, generous, and kind. “I have passed two evenings with him,” wrote Tory wit George Selwyn, “and never was anybody so agreeable, and the more so from his having no pretensions to it.” Edward Gibbon, famed chronicler of ancient Rome’s decline, remarked about Fox: “Perhaps no human being was ever more perfectly exempt from the taint of malevolence, vanity, or falsehood.”

More than most men of his time, Fox was generous toward women. As biographer George Otto Trevelyan explained, “His notion of true gallantry was to treat women as beings who stood on the same intellectual tableland as himself; to give them the very best of his thoughts and his knowledge, as well as of his humour and his eloquence; to invite, and weigh, their advice in seasons of difficulty; and if ever they urged him to steps which his judgment or his conscience disapproved, not to elude them with half-contemptuous banter, but to convince them by plain-spoken and serious remonstrance. . . . There have been few better husbands than Fox, and probably none so delightful; for no man ever devoted such power of pleasing to the single end of making a wife happy.”

If it weren’t for his dissolute ways, Fox might well have headed a ministry and had more direct influence on events rather than spend so many years in the Opposition. During his early manhood, Fox drank to excess, and reportedly even pawned his gold watch for a beer. He managed, though, to stay sober enough for gambling. He became a skilled handicapper at the race tracks. The problem was he lost even more money at cards. He borrowed money from friends and from Jewish moneylenders. His losses exceeded P140,000, an astounding sum. At one point, creditors seized his furniture.

Fox made costly political mistakes, too. His worst was in February 1783 when he formed a coalition with Frederick North, King George III’s docile Prime Minister and front man during the American Revolution, whom Fox had long denounced in the harshest terms. Fox joined North because the alternative at the time was a coalition with a man he opposed even more, but the move thoroughly undermined his credibility. A little later, Fox undermined his standing as a advocate of frugal government when he agreed to a proposal that Parliament grant the Prince of Wales a P100,000 annual allowance.

A Frenchman asked William Pitt the Younger how his rival Fox could have achieved such influence despite all the mistakes. “You have not been under the wand of the magician,” Pitt replied.

Fox was among the most famous—and frequently caricatured—English faces of his generation. “It was impossible to contemplate the lineaments of his countenance,” recalled one observer, “without instantly perceiving the marks of genius. His features in themselves dark, harsh and saturnine . . . derived a sort of majesty from the addition of two black and shaggy eyebrows which sometimes concealed but more frequently developed the workings of his mind. Even these features, however, did not readily assume the expressions of anger or enmity. They frequently and naturally relaxed into a smile, the effect of which became irresistible because it appeared to be the index of a benevolent and complacent disposition. His figure, broad, heavy and inclined to corpulence, appeared destitute of elegance or grace, except the portion conferred on it by the emanations of intellect, which at times diffused over his whole person, when he was speaking, the most impassionated animation.”

It’s hard to believe every superlative showered on Fox, but they surely suggest that he had a remarkable ability to touch people’s hearts. Henry Brougham, who joined Fox’s crusade against slavery, considered him “if not the greatest orator, certainly the most accomplished debater, that ever appeared upon the theatre of public affairs in any age of the world.” And Macaulay gushed that Fox was “the most brilliant and powerful debater who ever lived.”

Early Years

Charles James Fox was born at 9 Conduit Street, Westminster, London, January 24, 1749. He was the third son of courageous and corrupt Henry Fox, who enriched himself as Paymaster-General during an expensive war, quite possibly the most lucrative post in the British government. Charles’s mother was an aristocrat, Georgiana Caroline Lennox. Because her parents objected to her marrying Henry, a commoner, the young couple eloped and scandalized everybody.

Education started with three years of tutoring at home, which was called Holland House. After that, he was off to the Wadsworth School for a year, and he opted for prestigious Eton in June 1758. Meanwhile, his indulgent father had taken him to Paris for experience with ladies and gaming tables.

Fox entered Hertford College, Oxford, in October 1764. During his two years there, he acquired a love of reading classic literature which was to refresh him till his dying days. After Oxford, Fox spent two years traveling through Europe. On the way back, he stopped in Geneva to visit Voltaire, who recommended some books.

Concerned about his son’s directionless drifting, Henry Fox arranged for him to get elected a Member of Parliament from Midhurst, one of many “pocket boroughs” controlled by a few aristocrats—Parliament was very much an exclusive club with 558 members intent on protecting their privileges. Charles took his seat November 1768.

