The Foxiest of the Foxite Whigs

Long before Bernie Sanders shook the foundations of the Left-wing American party, Georgian Britain had to contend with Charles James Fox and the Foxite Whigs.

Charles_James_Fox 1782

Charles Fox was born in London on 24 January 1749, the second surviving son of Henry Fox, 1st Baron Holland and Lady Caroline Lennox. The new newborn Fox was of royal blood, since his maternal great-grandfather, Charles Lennox, 1st Duke of Richmond, was the illegitimate son of King Charles II and his French mistress, Louise Renée de Penancoet de Kérouaille. (Charles Lennox is also the ancestor of Diana, Princess of WalesCamilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and Sarah, Duchess of York.)

There was nothing in Fox’s childhood that would indicate he would grow-up to express great empathy to the working class. If anything, the boy was spoiled rotten. Nonetheless, Fox would become on of the Georgian era’s most radical liberals. In fact, to call Fox a radical liberal is to undersell him wildly. The man was passionate about social justice and liberty.

He was one of the great orators of his age, and he embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment with ardour of a lover. He supported, with all his heart, the concept of democracy and freedom. He openly argued in favour of the colonists during the American War of Independence and “corresponded with Thomas Jefferson and had met Benjamin Franklin in Paris, predicted that Britain had little practical hope of subduing the colonies, and interpreted the American cause approvingly as a struggle for liberty against the oppressive policies of a despotic and unaccountable executive. It was at this time that Fox and his supporters took up the habit of dressing in buff and blue: the colours of the uniforms in Washington’s army.”

Fox detested inequality and economic oppression. He was revolted by the exploitation of the poor by those in power. Once the American Revolution successfully concluded, Fox’s main concern was fighting the British East India Company’s rape of India. To this end, “Fox proposed an East India Bill to place the government of the ailing and oppressive British East India Company … on a sounder footing with a board of governors responsible to Parliament and more resistant to Crown patronage.” Naturally, investors in the British East India Company, which included many influential men, were deeply unhappy about the bill.

King George III was beside himself with rage when the East India Bill passed the House of Commons. He already hated Fox because of Fox’s love of the American Revolution, as well as Fox’s dissolute lifestyle. Fox was in the habit of drinking, gambling, and womanizing, everything the serious, devote, monogamous king reviled.  Worse, Fox did these things in the company of the Prince of Wales, George Augustus Frederick, the future King George IV. The angry king had made it well known that “he held Fox principally responsible for the Prince’s many failings, not least a tendency to vomit in public.”

From George III’s perspective, Fox was doing everything he could to undermine Britain’s national and international power in pursuit of some pie-in-the-sky notion of intrinsic human rights. The king decided to fight back with all he had. He “made it clear that any peer who voted in favour of the bill would be considered a personal enemy of the Crown, [so] the Lords divided against Fox by 95 to 76.” Once Fox was defeated in the House of Lords, the king used this as an excuse to dismiss Fox and Lord North from government . King George then nominated William Pitt the Younger to take their place, but “Fox used his parliamentary majority to oppose Pitt’s nomination, and every subsequent measure that he put before the House, until March 1784, when the King dissolved Parliament”. A vicious general election followed, which gave the Tories the majority again, but with Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire campaigning for him, Fox himself won reelection.

Such was Fox’s commitment to reform that when one of Pitt the Younger’s first major acts as Prime Minister in 1785 was to put parliamentary reform on the table, Fox supported his most bitter political foe in the attempt. Alas, everything that Pitt and Fox could do was not enough to convince the people benefitting from rotten boroughs to eliminate them.

Fox did, however, get vindication of his 1783 East India Bill at Pitt’s expense in the 1787 impeachment of Warren Hastings, the Governor of Bengal. This was a Godsend for Fox, since the trial would “demonstrate the misrule of British India by Hastings and the East India Company”. The trial also put Foxe’s political opponents in a terrible double-bind. If Pitt and his Tories opposed Hastings, it would “endanger the support of the king and the East India Company, while to openly support him would have alienated country gentlemen and principled supporters” such as the famous abolitionist Wilber Wilberforce. Pitt simply could not win for losing.

