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Charles James Fox

Charles James Fox has been presented as the prototype of the nineteenth-century Liberal. Certainly his gifts were extraordinary. But did he put them to a worthy use? Ian R. Christie critically re-examines his record of public service.

Charles James Fox entered the House of Commons in 1768, while still under age. He made his mark at once as a debater; by his early thirties he was one of the leading personalities in the House, and he remained a member of it for over thirty-seven years, till his death in 1806. Yet his ministerial career is counted in months only, rather than in years: setting aside his early apprenticeship in junior posts, he held high Cabinet office for three months in 1782, eight months in 1783, and seven months in 1806—a year and a half in all.

It seems at first sight extraordinary that a man of so much vitality, who commanded so much admiration from almost all who knew him, even from his opponents, possessed of dazzling Parliamentary talents, and with other abilities of no mean order, should have failed to achieve positions of place and power and, through them, to leave a greater mark upon his country’s history.

Between 1774 and 1782, Fox spent eight years in opposition to the North ministry, and to its attempts to recover the American colonies. But, as a close analysis of Parliamentary events makes clear, it was military defeat, and not his eloquence, that eventually brought down the Government. It is doubtful if the Economical Reform carried into law during 1782 owed much to his efforts; in any case, it was a grossly over-rated policy.

As Secretary of State in 1783, he was responsible for concluding the Peace of Versailles, which ended the American War of Independence; but, having turned out Shelburne, who had laid the foundations of the treaty, he concluded it on rather less favourable terms than Shelburne had secured, and this in part through his own negligence. The East India Bill of 1783 was Burke’s creation rather than Fox’s: and both of them showed a remarkable political blindness in connection with it, by laying themselves open to attack for seeking to engross political patronage.

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