Greatest Genius

Frances Harris

  • Charles James Fox by L.G Mitchell
    Oxford, 338 pp, £25.00, June 1992, ISBN 0 19 820104 4

Charles James Fox was early hailed as ‘the phenomenon of the age’: an Infant Phenomenon like his chief opponent and perfect foil, William Pitt, who, Fox’s mother is said to have predicted, would be ‘a thorn in Charles’s side as long as he lives’. David Hume, encountering Fox at 16 during one of his formative visits to Paris, was startled by his intellectual power and maturity and already foresaw him as ‘a very great acquisition to the publick’, if the lure of a life of cosmopolitan dissipation, already strong on him, did not distract him. Fox calmly agreed with this estimate of his potential, but refused to give an absolute promise that he would fulfil his family’s ambitions for him. These alternatives of private pleasure and public life continued to divide his attention, and for many years to come his ‘three favourite pursuits’, as a friend noted, were to be ‘gaming, politics, women’, more or less in that order.

At 19, two years under age, Fox became MP for Midhurst, his election privately arranged, in a classic example of unreformed fixing, between his indulgent father and the borough’s aristocratic proprietor. Yet his political inheritance, it is made clear, was an ambivalent one. On his mother’s side he was a great-grandson of Charles II, a relationship, as a childhood friend testified in a telling passage which is relegated to a footnote, which his parents took pains to make ‘by no means indifferent to him’. His father was Henry Fox, Lord Holland, who made a lifelong career of court service and management in Parliament and a huge and dubious fortune as paymaster during the Seven Years War, and yet nursed and passed on to his son a grievance against George III for refusing him the additional reward of an earldom. Before he was well into his twenties, Fox, following in his father’s footsteps as a government supporter, had taken the Commons by storm with his dazzling debating skills, and at 24 he was a Treasury lord in North’s ministry. It went to his head. ‘In an excess of vanity and presumption,’ Horace Walpole remarked, he acted as the leader of a party, ‘his arrogance, loquacity and intempernace raising him the enemies of a minister before he had acquired the power of one’. After only a year he resigned, having angered the King and embarrassed his seniors, and spent the next eight years in opposition, denouncing North over the war with America and throwing in his lot with the Whig oligarchy he had formerly decried.

Yet he still kept his options open. In 1782 he returned to office with the Whigs, only to resign within months rather than accept his rival Shelburne, who had the King’s confidence, as chief minister. He then tried to defeat both with weight of Parliamentary numbers, by means of a coalition with North. The fierce constitutional struggle by which the King and Pitt brought down this ‘unnatural combination’ was, Mitchell argues convincingly, ‘the determining experience of Fox’s political career’, confirming him as the implacable opponent of monarchical power in government. He became, in Samuel Johnson’s words, ‘the man who has divided the kingdom with Caesar, so that it was a doubt whether the nation should be ruled by the sceptre of George III or the tongue of Fox’. Then in 1788 came the King’s bout of madness, when Fox’s premature support of an unfettered Regency for his friend the Prince of Wales, his one hope of restored office, cast him into the wilderness for 18 more bleak years, marked by the sporadic, inspirational defence of civil liberties against the repressive measures of Pitt’s wartime administration, by drastic misjudgment of the course of events on the Continent (he persisted far too long in drawing parallels between the French Revolution and the events of 1688 in England) and by repeated inadequacies of party leadership and Parliamentary management. In 1797 he seceded from Parliament altogether, declaring that the encroachments of royal influence had robbed the Commons of its constitutional usefulness. When he did return to the Foreign Office again in the Talents Ministry of 1806, he had only a few more months to live, and the achievement of a peace with France was beyond him.

Mitchell rehearses all the theories put forward by contemporaries and by later historians to explain this famously brilliant, erratic and wasteful career. Was Fox, the descendant of the Stuarts, a natural monarchist gone astray under the Hanoverians? A politician in the 18th-century mould, who simply wished to engage in ‘the family politics of enjoying office’, but was too undisciplined and insubordinate to do so? A natural debater for whom argument and opposition were more important than principle? A gambler in public as well as private, for whom ‘every object to be contended for was a stake to be won’ (in this connection Mitchell tellingly cites the political bets from Brooks’s ledgers)? A necessary guardian of traditional Whig values against the renewed encroachments of a determined monarch? A prophet of liberalism and reform unhonoured in his own lifetime? Or simply a man whose true talents were social and intellectual, induced by class, family and friends to take up a political career when his heart was never really in it?

