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Charles James Fox

(1749—1806) politician


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(1749–1806).

Educated at Eton and Oxford, Fox entered the House of Commons while still under age in 1768. He held minor office under North but fell foul of the king over the Royal Marriages Act. Once in opposition Fox was drawn to alliance with the Rockinghamite Whigs. He became a critic of the influence of the crown, and an opponent of British policy towards the American colonists. He supported parliamentary reform and repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts.

When North fell in 1782, Fox became foreign secretary under Rockingham. He wanted to recognize American independence in the hope of securing American goodwill during the peace negotiations but finding himself in disagreement with Shelburne resigned office on Rockingham's death. This proved to be a misjudgement. He was driven to seek new political allies and joined his old foe, North. By defeating Shelburne over the draft peace terms, the coalition forced itself upon the king. When they tried to reform the East India Company, George III procured the defeat of the India Bill in the Lords, dismissed the coalition, and after installing Pitt as prime minister in December 1783 saw him win a great victory at the 1784 general election. Fox faced the prospect of long years in opposition.

Even when Pitt was defeated over parliamentary reform and Irish free trade, there was little comfort for Fox. When George III became ill in 1788 Fox expected that the prince of Wales would call him into office once he had become regent. But the king recovered in February 1789 and Fox was blamed by many colleagues for mishandling the regency question. His fortunes were again at a low ebb.

When the French Revolution broke out in 1789 Fox believed that the French were at long last imitating the English Revolution of 1688. But his party split, and by 1794 Fox had only 60 supporters in the Commons. Though disgusted by the excesses of the Jacobins, he opposed war with France. Only after Pitt's death in January 1806 was the king prepared to accept Fox as foreign secretary in Grenville's ministry, and by that time he was in poor health. Attempts to negotiate a peace with Napoleon collapsed ignominiously. The only consolation for Fox in his last days was the condemnation of the slave trade by the House of Commons. In September 1806 Fox died. He became the inspiration for Whig legend. One irony was that the hero of Victorian liberals was so un‐Victorian in his private life. In his youth Fox had been a gambler and womanizer. Though he found happiness with his mistress Elizabeth Armistead, whom he married in 1795, he could never manage his private finances.

Subjects: British History.


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