For a while, Fox echoed his father’s establishment line, defending Parliamentary prerogatives. The most stubborn challenger was the witty, wild printer John Wilkes, who relentlessly criticized the government. Middlesex voters elected Wilkes to Parliament four times in the 1760s, and four times Parliament refused to seat him. “Wilkes and Liberty” became the rallying cry of people who had no voice in government. Fox urged Parliament to disregard the “the imaginary infallibility of the people” and keep Wilkes out.

Because of his speaking skills, Fox briefly held a minor post in Lord North’s ministry, but he soon proved too much of a maverick and was dismissed in 1774. He turned for excitement to his favorite bars and casinos. For instance, recalled his contemporary Horace Walpole, “He had sat up playing hazard at Almack’s from Tuesday evening, the 4th, till five in the Afternoon of Wednesday the 5th. An hour before, he had recovered P12,000 that he had lost, and by dinner, which was at 5 o’clock, he had ended losing P11,000. On the Thursday he spoke in this debate; went to dinner at past 11 at night; from thence to White’s where he drank till seven the next morning; thence to Almack’s, where he won P6,000; and between three and four in the afternoon he set off for Newmarket [race track].”

Family Woes

Fox began maturing with the shocks of family tragedies. In July 1774, his father died after having paid more than P100,000 of Charles’s gambling debts. He showed some remorse as he wrote his mother: “That my extreme imprudence and dissipation has given both of you uneasiness is what I have long known . . . to flatter myself that, particularly with you, and in a great degree with my father, I had regained that sort of confidence which was once the greatest pride of my life.” By the end of July, his mother was dead. His older brother Stephen died in November. Charles was left with a P900 annual income and a P20,000 inheritance, which he soon lost at the gaming tables.

Fox resolved to buck the establishment, especially because George III was attempting to reassert the supremacy of the throne. Whig aristocrats had dominated Parliament and the British government since the Revolution of 1688, serving as a watchdog against a possible takeover by the Catholic Stuart dynasty, based in sullen Scotland. But the last Stuart uprising had been crushed in 1745. Whig aristocrats had lost their calling and become corrupt long before George III was crowned king at age 22 in 1760. The florid, slow-witted king was determined to take the power of appointing ministers away from Parliament and to make them his personal agents.

Resisting both George III and the patronage-driven Whigs, Fox sought to revive the original Whig principles of 1688. This made him a compatriot of reformer Charles Wentworth, Lord Rockingham.

Fox was inspired by Lord Rockingham’s Dublin-born private secretary, Edmund Burke, two decades his senior. Burke’s father was a Protestant attorney, his mother was Catholic, and his most unforgettable teacher was a Quaker. Burke wasn’t a great orator—indeed, his speeches, which were sometimes three hours long, emptied the seats in Parliament. But Burke had acquired deep knowledge of history which gave him valuable perspective, and he developed a passionate pen. He urged religious toleration for Irish Catholics. He supported freer trade. He favored ending the secrecy of Parliamentary proceedings. He expressed his outrage when a mob murdered two men convicted of homosexual contact. He defended the right of Middlesex voters to choose their representative, radical John Wilkes.

Then came the epic debate about how to pay off the P70 million of debts from the Seven Years War (1756-1763). The purpose of this war had been to defend the American colonies from the French, but the colonists—there were about two million at the time—saw proposed taxes as tribute to the British Empire whose major feature was the aggravating mercantilist system in which British merchants reserved the colonies as their exclusive territory. If somebody in Rhode Island wanted to buy hats from Virginia, they had to go through British merchants. The result of such restrictions, naturally, was widespread smuggling. In addition, each of the colonies had their own elected assemblies and didn’t accept the supremacy of Parliament over their affairs.

Burke opposed schemes to tax the American colonists because he believed proposed taxes were unjust, they would yield little revenue, and trigger rebellion. After the schemes were enacted, Burke called for repeal. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Grenville’s Stamp Duty (1765)—some 50 taxes on newspapers and legal documents—had provoked such a storm of protest that it was repealed in a year. Then in 1767 came Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend’s taxes on tea and other articles, provoking the “Boston Tea Party,” which led to the British blockade of Boston, opposed by Burke.

Fox worked to become the most powerful orator and debater in the House of Commons. He refined his skills by speaking at least once every day. He rejected the traditional style of speaking with flowery metaphors, extensive quotations, and allusions to ancient Greece and Rome—a style practiced by William Pitt, who had been an influential Member of Parliament for three decades. Fox never gave a set speech. He was spontaneous, passionate, and direct. He built a case with dramatic facts and established an emotional connection with his audience.

