Jul 4, 2000

Valiant Voice: Charles James Fox

Wartime provides the severest test for a defender of liberty. That’s when governments everywhere tend to censor, jail and even execute opponents. Charles James Fox became 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.

King George III viewed Fox as perhaps his most dangerous adversary, calling him “as contemptible as he is odious.”  Literary lion Samuel Johnson wondered “whether the nation should be ruled by the scepter of George III or the tongue of Fox.”

John Russell, one of Fox’s intellectual successors, noted that it was his mission “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 endeavored 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 most passionate chronicler of English liberty, 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 historian of ancient Rome’s decline, remarked: “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 wild ways, Fox might well have headed a ministry and had more direct influence on events rather than spend so many years in Opposition. During his early manhood, Fox consumed a lot of brew and reportedly even pawned his gold watch for a beer. He didn’t get drunk much, though, because he wanted 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 money-lenders. His losses exceeded L140,000, an astounding sum. At one point, creditors seized his furniture.

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 impassionate animation.”

Many of Fox’s speeches have been lost to posterity, but they inspired raves aplenty. For instance, Herr Moritz, a German pastor visiting Parliament, recalled: “It is impossible for me to describe with what fire and persuasive eloquence he spoke, and how the Speaker in the chair incessantly nodded approbation from beneath his solemn wig; and innumerable voices incessantly called out, hear him! hear him! and when there was the least sign that he intended to leave off speaking, they no less vociferously exclaimed, go on; and so he continued to speak in this manner for nearly two hours.” 

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.”

Charles James Fox was born at 9 Conduit Street, Westminister, London, January 24, 1749. He was the third son of courageous and corrupt Henry Fox who enriched himself as Paymaster-General, quite possibly the most lucrative post in the British government. Charles’ mother was an aristocrat, Georgiana Caroline Lennox.

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 travelling 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.

He began maturing with the shocks of family tragedies. In July 1774, his father and mother died.  By the end of July, his mother was dead. His older brother Stephen died in November. Charles was left with a L900 annual income and a L20,000 inheritance which he soon lost at the gaming tables.

Resisting both King George III and the patronage-driven Whigs in Parliament, Fox embraced libertarian principles. 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 was a tall man who spoke with an Irish accent. Burke’s father was a Protestant attorney, his mother was Catholic, and his best 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 who had four times chosen the maverick printer John Wilkes to be their representative in Parliament.

Then came the epic debate about how to pay off the L70 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 2 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 effective 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 was spontaneous, direct, passionate.

Again and again, he 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. After the British surrender at Yorktown, Fox insisted that recognition of American independence must be given unconditionally, not made a price of peace.

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 support 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.” 

Fox’s leading adversary was Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger who served as Prime Minister from 1784 to 1802. Pitt was a tall, slim man whose face was often wracked by anxiety and whose hair turned nearly white during his last years. Loyal to the king, he 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 disagreements with Fox.

They 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 never seems 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. They lived on her 30-acre spread called St. Anne’s Hill, a couple miles south of the Thames River in Surrey.

Political constellations began to move after July 14, 1789 when angry mobs stormed the Bastille, launching 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.”

Then came Burke’s explosive pamphlet Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in November 1790. He declared that before the Revolution the corrupt French government “had the elements of a constitution very nearly as good as could be wished.”  Burke began calling for 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.

The two men had moved far apart. 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 warned. In 1791, Fox praised the new French Constitution, in which staunch defenders of liberty like the Lafayette and Condorcet had a hand. 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 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.”  Fox attempted a reconciliation when Burke lay dying in July 1797, but Burke had his wife turn him away.

While Burke promoted hysteria, Fox fought 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. 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. Fox’s libel bill was passed and signed by the king sometime after June 1, 1792. Determined to silence dissidents, though, the government filed more libel cases in the two years following passage of Fox’s libel bill than had been filed during the entire 18th century. Juries saved many defendants from the gallows or banishment to Australia.

Fox’s generous hopes for France came crashing down as the Revolution spun out of control. By September 1792, the French central government was controlled by the Convention, an assembly which operated without effective checks or balances. Its Jacobin leaders started a European war. This accelerated the trend toward unlimited centralization in France, climaxing with the Reign of Terror in which an estimated 40,000 people were murdered.

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 “on the pretext of deliberating upon any grievance in church or state.”  Fox led the opposition to these measures every step of the way. He warned that “Either your Bills must remain waste-paper, or they must be carried into execution with circumstances of the greatest oppression.”

Supposedly to protect Britain against oppression from abroad, the government pursued oppression at home. It shut down publications and prosecuted editors. It harassed Nonconformist Protestant preachers. It imprisoned protesters.

The proper policy, Fox declared, was less government interference with life, not more. “I would instantly repeal the Test and Corporation Acts, and take from [dissenters], by such a step, all cause of complaint. If there were any persons tinctured with a republican spirit, because they thought that the representative government was more perfect in a republic, I would endeavor to amend the representation of the Commons, and to show that the House of Commons, though not chosen by all, should have no other interest than to prove itself the representative of all. If there were men dissatisfied in Scotland or Ireland, or elsewhere, on account of disabilities and exemptions, or unjust prejudices, and of cruel restrictions, I would repeal the penal statutes, which are a disgrace to our law books.”

By May 1797, support for Pitt’s war policies had become overwhelming. 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 and spent time mainly at St. Anne’s Hill, reading and gardening. 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.”

Fox returned to Parliament long enough for a blaze of glory. After the death of William Pitt on January 23, 1806, Fox was 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 introduced a bill which 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. Next, 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 25th. “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 the fight. His arms and legs swelled up, and he suffered chronic exhaustion. He was persuaded to let doctors do a couple painful “taps,” presumably efforts to drain the excess fluids. For days, at his home on St. Anne’s Hill, London, he lay listlessly in a lounge chair as his wife read aloud from Virgil, John Dryden, Jonathan Swift and other favorite authors. On September 13, 1806, he got out a few puzzling words to his wife, “It don’t signify, my dearest, dearest Liz.”  He died about 40 minutes after five that afternoon. He was buried October 10th next to William Pitt in Westminister 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 19th century the freest, most peaceful period in human history. He affirmed that people who stubbornly speak out against oppression can be free.

Reprinted from The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell.