Charles James Fox (1790s?) by Karl Anton Hickel
Dear friends and readers,
As part of my project reading towards my paper to be given at the EC/ASECS, “‘I have a right to choose my own life:’ Liberty in Winston Graham’s Poldark novels,” I’m rereading the first 7 Poldark novels, reading a couple other historical novels which use the past to project a liberal-leftist and/or feminist point of view (e.g., David Lisse’s A Conspiracy of Paper, and Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin), texts on the concept of liberty, and some genuine background non-fiction books set in the later 18th or early 19th century. One is Charles J Esdaile’s The Peninsula War. I’ll be writing about some of this reading as I finish it, or the spirit prompts me.
Tonight (while the electricity holds out), I want to recommend David Powell’s Charles James Fox, Man of the People. Powell’s is an intelligent, compactly informative book, important because insightful and goes against the strong tendency in our era to interpret earlier history from a conservative point of view. Powell makes a strong case for understanding Fox most clearly as someone who in his later career (after his father died) worked hard an consistently for civil and social liberty for the individual in a real-life real-world political context, which means he had to bend, compromise, build coalitions according to party politics at the time (later 18th century), the way the British parliament and elections and monarchy worked under the impress of specific individuals and his own allegiances. Much that is written insists that Fox had no principle, or even castigates him, but as Powell shows Fox’s life makes no sense unless you see genuine open-mindedness, real toleration and liberalism as the real impulse underneath the various permutations. This point of view on Fox coheres with the perspective on the Lennox family in Stella Tillyard’s two books, Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox, 1740-1832, and Citizen Lord: Edward Fitzgerald, 1763-98. Charles was son to Caroline Lennox and Henry Fox, cousin to Edward Fitzgerald.
I was particularly impressed with Powell’s rare ability to get down to the nitty gritty, really tell in literal details what a bill was, how the various sides acted towards it, the individuals involved, at the same time as he gives the motives and whatever principles were or claimed to be involved — all in brief compass.
What follows are some rather more scattered and general assessment remarks than I usually do (I omit details since there were so many ins and outs) from my reading as I went along, and then a posting by Nick Hay where he too assesses the book and quotes ably and epitomizingly from it.
Henry Fox, later 1st Lord Holland (1705-1774) by Joshua Reynolds
This is an excellent study of the ins and outs of political life in the later 18th century, and how one man, Fox, moved from apparently being an orthodox politician supporting the king to a genuine radical working for modern ideas of liberty across a wide swath of people. Where Powell slides over one can fill in with articles. How Fox fought against Wilkes in the earlier phase of his history: here it was Fox’s loyalty to his father that came in. We see his early years brought up lovingly by his father, the encouragement he was given to develop his mind originally, his extensive reading when at university, a habit he returned to in later life.
Then how he came to switch from being pro-king over the marriage bill where the king demanded that his sons and all further heirs to the throne get permission from the sovereign is a case in point that shows unexpected twists and turns of thought. Here Fox was for sexual liberty for males and liberty for someone to advance him or herself by marriage. Also his father had died and he felt freed to be more radical.
The best article I read was by D. T. Johnson “Charles James Fox: From Government to Oppostion, 1771-1774,” English Historical Review, 89 (1974):750-84. Johnson takes this modern pro-conservative view that Fox didn’t mean his radical enlightenment politics seriously. The changeover relates to Mrs Fitzherbert: it came when the king insisted on the Marriage Bill which gave the monarch the right to veto any marriages of the heir to the throne. It would seem this is an odd choice to change one’s stance on over a life time. Johnson shows it was far more than that; it was personal: Fox had been overlooked and insulted continually by the jealous North; Fox allied himself with Burke as a friend too; yes there was jobbery and inveigling for property and wealth. But in principle Fox was for people having the right (apparently) to marry whom they wanted. It’s presented as venal and personal: he is defending his father and mother, his own desire to marry up, but it seems to me from the quotations far more than that.