Again and again, Fox hammered the ministry of Lord North. In 1775, Fox denounced the suspension of Habeas Corpus, a bulwark of civil liberties. On February 2, 1777, he warned that Britain would lose the war and that sending over more troops could leave Britain defenseless against France. Two years later, French and Spanish fleets cruised menacingly through the English Channel. After the British surrender at Yorktown, Fox insisted that recognition of American independence must be given unconditionally, not made a price of peace.

A Formidable Foe

George III viewed Fox as perhaps his most dangerous adversary, saying he had “cast off every principle of common honour and honesty . . . as contemptible as he is odious . . . aversion to all restraints.” Literary lion Samuel Johnson wondered “whether the nation should be ruled by the sceptre of George III or the tongue of Fox.”

Dressed in a blue frock-coat and a yellow waistcoat—colors later adopted by the Whig party as well as the Whig journal Edinburgh Review—Fox championed liberal reform during the 1780s. For example, he advocated complete religious toleration. This meant expanding the Toleration Act (1689), which required that to legally serve as a clergyman a religious Dissenter must acknowledge the divinity of Christ—a measure specifically aimed at Unitarians. Fox also favored abolishing religious tests to exclude Dissenters from political office.

Although Fox seemed to embrace the Church of England, he opposed using coercion to support it. As he declared in 1787: “It was an irreverent and impious opinion to maintain, that the church must depend for support as an engine or ally of the state, and not on the evidence of its doctrines, to be found by searching the scriptures, and the moral effects which it produced on the minds of those whom it was the duty to instruct.”

Fox supported the campaign of fellow Member William Wilberforce to abolish the slave trade. Fox opposed proposals that it be continued under government regulation. According to one summary of the debate in Parliament, May 1789: “he knew of no such thing as a regulation of robbery or a restriction of murder. There was no medium; the legislature must either abolish the trade or avow their own criminality.” But for the moment, proposals to abolish the slave trade went nowhere.

Fox’s leading adversary was Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger who served as Prime Minister from 1784 to 1802. Loyal to the king, Pitt displayed more integrity than most politicians, declining easy opportunities to enrich himself in government. He was self-disciplined, utterly devoted to his work, stiffly formal, cool amidst a crisis, and he seldom forgot past grudges, including differences with Fox about candidates for a ministry. During the 1780s, Pitt had favored reducing tariffs, taxes, and the armed forces. Fox was generally more uncompromising in the defense of liberty, and they moved poles apart later when Britain and France were at war.

The two men presented a dramatic contrast as they debated in the House of Commons. “Fox, with his harsh, thrilling voice and rapid delivery,” reported biographer Edward Lascelles, “poured out his arguments in an impetuous torrent of urgency, while Pitt presented his case with faultless precision and complete self-possession.” As an observer recalled: “Mr. Pitt conceives his sentences before he utters them. Mr. Fox throws himself into the middle of his, and leaves it to God Almighty to get him out again.”

Meanwhile, Fox had fallen in love with a tall, elegant woman two years younger than he. She called herself “Mrs. Armistead,” although there seems never to have been a Mr. Armistead. She was reportedly linked to a “notorious establishment” in London and later became the mistress of a duke. During the early 1770s, she and Fox settled down to contented domesticity. They were secretly married on September 28, 1795, and she signed the register as “Elizabeth B. Cane.” They lived on her 30-acre spread called St. Anne’s Hill, just south of the Thames River in Surrey.

The French Revolution

Political constellations began to move after July 14, 1789, when angry mobs stormed the Bastille, the beginning of the French Revolution. In January 1790, Burke rose in the House of Commons to launch his first salvos against “the excesses of an irrational, unprincipled, proscribing, confiscating, plundering, ferocious, bloody, and tyrannical democracy.” He denounced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen as a “digest of anarchy.” Fox responded discreetly, hoping to avoid a painful break with Burke. Fox affirmed that he had “learnt more from his right honourable friend than from all the men with whom he had ever conversed.” He went on to emphasize he was “the enemy of all absolute forms of government, whether an absolute monarchy, an absolute aristocracy, or an absolute democracy.” Burke welcomed these conciliatory words, but some of Fox’s allies like Robert Brinsley Sheridan weren’t as tactful, and they split from Burke.

Fox continued promoting liberty, but Burke resisted any change. Fox was for reforming Parliament; Burke was against. Fox revived a proposal to end the requirement that candidates for political office swear allegiance to the Church of England; Burke was against—many Protestant Dissenters were “men of factious and dangerous principles,” he explained.

