Charles James Fox’s Surprising and Understated Place in the Classical Liberal Tradition

On matters concerning modern political parties and the politicians they produce, my natural inclination is to ridicule and disparage both. When pressed to declare an affiliation though, I usually answer “Foxite Whig.” The reference is admittedly obscure. It carries no pretentious expectation of a dark horse victory from an affiliation that does not even exist anymore, let alone field candidates. I offer this answer in respect for that most uncommon paradox of creatures, the respectable politician.

Charles James Fox: A Gadfly in the Face of Government Power

Charles James Fox (1749-1806) spent almost the entirety of his four decades in British politics as an aggressive but frequently excluded and sometimes marginalized critic of the reigning government. His one fleeting moment of influence lasted less than a year before its undoing in deeply bitter collision with the crown. For all but the final months of his life, he remained a creature of the opposition, and he relished in it. Fox’s own politics were something of an 18th century precursor to British classical liberalism. As a Whig, he positioned himself as an opponent of a strong monarchy and relished in the lasting enmity of King George III. With support from his ally Edmund Burke, and the patronage of the liberal Whig leader the Marquess of Rockingham, Fox openly backed the American revolutionaries. Ever a stick in the eye of the king and the government, he frequently donned a blue coat and gold accents in the House of Commons—an intentional homage to the uniform of George Washington’s continental army.

A Contribution to Adam Smith’s Career (And to Classical Economics)

Economists owe a more specific debt to Fox’s brief and unsuccessful stint as the leader of the House of Commons. This is perhaps surprising, based on his disinterest in fiscal affairs. (He frequently complained that economic matters utterly bored him.) On November 11, 1783 while giving his response to the King’s Speech to Parliament, he invoked “an excellent book upon the Wealth of Nations, which had been ridiculed for its simplicity, but which was indisputable as to its truth” to caution against the accumulation of public debt. The occasion marked the first public endorsement of Adam Smith’s 1776 volume in parliament. It also drew national public attention to a book that had previously only inhabited academic circles. Smith took notice and alerted his publisher to “something which fell the other day from Mr. Fox,” relaying a suggestion that “we should set about the new edition immediately.” Many Smith scholars trace the work’s popularization to a wave of printings that began with its third edition in 1784.

A Political Career Led by a Man with An Aversion to Politics

Fox’s political career was something of a paradox, mainly because he seemed to have a distinct aversion to the processes of governing. He never much liked the art of legislating and mostly failed in his attempts at the task. Fox nevertheless had an extraordinary gift for oratory. He also had no qualms in exercising his rhetorical wizardry over rivals and friends alike. His famous rival, William Pitt the Younger, was known for delivering grandiose homages to country, carefully prepared to evoke sentiments of patriotic duty and honor. The speeches of his early-life friend and late-life rival Edmund Burke was meticulous but plodding. They were clearly the result of hours of carefully preparing a philosophical argument for rehearsed delivery. Fox, in contrast, spoke extemporaneously. He managed to dominate both Pitt and Burke, often while showing up on the floor of Commons in a disheveled state after a night of heavy drinking and gambling.

In Defense of Religious Liberty

Though almost always in the minority, Fox’s core political values were distinctly liberal. They always stressed a platform of constitutionalism, peace, and a pronounced civil libertarianism. In a famous 1790 debate with Pitt over laws that restricted the liberties of Catholics and other religious minorities, he offered a powerful and early defense of the virtues of tolerance and humility.
“Persecution always said, ‘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. It said, ‘ Though I dislike your opinions, because I think them dangerous, yet since‘you profess such opinions, I will not believe you can think such dangerous inferences flow from them which strike my attention so forcibly.’ This was truly a just and legitimate mode of reasoning, always less liable to error, and more adapted to human affairs. When we argued a posteriori, judging from the fruit to the tree, from the effect to the cause, we were not so subject to deviate into error and falsehood as when we pursued the contrary method of argument. Yet persecution had always reasoned from cause to effect, from opinion to action, which proved generally erroneous ; while toleration led us invariably to form just conclusions, by judging from actions and not from opinions.”

Fox’s Response to “Pitt’s Terror”

Fox’s most famous battles came during the French Revolutionary period when a fever of militaristic frenzy swept over England in preparation for war on the continent. Pitt’s Tories seized on the moment to enact sweeping counter-revolutionary legislation that restricted political and religious dissent, shuttered newspapers and publishers deemed “seditious,” and suspended basic precepts of due process such as access to jury trials for political crimes during the ensuing periods of war. Fox held firm through the era of restrictive legislation known as “Pitt’s Terror,” mounting a steadfast defense of constitutional liberties even as his former allies abandoned him to nationalistic fervor. His opponents slandered him for secretly plotting with the French Revolutionaries and later Napoleon. When Pitt committed his nation to war to restore the Bourbon monarchy, Fox called for peace and found himself ostracized from political circles and accused of treason.