Powell appears to believe in Fox’s adherence to real principles after his father, mother and brother died. Powell shows how other scholars and people at the time dismissed his early period of orthodoxy (supporting the king and status quo). Tony Benn’s introduction to Powell’s book sets the situation against our modern one, the differences and similarities. The similarities are self-evident, politics as personal power and riches-grab, with a new ancien regime holding on to what it has, and recently trying to extend it again; the differences too, genuine near universal suffrage with decent laws and customs for the relatively and full powerless or unconnected. It’s paradoxical that Fox came to stand for the rights of these latter: super-wealthy aristocratic, gambler, but also highly well-educated (from Henry and Caroline who we learned about from Tillyard). Benn writes:
The pressure of all these events [1780s through 90s, from “beneath” for annual parliaments, equal or real representation, the French and American revolutionary ideals and doings] made Fox sound like a voice in the wilderness [his point of view was so rare, so individual it seemed] though a century or more later his little minority had won the day – and therein lies the importance of Fox as a major figure in the period through which he lived.
So I conclude he sympathized with Mrs Fitzherbert as he took his stand against the bill that excluded her from being taken seriously. My favorite joke from Caroline’s trial is her answer that the only adultery she ever committed was with Mrs Fitzherbert’s husband.
Fox teamed up with Burke and they made these eloquent speeches and formed a solid opposition to George’s policies against the Americans in the Revolutionary war — which of course got nowhere as the king had the vote, and he was determined to carry on the war with the colonies as about his power and his perogative and bribed everyone with huge sums. In this book George does not emerge as this genial good man who became pathetically ill (the way he does in Alan Bennet’s play and recent books), but as a stubborn, venal, petty, vengeful man protecting his power first and foremost. The figure familiar from Junius at the time, from the early writing of Southey, from Byron and Shelley, from (come to that) Paine and Jefferson.
Elizabeth Armistead, later Fox (1750-1842), also by Reynolds
One reason I like Fox so much is he married Elizabeth Armistead who as a prostitute with no family and no inheritance was just nobody in this era, less than nobody as an unchaste woman – a very unconventional thing to have done, and was very happy with her in his later years. Like his father before him, he retired to live out a Horatian ideal. He had been a serious student when at Oxford and never lost contact with a rich intellectual life — despite all the years of gambling, promiscuity. A life of Armistead is included in Katie Hickman’s Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century.
Powell does not address the question of Fox’s attitude towards women as such or individual women. We hear he was a notorious libertine, but not one example of how he behaved, who or what the particular woman in question was or the “escapade.” It’s a strange treatment as it’s not irrelevant to Fox’s standing as a politician then or now. I’ve now read three articles on Fox and find 1) there is a strong modern (recent) tendency to want to deny that Fox was at all radical in his thought but to present him as utterly subject to local politics, his engagement with family and friends, and acting out of venal personal motives in part all the time. “Venal” is not unfair: the writers (two reviewers of L. G. Mitchell’s biography) seems to misrepresent Mitchell’s book. Mitchell in his ODNB presents a sympathetic view of Fox, liking him personally but not taking a stand on the sincerity of Fox’s later years in opposition and in defense of personal and other human liberties. The two reviewers both Fox emerges from Mitchell’s book as a horror, one even says Mitchell detests him. He doesn’t if the ODNB is any sign. Both these reviewers seem to react in the way earlier people writing about Fox did: they say they abhor his personal amorality. If so, they never say what the particulars are.
I am suspicious that what they can’t stand is his unconventionality. The man was unconventional in his core being, a reaction to his father’s life and understanding, the education he was given, his mother’s high intelligence and indulgence. I can’t answer Caroline’s question for I don’t know what is meant by th references to Fox’s libertinage. If it includes rape and crimes against women, then his behavior to Elizabeth Armistead is an anomaly. If it’s that he was simply unconventional and lived with equally unconventional people, e.g., he may have had a liaison with Georgiana Spencer; he was later in life close with Charles Grey, who became his loyal henchman in the last years fighting Burke. Also important was his close alliance with Sheridan, the book to read here is Fintan O’Toole’s on Richard Sheridan A Traitor’s Kiss. Not slender, and scholarly, it is also on Ireland (as one person on C18-l said, “a blindspot for many English theorists & advocates of liberty”).