Fox held his tongue because he knew Burke was at work on a potentially explosive pamphlet. Published in November 1790 as Reflections on the Revolution in France, it denounced the “swinish multitude.” Burke declared that before the Revolution France “had the elements of a constitution very nearly as good as could be wished,” and he added that Parliament, rife with “pocket boroughs,” had proven “perfectly adequate to all the purposes for which a representation of the people can be desired or devised.”

Fox versus Burke

Burke began beating the drums for Britain to declare war against France and stop the contagion of revolution. At first, few Englishmen were interested, although Prime Minister Pitt was contemplating war to stop Russia from expanding in Turkey. In 1791, Fox exclaimed that the new French Constitution, in which staunch defenders of liberty like the Marquis de Lafayette and the Marquis de Condorcet had a hand, was “the most stupendous and glorious edifice of liberty which has been erected on the foundation of human integrity in any time or country.” Burke launched into a fresh attack on the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, on the Jacobins, and on the way the French treated their king.

Burke complained that Fox “had ripped up the whole course and tenour of his private and public life, with a considerable degree of asperity.” Fox whispered across to Burke that he still cherished their friendship, and Burke responded by telling Parliament that “their friendship was over.” Fox was in tears, shocked that Burke would suddenly and publicly renounce their friendship, which had endured for a quarter-century. Fox expressed regret at his own “rash and imprudent words,” and he offered to “keep out of his right honourable friend’s way.” Burke bored on, saying he “sincerely hoped that no member of that House would ever barter the Constitution of this country, that eternal jewel of his soul, for a wild and visionary system which could only lead to confusion and disorder.” Fox attempted a reconciliation when Burke lay dying in July 1797, but Burke had his wife turn him away.

Fox continued to fight for liberty. He had long been concerned about freedom of speech, especially restrictions imposed by libel law. The burden of proof was on the defendant. Judges, not juries, had the power to decide whether a libel had occurred, and since judges were connected with government and the established church, they generally considered attacks on either to be libelous. As Chief Justice John Holt had remarked, “it is very necessary that the people should have a good opinion of it [government].”

Fox believed the burden of proof should be on government, so he wanted to make it more difficult to win a conviction for libel. Accordingly, in May 1791, he introduced his libel bill, which would give juries the power to decide not only the facts about whether something had been published but also whether a libel had occurred. The bill provided that “the jury sworn to try the issue may give a general verdict of guilty or not guilty upon the whole matter.” Asked for their opinions soon after the bill was introduced, judges were unanimously opposed, and perhaps their vehemence led Parliament to reaffirm traditional confidence in juries, even amidst hysteria about the French Revolution.

Fox’s libel bill sailed through the House of Commons but opponents stopped it in the House of Lords. The bill was reconsidered there, passed and signed by the king sometime after June 1, 1792. Determined to silence dissidents, the government filed more libel cases in the two years following passage of Fox’s libel bill than had been filed during the entire eighteenth century. Juries saved many defendants from the gallows or banishment to Australia.

Fox’s generous hopes for France came crashing down as the Revolution turned into tyranny. By September 1792, the French central government was controlled by the Convention, an assembly which operated without effective checks or balances. Its Jacobin leaders ignited war by offering to help people throughout Europe who shared their revolutionary aspirations. By late 1792, French soldiers occupied Belgium (then known as the Austrian Netherlands), Savoy (ruled by the king of Sardinia, an Austrian ally), plus a number of German cities along the Rhine. Prime Minister Pitt objected to French expansion and explored an alliance with Austria and Prussia, which brought war with France on February 1, 1793. War accelerated the trend toward unlimited centralization in France, climaxing with the Reign of Terror that killed an estimated 40,000 people.

Despite Burke’s dire warnings, there wasn’t much evidence of revolutionary unrest in Britain, but war hysteria led Pitt to make a major assault on civil liberties. In 1794, Parliament passed the Act Suspending Habeas Corpus, empowering “his majesty to secure and detain such persons as his majesty shall suspect are conspiring against his person and government.” The next year, Parliament passed the Treasonable and Seditious Practices Act which, among other things made it unlawful to “declare any words or sentences to excite or stir up the people to hatred or contempt to the person of his majesty, his heirs, or successors, or the government. . . .” Finally, Parliament passed the Seditious Assemblies Act which effectively banned meetings of more than 50 people who wanted to petition the government “for alteration of matters established in church or state, or for the purpose or on the pretext of deliberating upon any grievance in church or state.” Fox led the opposition to these measures every step of the way.