This trial would have put Fox and all Enlightenment Whigs forevermore on celebrated novelist Jane Austen’s side, however. Jane’s cousin, Eliza, Comtesse de Feuillide, was the goddaughter and beneficiary (and some say biological child) of Warren Hastings. Austen and all her family would have hated Fox and the Foxites for what they believed to be nothing more than politically motivated persecution. Not that the Austens would have cared very much for Fox anyway. The Austens were ‘country Tories’ and like the naturally conservative middle-income ‘man on the street’ they did not appreciate Fox’s efforts against authoritarianism and inequality.

For many people in the gentry or middle class, Fox was a dangerous radical, because he threaten to destabilise the class system that benefited them. That’s why Fox “was often caricatured as Oliver Cromwell and Guy Fawkes … as well as Satan, “Carlo Khan” (see James Sayers) and Machiavelli.” It didn’t help that his carousing made him seem uniformly immoral, and he was suspected of having Enlightenment principles that biased him against organised religion. He was beyond anti-patriotic; he was a threat to the very essence of British national character.

Austen’s fear and dislike of modernist Whigs like Fox is why I made the character of Mary Crawford a progressive Whig in Mansfield Parsonage.  The Mary Crawford of Austen’s Mansfield Park was witty, charming, and had almost wholly good motivations, but yet she was the antagonist. Why? Because she was  represented the threat to sociocultural order inherent to those who admired the Enlightenment. A country Tory like Austen would have found a Foxite like Mary Crawford dangerous simply because she was a radical, regardless of any of Mary’s other worthy qualities. Foxites were too “French”, and as Mary Crawford and her brother represented continental mores, so too did Fanny Price symbolize English virtues.

When the French Revolution began in 1789,  Fox rejoiced, seeing it as a another budding democracy like the United States of America. He called the Storming of the Bastille was “the greatest event …  in the world! and how much the best!” Fox also declared that  he “admired the new constitution of France, considered altogether, as the most stupendous and glorious edifice of liberty, which had been erected on the foundation of human integrity in any time or country.” Even Fox’s fellow Whigs considered this a dangerous path to follow; what if revolution came to England?

Fox toned down his adulation of the French Revolution in order to appease the fears of his Whig allies, and instead focused on the support of civil liberties at home. Fox attempted to further freedoms in Great Britain by repealing the Test and Corporation Acts, which had legalised discrimination against Dissenters and Catholics. On 2 March 1790, Fox told the MPs in the Commons:

Persecution always says, ‘I know the consequences of your opinion better than you know them yourselves.’ But the language of toleration was always amicable, liberal, and just: it confessed its doubts, and acknowledged its ignorance … Persecution had always reasoned from cause to effect, from opinion to action, [that such an opinion would invariably lead to but one action], which proved generally erroneous; while toleration led us invariably to form just conclusions, by judging from actions and not from opinions

Sadly, his attempt to emancipate Catholics failed.

In 1791, when war threatened to erupt between Great Britain, Spain, and Russia,  it was Fox who challenged Pitt’s desire for conflict and found a peaceful solution to the crisis through diplomatic means. This so impressed Catherine the Great that she “bought a bust of Fox and placed it between Cicero and Demosthenes in her collection”. He was less successful on 18 April of the same year, when he joined with Wilberforce, Pitt and Edmund Burke in an attempt to pass a bill abolishing the slave trade. Regrettably, even their bipartisan efforts were not enough; slavery would not be finally outlawed in all British territories until 1833.

Sadly, in 1792 the French Revolution which Fox had such high hopes for began to “collapse into war, repression and the Reign of Terror.” Nevertheless, Fox vehemently opposed Britain’s involvement in the French Revolutionary Wars, which he felt would only prolong the bloodshed and he believed was merely an excuse to try to bring back the French monarchy. Fox was, of course, “denounced by many in Britain as a Jacobin traitor” for his lack of blind jingoism. Francis Horner, a Whig MP from Scotland, wrote a letter claiming that he could, “name to you gentlemen, with good coats on, and good sense in their own affairs, who believe that Fox…is actually in the pay of France”.