But there is this oddity — which it shares with many books until recently — and perhaps books to come once again. Repeatedly we are told that X, say the Earl of Sandwich in the particular instance (p. 119) was “a notorious profligate” and it was held against him and hurt him politically. But we are told nothing of what this means. What women he was involved with, what he did to them, what gambling or cheating or whatever neglects he was guilty of.
This is strange if you think just a little. What crime did he commit? We are not told. What shameful things? we are not told. When someone gambling debts are known, and it’s usually general, we are told. This is part of the pre-feminist kind of book where women never appear except marginally. (The modern style book is Francine du Plessix-Gray where she pretends to write the book on Sade’s wife; she doesn’t but the wife is there a lot, say even 30% of the time is taken into consideration.). This would suggest no one in Powell’s era could give a damn about the women and also that in the earlier era no one did.
Well if so, why was it deleterious to the man’s career?
It’s also so frustrating to be told this kind of generalization repeatedly and then never told what it means, who it concerns.
The books which begin with Elizabeth Armistead for example or are about her, bring her in, but she is but one of Fox’s women and came later in his life and what he did with her may have been wholly unusual for him. Not so small peeves: when Mary Davies allows her book about Armistead and Fox to be titled The Harlot and the Statesman: The Love Story of Elizabeth Armistead and Charles James Fox makes me loathe to buy it, plus it’s expensive, priced at $25 the least and only available from UK booksellers. Why is he the statesman? There is good reason to believe he did not act out of principle (actually Powell thinks he partly did – that he did really care about individual liberty). Why must she be referred to so stigmatizingly? The word would not have been used of her except maybe by Gillray in a cartoon (and he’s a cruel misgynist consistenty in his pictures)
Caroline Lennox Fox, Lady Holland (175), a reading, radical and intelligent woman – probably centrally important to Charles too, but marginalized in this book (except as the woman his father dared to marry)
Powell has persuaded me that Fox did work by principles, only that his principles were complicated (friendship came before an adherence in public to the principles of liberty) and shaped by the realities of party politics.
What a complicated story each phase of this man’s political life is. It takes a long time to read each page in order to comprehend what is meant fully. It’s revealing about the brutality of the politics of the later 1790s. The intense ruthless suppression of any dissent was as ferocious and relentless as anything done in France, short of the mass killings in the prisons and on the guillotine. I do love how Burke comes out for once as a neurotic mad-man — this fringe person despised for years and writhing under it, suddenly goes beserk when his order or group is threatened and how he is then used by the powerful for their purposes. To this we get these vivid vignettes of these arisocrats as violent thugs causing riots in the streets, not to omit really suggestiveness about Fox’s psychological motives: in parliament Fox was like someone on a listserv who can beat everyone else with eloquence; he can’t resist flaming others; there is a compensation for his looks going on too.
The ending written in this simple way, and becomes so moving as we watch the man die of dropsy. It’s deeply moving and and Charles James Fox’s last few weeks in power. He did on the last gasp speak extraordinarily for the abolition of slavery.
Nick had said the moving nature of the ending comes from the relationship with Elizabeth Armistead. I didn’t see that as any more central (or less) than from the time he began to live with her on and off at St Anne’s Hill. Like all women in this book she is barely characterized, kept in the margins. It is the one grave fault with the book.
Abolitionist, Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846)
And here is Nick’s fine assessment:
“I have now finished David Powell’s book Charles James Fox Man of the People (1989). Unfortunately, it is unscholarly – there are no notes, sources or bibliography. Of course it is designed as a popular biography, but that is no reason why a book should be unscholarly (as Jenny Uglow’s book on Thomas Bewick demonstrates). There are some things to be said in its favour…
1) precisely because of its light-weight nature it is an easy read and provides an introduction to the main course of Fox’s life, at least as far as his political career is concerned.