Supposedly to protect Britain against oppression from abroad, the government pursued oppression at home. It shut down publications and prosecuted editors considered a threat to the nation. The government harassed Nonconformist Protestant preachers. It imprisoned suspected traitors like shoemaker Thomas Hardy, a founder of the radical Corresponding Society. Police looked the other way as mobs assaulted people suspected of favoring republican ideas—in Birmingham, for instance, mobs burned every house belonging to a known Nonconformist.

Fox continued to defend free speech in Parliament. “To deny to the people the right of discussion,” he was reported as saying in one debate, “because upon some occasions that right had been exercised by indiscreet or bad men, was what he could not subscribe to. The right of popular discussion was a salutary and an essential privilege of the subject . . . the best security for the due maintenance of the constitution was in the strict and incessant vigilance of the people over parliament itself. Meetings of the people, therefore, for the discussion of public objects were not merely legal, but laudable.” The proper policy, Fox declared, was less government intervention, not more.

By May 1797, an overwhelming majority had lined up behind Pitt’s war policies. Fox’s supporters in Parliament had dwindled to about 25, compared with about 55 in 1794 and 90 during the 1780s. Fox stopped going to Parliament, but he looked back with pride. “It is a great comfort to me to reflect how steadily I have opposed this war, for the miseries it seems likely to produce are without end.”

He spent his time mainly at St. Anne’s Hill, reading and gardening. “In summer,” recalled his secretary John Trotter, “he rose between six and seven; in winter before eight. . . . After breakfast, which took place between eight and nine in summer, and at a little after nine in winter, he usually read some Italian author with Mrs. Fox, and then spent the time preceding dinner at his literary studies, in which the great poets bore a principal part. A frugal and plentiful dinner took place at three, or half-past two, in summer, and at four, in winter; and a few glasses of wine were followed by coffee. The evening was dedicated to walking and conversation till tea-time, when reading aloud, in history, commenced, and continued till near ten. A light supper of fruit, pastry, or something very trifling, finished the day; and at half-past ten the family were gone to rest. . . .”

Fox returned to Parliament long enough for a final blaze of glory. After the death of William Pitt on January 23, 1806, Fox stood as the leading political figure of the era, and he could no longer be excluded from a ministry. He accepted the post of Secretary of State. Working with Wilberforce and others, Fox developed a strategy to overcome years of delaying abolition of the slave trade.

First, a neutral Member introduced a bill that would make it illegal for a British citizen to trade in slaves under a foreign flag or to fit a foreign slave ship in a British port. Enacted in the spring of 1806, this measure had the potential of wiping out three-quarters of the British slave trade.

Second, Fox sought a parliamentary commitment for total abolition. On June 10, 1806, he offered his resolution: “this House, conceiving the African slave trade to be contrary to the principles of justice, humanity, and sound policy, will, with all practicable expedition, proceed to take effectual measures for abolishing the said trade. . . .” The House of Commons voted 114 to 15 in favor. The House of Lords assented on June 25. “If, during the almost forty years that I have now had the honour of a seat in Parliament,” Fox remarked, “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 conscious satisfaction, that I had done my duty.”

The next step would have been to introduce an abolition bill, but Fox’s health deteriorated during the summer of 1806, and others had to carry on. His arms and legs swelled up, and he suffered chronic exhaustion. He was persuaded to let doctors do a couple of painful “taps,” presumably efforts to drain the excess fluids. For days, at St. Anne’s Hill, he lay listlessly in a lounge chair as his wife read aloud from Virgil, John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, and other favorite authors. Well-wishers gathered outside in the street, awaiting the latest news. On September 13, 1806, he got out a few puzzling words, “It don’t signify, my dearest, dearest Liz.” He died about 40 minutes after five that afternoon. He was buried October 10 next to William Pitt in Westminster Abbey.

As the valiant voice of the Opposition nearly all his career, Fox saw few of his dreams come true, yet he struck mighty blows for liberty. He kept the spirit of liberty alive when government was determined to crush it. He won some important victories. He inspired the Whig and Liberal parties, which did much to make the nineteenth century the most peaceful period in human history. He affirmed that people who stubbornly speak out can be free.

  • Jim Powell, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is an expert in the history of liberty. He has lectured in England, Germany, Japan, Argentina and Brazil as well as at Harvard, Stanford and other universities across the United States. He has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Audacity/American Heritage and other publications, and is author of six books.