Notwithstanding accusations of treason, Fox fought hard against “Pitt’s Terror”, “the repressive wartime legislation introduced by Pitt in the 1790s”. Fox was able to push through the Libel Act 1792, which allowed juries – rather than the Crown or a judge — to decide is something was libelous or not.  E.P. Thompson called this “Fox’s greatest service to the common people, passed at the eleventh hour before the tide turned toward repression.” Certainly, civil liberties needed all the help they could get in the next few years.

On 21 May 1972 a royal proclamation against seditious writings was issued, resulting in more libel cases being “brought by the government in the following two years than had been in all the preceding years of the eighteenth century”. Worse, in 1795 an attack on King George III’s carriage gave Pitt the excuse to the Seditious Meetings Act 1795, “which prohibited unlicensed gatherings of over fifty people”, and the Treasonable Practices Act, “which greatly widened the legal definition of treason, making any assault on the constitution punishable by seven years transportation.”

Fox did everything he could to derail these pieces of legislation, pointing out that by the terms of the proposed acts, Pitt himself would have been transported for trying to pass parliamentary reform in 1785. He issued the dire warning to his fellow MPs that “if you silence remonstrance and stifle complaint, you then leave no other alternative but force and violence”. Fox advised them that public dissent was a good thing, because “the best security for the due maintenance of the constitution was in the strict and incessant vigilance of the people over parliament itself.”

Unsurprisingly, most of the MPs didn’t believe him. The common man was uncommonly dangerous, and only harsh oppression of liberties made the parliamentarians feel secure. Even the formerly faithful began to desert him in their fear of an English revolution. By 1797 the Foxites had shrunk to only about 25 in number. Fox was moved further and further to the outskirts of power.

Fox had also alienated supporters by marrying the woman he loved — Elizabeth Armistead, a former prostitute who had once worked in an extremely exclusive brothel before becoming the mistress of such high-ranking noblemen as Frederick St John, 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke, John Frederick Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset, Lord George Cavendish, the Earl of Derby, Lord Rockingham, the Earl of Cholmondeley, and  Prince of Wales. They had fallen in love in the mid-1780s, and after a decade of happiness together, had secretly married on 28 September 1795.

Elizabeth Bridget Cane Armitstead Fox

When Fox insisted on making the fact of their union public in October 1802, it utterly failed to cause a serious scandal. Fox had already proven himself immune from social convention, and marrying one of the most famous courtesans in London was far from atypical of his behavior. If anything, people were shocked a nice, religious (her Christian beliefs were not considered at odds with the career she had been pushed into as a young girl) woman like Mrs Armistead would agree to wed an agnostic reprobate like Mr Fox, or that she would be so very happy as Mrs Fox.

Fox’s days as a politician were not yet over. When by Lord Grenville formed a “Ministry of All the Talents” in 1806, Fox was offered the post of Foreign Secretary, which he accepted. His wife quickly proved to be an immense social asset, regardless of her past. Lady Elizabeth Foster wrote that Mrs Fox had “the most perfect good sense as well as good nature in her new situation.”


As one of the Ministry of All the Talents, Fox would enjoy the success of at least one great cause he had struggled for — the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Alhough Fox would die on 13 September 1806, a few months before abolition could be enacted, he passed away knowing that the happy event was imminent.

Fox had requested a simple, private funeral, but when it took place in Westminster Abbey on 10 October 1806 crowds formed to farewell one of the greatest liberals of the Regency era.  Fox’s political successor, Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey famously asked, “What subject is there, whether of foreign or domestic interest, or that in the smallest degree affects our Constitution which does not immediately associate itself with the memory of Mr Fox?” As the progressive causes Fox espoused became universally understood as humanist ideals, he became a hero to the next political generation in spite of his personal flaws.


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