2) Fox himself is such a charismatic, and in the last 15 or so years anyway, of his life charming figure that I became fully involved with the narrative towards the end, and indeed was quite affected by the death-bed scene.
I am not going to attempt any sort of summary but very broadly Fox as a private man moved from hell-raising rake and gambler to devoted monogamist (he was completely in love with Liz Armistead and they were – especially by the standards of the late 18thC aristocracy – a truly devoted couple). Fox as a public man grew more radical as he grew older – a trajectory which always appeals to me, and goes completely against that nonsensical and absurd cliche about people becoming more conservative as they age. His courage in the 1790’s when he opposed Pitt’s repression at the cost of any sort of career, of his popularity, in the face of scabrous vilification and all the forces of the state is truly inspiring. It is certainly true that his earlier career did not suggest this kind of political dedication and there were and are plenty to accuse him of inconsistency – but what is very clear is that in the 1790’s he sacrificed any sort of ambition for the sake of principle.
The following are just notes on things which I particularly enjoyed.
Writing of the corruption of earlier 18thC politics Powell quotes an MP by the name of Hans Stanley who wrote…
If I had a son, I would say to him ‘Get into Parliament, make some tiresome speeches. Do not accept the first offer, but wait until you can make provision for yourself and your family and then call yourself an independent country gentleman’
which demonstrates that corruption in the British Parliament is hardly (as is claimed by the ignorant at present) new. Of course in terms of corruption Walpole himself set a standard which will never be equalled – at least he spent the proceeds well as anyone who has visited his Norfolk home at Houghton can attest.
One thing Powell does do well is to convey the stupidity, meanness and vindictiveness of George 3rd (the book is certainly a good corrective to that absurd Madness film); when Chatham died (the elder Pitt) George 3rd objected to his being buried in Westminster Abbey remarking….
This compliment is rather an offensive measure to me personally’
carrying his vindictiveness beyond the grave.
Reviewing the 18thC electoral system Powell gives a wonderful quote from Sir Philip Francis which shows that the election sequence in Blackadder series 3 (the Dish and Dishonesty episode) was not, in fact, so far from the truth. Here is Francis speaking of his election at Appleby….
I was unanimously elected by one Elector to represent this ancient Borough in Parliament….there was no other Candidate, no Opposition, no Poll demanded, Scrutiny or petition. So I had nothing to do but thank the said Elector for the Unanimous Vote with which I had been chosen
(actually thinking about it the election at Dunny-in-the-Wold was more democratic than this – there were at least other Candidates and a Poll in that case!).
Moving to Fox’s private life I want to cite a couple of passages illustrative of his devotion to Liz Armistead and the quietness of his domestic circumstances in later years. Here he is writing about Liz…
She is a comfort to me in very misfortune, and makes me enjoy doubly every pleasant circumstance of life; there is to me a charm and delight in her society, which time does not in the least wear off, and for real goodness of heart if she ever had an equal, she never had a superior…..The Lady of the Hill is one continual source of happiness to me’
He finally married Liz in 1795, though the marriage was kept secret for 7 years for reasons which are still not clear though it may be that he did not want her dragged into the extremely brutal political arena in which he was operating. Here anyway is John Bernard Trotter’s, Fox’s secretary, description of the Foxs daily round at their country home at St Anne’s Hill….
In summer he rose between six and seven, in winter before eight… After breakfast, which took place between eight and nine in the summer, and a little after nine in the winter, he usually read some Italian authors with Mrs Fox, and then spent the time preceding dinner at his literary studies, in which the Greek poets bore a principal part. A frugal but plentiful dinner took place at three….; and a few glasses of wine were followed by coffee. The evening was dedicated to walking and conversation to tea time, when reading aloud, in history, commenced, and continued till near ten. A light supper of fruit, pastry, or something very trifling finished the day, and at half past ten the family were gone to rest.
Now admittedly this is about as far from his younger hell-raising days as can be imagined, but I had no idea that Fox was like this in maturity – I had been utterly deceived by the popular (mis) representations. If for nothing else reading Powell has been worthwhile in correcting me in this misapprehension.