Mitchell, while he seems to incline overall to the last view, gives the tergiversations of Fox’s political conduct his main attention, analysing them with clarity, breadth of research, and a constant alertness to the complexity of human motivation. He balances Fox’s youthful ambition and sense of a right to office against a medley of contrary factors: the powerful intellectual influence of Burke, who early recognised him as the spokesman for the Whigs, the instinctive sympathy of Fox the indulged child and adult libertine with any rebels against authority, English, American or French, the intoxication of a popular role and the pressure from his Westminster constituency, to which he was elected in 1780, to adopt radical measures. His analysis of Fox’s actual stance, as opposed to his later reputation, in relation to the great liberal causes of religious toleration, abolition of slavery, and Parliamentary Reform is careful and clear, though its conclusions are unheroic. Fox’s advocacy of civil and religious liberty for the individual was entirely sincere because it came down ‘to the simple proposition that he claimed for others the freedom that he so expansively exercised in his own life of behaviour, thought and belief’. But his commitment to Parliamentary Reform was more reserved, as Mitchell is not the first historian to stress. For all his association with radicals, he was not one himself, and they knew it. True to his class and political experience, ‘old Foxey’ was more concerned with opposing the power of the executive than with increasing that of the people, and saw his class as holding the balance between them: as he explained repeatedly, ‘it was the constitution of 1688 he loved.’

But the biographer of Fox has two tasks: on the one hand, to chronicle and explain the bewildering succession of opportunism, inconsistency, misjudgment and defeatism which make up the course of his actual political conduct, and on the other, to convey and account for the extraordinary personal ascendancy which bound the Foxites to him in spite of all his vagaries, and made him a legend and an inspiration to his 19th-century successors. Mitchell, though he is sympathetic towards Fox both personally and politically, is perhaps better at the first than the second. In concentrating on high politics, he underplays Fox’s most genuine asset: his silver tongue. To dismiss his political ideas as ‘well-worn stuff’ takes no account of their impact as Fox publicly argued them, not only amongst the electorate at large, but amongst the most sophisticated of his peers. The Duchess of Devonshire, one of Fox’s many mistresses, simply remarked that ‘he seemed to have the particular talent of knowing more about what he was saying and with less pains than anyone else,’ while to Edmund Burke, intoxicated by his first experience of the young Fox’s eloquence, he was ‘the greatest genius that perhaps this country has ever produced’. Yet while political conduct yields more and more of its secrets with time, this deeply-felt, spontaneous brilliance in speech and debate, so compelling to experience and perhaps even more potent within living memory, fades beyond recapture for later generations.

Mitchell does, however, stress the central importance of personal relations in Fox’s career. Whig politics were about men as well as measures, and ‘political loyalty was one of the functions of friendship’. Fox, with his warmth and conviviality, had a talent for friendship, and his old Etonian schoolfellows, patrician gambling cronies and younger disciples ‘formed his principal capital’, both personal and political. Often at painful cost to themselves, they redeemed his perpetual bankruptcies and secured his financial future with subscriptions and bequests, not just out of personal affection, but because he was their natural leader and his career ‘was in a real sense an investment’. But there was a negative side, as Mitchell admits: their admiration fed his vanity and protected him too thoroughly from outside criticism, while his reluctance to exercise authority often weakened his effectiveness as a party leader to a point where some of them felt that their investment was not paying sufficient dividends. Yet he continued to be their inspiration, and when the survivors called him to mind in later years, an observer noted, they ‘burst into tears with a vehemence of grief such as I hardly ever saw exhibited by a man’.

