Charles James Fox was a somewhat controversial figure in British politics during the latter half of the 18th century. Though he did spend small periods in political office, Fox spent the majority of his political career in opposition. It was during the American War for Independence, in particular, that Fox began to propound his ‘radical’ opinions in Parliament. Fox gained notoriety for backing the colonies during the war and for opposing King George III. Fox is also remembered for his initial support of the emerging French Revolution, his anti-slavery views, and for his rivalry with William Pitt the Younger.
Fox was born on 24 February 1749 as the third son of Henry Fox, a leading politician in the House of Commons. Popular stories of Fox’s life recount how he was his father’s favorite from a young age. Almost any desire of the young Charles was indulged. One story in particular tells how Charles’ father had promised him that he could watch the demolition of a wall at their estate. Upon finding that the wall had already been demolished, Henry ordered the workman to rebuild the wall and demolish it again, purely for the child’s enjoyment.
The indulgence that had begun as a child continued into Fox’s college years. His father allowed him to select his own path in education but was quick to provide for and encourage the young man in the vices of the world. It was during his education at Eton and Oxford that Charles Fox gained a reputation for being a gambler, a womaniser, and a lover of high fashion. A nineteen-year-old Fox first entered the political arena by way of a seat in Parliament for the West Sussex constituency of Midhurst, a pocket borough obtained by his father.
Though MPs could not take their seat until age 21, Fox quickly made a name for himself thanks to his frequent and eloquent speeches in Parliament. As his career moved forward, he was appointed to both the Admiralty (1770) and Treasury (1772) boards. Fox chose to resign both boards in quick order because of his opposition to the government’s support of the Royal Marriage’s Act. His haste to leave prominent positions caused many other government officials to question his judgment and by 1774 he had come under the influence of Edmund Burke, a political philosopher.
Burke’s influence caused Fox to question his previous approach to politics as a whole, and it was in 1774 that the developing tensions with the colonies in North America gave Fox a target at which to aim his discontent. Fox fell into line with the position of the Rockingham Whig party, a position from which he opposed the North ministry’s treatment of the American colonies. He opposed the taxation to which Parliament subjected the colonies, and he led the call for a negotiated peace when war broke out. He corresponded in large volume with both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. In England, he was seen as the most vocal critic of King George III, going so far as to voice his opinion that George was a ‘despot’ who sought to disregard the British constitution.
With the resignation of the North ministry in 1782 and the subsequent rise of the Rockingham ministry, Charles James Fox was appointed Foreign Secretary. He had spent time working for parliamentary reform, but his stint as Foreign Secretary was short lived. Rockingham died only four months after taking office. Fox refused to serve under the succeeding Prime Minister, Lord Shelburne, choosing to again resign his government post.
What emerged from Fox’s resignation and Rockingham’s death was a strange coalition that sought to supplant the Shelburne ministry. Fox joined with his former foe, Lord North, and together they overthrew the Shelburne ministry in spite of King George’s opposition to the change. The Fox-North Coalition would be another short-lived stage of Fox’s political career. After only eight months in power, Fox proposed an East India Bill that would diminish the crown’s control over the East India Company. King George saw his opportunity and instructed that any peer who voted for the bill would be considered an enemy of the crown. With the king taking a strong position, the bill’s support dwindled and George moved to dismiss the Fox-North ministry and replace them with William Pitt the Younger, a personal enemy of Fox’s.
With Fox out of power and back in opposition, he turned his attention to the growing cause of abolition. Fox was associated with many of the names that are now famous for putting forward the early case for abolition—Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and Granville Sharp. Fox lent his political backing to their cause, and in 1788 Fox helped bring about the first Parliamentary debate regarding the slavery issue.
One of the biggest missteps of Fox’s Parliamentary career happened when King George III descended into one of his infamous bouts of insanity. The king’s inability to rule presented Fox with the opportunity to call for his friend and ally, the Prince of Wales, to be established as Regent. Up to that point in his career, however, Fox had gained a reputation for opposing the power of the crown. Now, when he had a chance to benefit from preservation of the crown’s power, he was quick to change camps, a move that his opponents were equally quick to criticize. In the end, George recovered and was able to rule again. Fox lost out on the opportunity to ride his friend’s coattails into power, and his reputation suffered because of his blatant opportunism.
The year 1789 saw the outbreak of revolution in France. Fox was among the few early supporters of the revolution, calling it “the greatest event that has happened in the history of the world.” Though his support for the French Revolution put him in the minority, he still had a substantial group of supporters in Parliament. As the revolution turned violent that support waned, and by 1794 the Fox-led opposition had shrunk to only 50 MPs, one of the weakest oppositions in Parliamentary history. Though Fox continued to oppose the government and the war, the Pitt ministry dominated Parliament and succeeded in passing any and all wartime legislation it saw fit.
With his opposition to the Pitt government reduced to pitiable numbers, Fox began a slow withdrawal from government. He still participated in debate, but he began to spend more time away from Westminster. Pitt’s resignation in 1801 saw Fox make a partial return to government, but he also travelled to France following the war where he met with Napoleon on several occasions. Fox carried on, and when Grenville became PM in 1806 he offered Fox the post of Foreign Secretary. Fox accepted and spent his final months pushing for his causes in Parliament just as he had done throughout his life.
Fox died on 13 September 1806 at the age of 57. He died while still in office. One of his last major accomplishments was the passage of a Foreign Slave Trade Bill that would prohibit British subjects from contributing to the trading of slaves with the colonies of Britain’s wartime enemies, thus eliminating two-thirds of the slave trade passing through British ports. Though Fox died before full abolition was complete, he offered a resolution for full abolition in June 1806, a resolution that began the trend of legislation to abolish slavery. Fox is buried at Westminster Abbey next to his lifelong political opponent William Pitt the Younger.