Friends and Allies, Alienated

His commitment to civil liberties also caused a lasting and permanent rift with his old friend Edmund Burke. A former civil libertarian who stood with Fox during the American revolution, the Burke of the 1790s had descended into a paranoid fever that imagined knife-wielding Jacobin cutthroats lurking in the shadows of English cities. This led him to embrace the restrictive legislation of Pitt’s 18th century security state.

A Victory for Free Speech

Fox’s steadfastness during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period won him few friends, though it did yield one of his only legislative victories. In 1792 he secured an important reform to Britain’s criminal libel laws—used at the time to control political speech. He accomplished this by transferring the power to determine guile away from the crown’s judge and to an impaneled jury.

Underestimating Napoleon

Fox’s pursuit of a peaceful resolution to the successive conflicts with France was similarly unyielding. At times it led him to naively underestimate the warring intentions of Napoleon. When pressed on the threat of a French attack during the Invasion Scare of 1803 he conceded the reality of the threat to Pitt and backed a bill to mobilize a defensive militia.

Fox’s Legacy as a Civil Libertarian

What brought Fox scorn and ridicule in his own lifetime also secured his reputation in the next century as the forefather of British classical liberalism. Fox’s platform of constitutional liberty and peace directly inspired Richard Cobden’s pairing of free commerce with anti-colonialism. In 1853, Cobden pointed directly to Fox with the following tribute against the backdrop of the growing British empire of his own time:
“It is impossible to read the speeches of Fox, at this time, without feeling one’s heart yearn with admiration and gratitude for the bold and resolute manner in which he opposed the war, never yielding and never repining, under the most discouraging defeats; and, although deserted by many of his friends in the House, taunted with having only a score of followers left, and obliged to admit*24 that he could not walk the streets without being insulted by hearing the charge made against him of carrying on an improper correspondence with the enemy in France, yet bearing it all with uncomplaining manliness and dignity. The annals of Parliament do not record a nobler struggle in a nobler cause.”

Charles James Fox, A Political and Personal Failure?

It is with some irony that Fox would have been unlikely to share in Cobden’s assessment of his own political life. Aside from the libel bill, his civil libertarianism yielded little in the way of results. Civil liberties lingered in neglect throughout the Napoleonic era and only recovered with the cessation of hostilities almost a decade after Fox’s death. Viewing his own political cause as a failure, Fox turned his attention to his own hobbies and took extended leaves from Commons to attend to his famous appetite for various libertine habits. He drank himself into poor health, gambled his way through successive periods of debt and insolvency, and occasionally scandalized elite society. Most notable was the 1802 discovery of his secret marriage some years prior to Elizabeth Armistead—a high society courtesan and former mistress of the Prince of Wales, among others. Curiously, the couple settled into a stable and (by all accounts) loving marriage. Fox also found his finances restored under his wife’s sizable estate from her prior career.

Fox’s Final Battle

Still, Fox did not resign himself to political despair. His final battle in the months before his death was one of his oldest and dearest causes. It also proved to be his most important legacy. Fox was an early champion of the cause of abolitionism in the British Empire. In 1791, coming together with Burke, Pitt, and William Wilberforce, Fox threw his support behind a bill to abolish the international slave trade. The measure collided head-first with the entrenched political interests of several ship-owning firms and families. It failed by a large margin. Fox nevertheless persisted in his case, denouncing the blood profiteering of the West Indies slave traders and calling out their champion and financial beneficiary in parliament, the former loyalist cavalry leader Banastre Tarleton from the American Revolutionary War. Fox’s commitment to antislavery persisted through the French Revolution when his friends abandoned and withdrew from the bill. Abolitionism gained a reputation as a “radical” cause. Its former sympathizers decided against pressing forward on the measure at a time when anti-revolutionary paranoia was at its peak. An opportunity to resume the push appeared again in the final months of Fox’s life after an unusual convergence of political circumstances and coalitions saw him elevated to the post of Foreign Secretary. Working with other abolitionists, he seized upon the moment to push the slave trade ban through the House of Commons on June 10, 1806. The measure carried with an overwhelming majority, and was granted royal assent the following year. The vote to abolish the slave trade gave Fox one of his only significant parliamentary victories after a lifetime in the opposition as a steadfast but perpetual minority voice. He was keenly aware of his other failings. Yet he was content, given that his most important cause had succeeded. As Fox noted in reflection upon the adoption of the measure:
“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.”

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