What was it in Fox that inspired such devotion? Simply that, in his very disarray and prodigality, he embodied the spirit of liberty he so often invoked but thought incapable of strict definition? ‘The man who determinedly lives his life on his own terms is always compelling,’ Mitchell suggests more than once. This is perceptive, but on its own amounts to no more than contemporaries outside the charmed circle maintained: that for all his human warmth Fox was an intensely self-centred being. In fact, there are other clues, beginning with his mother’s engaging description of him as a child, entering eagerly and intelligently into any conversation, yet ready to take up a book when his parents were reading, ‘vastly amused’ and interested by anything that was going on; unlike his languid elder brother, he was never bored, never difficult to keep occupied. On his father’s orders the adored, precocious child was never checked, and all his life he retained, alongside a formidably mature and articulate intelligence, this uninhibited, uncomplicated, all-embracing zest for life. ‘His powers were blended with the softness and simplicity of a child,’ Gibbon remarked, and another contemporary that in relaxed society Fox ‘would talk on for ever with all the openness and simplicity of a child’, only made shy by the presence of the older and grimmer genius of Samuel Johnson. Brougham, with a hint at Fox’s appeal as a man of the people, added that for all his years of vice and political intrigue, his heart was ‘as little hardened, as if he had lived and died in a farmhouse; or rather as if he had not outlived his childish years’. Charles Grey, groomed by Fox as his successor, described his mentor at 50 as growing younger every day: ‘everything seems to be a source of enjoyment to him & I hardly know which to envy most, his admirable disposition or his unrivalled Talents,’ adding most tellingly: ‘when I descend from admiring him, to think of myself, how I sicken at the contrast.’ In spite of frustration and failure, and with abilities which made other men’s lives a burden to them, Fox exercised the fascination of one who seemed to possess some self-renewing source of youth and happiness.

In paying tribute to Fox’s human qualities and excusing his lack of political staying-power, Mitchell suggests that he underwent a form of mid-life conversion in which pleasure finally predominated over politics. Fox had always had intellectual interests. Even at the height of his gambling mania, having lost hugely, he ‘would go home not to destroy himself, as his friends sometimes feared, but to sit down quietly, and read Greek’. In addition to his friendships, he found unexpected happiness in middle life with the last of his mistresses, Elizabeth Armistead, whom he eventually married. By these means, Mitchell seems to say, Fox, always a reluctant politician, came to see that personal relationships and the life of the mind were more important than the struggles of public life and organised his life accordingly; in the last resort his significance was as a politician ‘who held power cheap. He knew philosophically what it was worth.’ Yet this, though an attractive conclusion for the scholar who values friendship, is a curiously dismissive remark for a political historian to make of a public figure of Fox’s stature and constitutional concerns. Although Fox took a genuine pleasure in his studies, he was no more original in these than in the vices of his youth, and considerably less energetic. The achievements of these years – scraps of verse, a contribution to the dating of the Greek poet Lycophron, and a laborious and unfinished history of the reign of James II – are not much on which to base the claim that for the older Fox, the man who had once divided the kingdom with Caesar, the world was well lost. Nor would all Fox’s friends have agreed that they were. ‘Mr Fox may finish his History and his friends may go to the Devil,’ growled one of them who resented the repeated failures of Parliamentary leadership.

The claim that Fox achieved a profound insight into the true worth of power would also be more convincing if he had made more of a success of it. In his case, public office was not so much tried and found wanting as found difficult and not really tried. Fox himself admitted as much even before his catastrophic defeat in 1784, when he remarked prophetically to his friend Fitzpatrick: ‘I am certainly ambitious by nature, but I really have or think I have subdued that passion ... great reputation I think I may acquire & keep, great situation I never can acquire nor if acquired keep without making sacrifices that I never will make’ – sacrifices not just of friendship and principle, but of his ‘beloved idleness’ and freedom from constraint and authority. Fox was not a man to make such sacrifices or to lose himself in pursuit of a larger end. To the Foxites he had disappointed his final return to public office when he was ill and tired and foresaw little benefit from it to himself must have seemed his most redeeming act. It was ‘what I owe to the Publick and a set of Political Friends whose attachment to me has been exemplary’.