I’ll note for Ellen’s interest that Powell writes that Liz once had to ‘confiscate’ a copy of Fanny Burney’s Camilla when Fox began to read the newly arrived book aloud at dinner, and for my own interest that he maintained an acquaintance with Crabbe. Like Crabbe and Bewick (and it seems almost everyone) he became an amateur naturalist listing every flower and plant on his small estate.
Here is a poem Fox wrote to Liz on his 50th Birthday – the poem may hardly be called a classic but the sentiment is affecting –
Of years I have now half a century passed
And none of the fifty so blessed as the last.
How it happens that my troubles thus daily should cease,
And my happiness thus with my years should increase,
This defiance of Nature’s more general laws,
You alone can explain, who alone are the cause’
(in some ways Fox is a Byronic figure – the aristocratic rebel – but in his mature private life he could hardly be more different).
Fox was of course above all a magnificent orator – the greatest in a period of great orators (Chatham, Burke, Sheridan) and Powell quotes several of his speeches. I pick the following from 1800. Fox is replying to a suggestion that, rather than seeking peace with France, Britain should pause and see how events turn out. Fox replies to Pitt …
In former wars a man might at least, have some feeling, some interest, that served to balance in his mind the impressions which a scene of carnage and of death must inflict….But if a man were present now at a field of slaughter, and were to inquire for what they were fighting – ‘Fighting!’ would be the answer; they
are not fighting, they are pausing.’ ‘Why is that man expiring? Why is that other writhing in agony? What means this implacable fury?’ The answer must be ‘You are wrong, sir; you deceive yourself. They are not fighting. Do not disturb them; they are merely pausing. This man is not expiring with agony – this man is not dead – he is only pausing…..All you see, sir, is nothing like fighting – there is no harm, cruelty or bloodshed in it whatever; there is nothing more than a political pause.
This brilliant invective rings clear across the centuries as we consider the language used to cloak and soften the horrific realities of war.
In his very last speech in the Commons on 10th June 1806 Fox spoke in support of the abolition of slavery….
‘So fully am I impressed with the vast importance and necessity of obtaining what will be the object of my motion this night, that if, during the almost forty years that I have had the honour of a seat in Parliament, 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 the conscious satisfaction that I had done my duty.’
He died on 13th September 1806 his last words being to his wife who was at his side ‘It don’t signify my dearest dearest Liz.’
Powell points out that by modern standards Fox was in many ways not a radical especially in his opposition to universal suffrage. However I found him a far more courageous and sympathetic figure than I expected and would certainly like to read a fuller more scholaryl book than this, which he most definitely merits.”
Barbauld’s once famous political prophetic poem
I answered Nick thus:
McCarthy in his book on Barbauld gives an effective description of the 1790s so we see how not just the radicals, but ordinary people with let’s say progressive ideas were frightened, and punished for the least appearance of enlightened thought or protest. The government was behind the riots at Priestley’s house and it together with power local people across the country repeated the same kinds of acts backed by military might and local ostracism, firing, and scapegoating. The Barbaulds were the type that were affected here, and many of their friends.
She like Fox was brave in the 1790s, but not quite as brave, only of course she was a woman so it wasn’t possible to stand on the world’s stage. She published then famous works anonymously; it was known they were by her, and she was partly protected because she was a woman. Who cared what she thought. I have a parallel passage to Nick’s by Fox in the 1790s where her idea that’s use language truthfully and say the thing a thing is is brought to clear power. Here is she arguing that the still powerful cruel idiocies about calling the blessing of God on your murderous activities (war) is somehow a moral thing to do. She writes in Sins of the Nation
we have calmly voted slaughter and merchandized destruction” – and urged that things should be called by their proper names: “When we pay our army and our navy estimates, let us set down – so much for killing, so much for maiming, so much for making widows and orphans, so much for bringing famine upon a district, so much for corrupting citizens and subjects into spies and traitors, so much for ruining industrious tradesmen and making bankrupts (of that species of distress at least, we can form an idea)
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