Thursday, August 30, 2012

Enemy of Monarchy: Charles James Fox

Many British politicians today still hold the late Foreign Secretary and MP Charles James Fox in high regard. Traditionally it was the liberals who did so, but today it is just as likely to be conservatives since old fashioned Whigs are today insufficiently radical for the socialists of the modern left. However, Fox was a man that absolutely no proud or even halfway decent Briton should view with anything other than utter contempt. He was a contemptible antagonist opposed to everything that the United Kingdom, at least then, was based on and never passed up an opportunity to take the side of an enemy against his own King and country. There is no better evidence of just how far from being any kind of absolute or tyrannical state was Great Britain during the reign of King George III than that Fox was never hauled away and executed as a traitor. He was a man of limited and simplistic thoughts. Unlike Cromwell, who strove to overthrow the King and rule as he pleased, Fox condemned the King for any exercise of power, yet when his turn came, he had little idea of what to actually do with it. He was all for championing the downfall of great monarchies but, like many republicans today, had little idea of what to replace them with.

Charles James Fox was born in London on January 24, 1749 to fairly well-to-do parents. His father was a baron and his mother was the daughter of the Duke of Richmond. As a boy he was sent to a prestigious private school, then to Eton and when, as a teenager, his father took him on his first trip to Europe he taught him how to gamble and paid for his visit to a prostitute. He was only nineteen when his father bought him a seat in the House of Commons, representing Midhurst. Today his admirers speak only of his great gift for making speeches but little of his actual conduct. He was a thoroughly dissolute young man who was handed several high offices only to resign them when things did not go entirely to please him. Thoroughly selfish, he took the exact opposite of his later position because it served his own ends and only fell out with the statesman Lord North when his family were passed over for a promotion in the peerage. He only began to espouse any sort of coherent ideology after being taken under the wing of the towering Whig politician Edmund Burke and this was particularly seen after the move towards and outbreak of the revolutionary war in America.

Fox's enemy: King George III
It was during the conflict with the American colonies that Fox’s treasonous streak was first on full display. Yet, despite his growing ideological bent, a large part of his public positions remained personal. He simply disliked King George III, never passing up an opportunity to denounce him as a tyrant who was working all the time toward the goal of restoring royal absolutism in Britain, and the feeling was mutual. In Fox, the King, quite correctly, saw a spoiled young man who never took his government duties seriously, was totally untrustworthy, who never appreciated any of the favors which had brought him to the top of his career and who lived a scandalously immoral life. This was all completely true, from his shockingly indulgent childhood to his dissolute private life, Fox was a thoroughly disgusting individual. His drunkenness was legendary, he was known to lose tens of thousands of pounds gambling at one sitting (which kept him constantly in debt), he seldom washed, dressed slovenly, was known for spitting on the carpets and was utterly treasonous in his comments about the King. He did not limit himself to condemning the policies favored by the King but would refer to the monarch himself as “Satan” and on numerous occasions hoped for his death. He was an utterly vile man who even his own political allies could seldom tolerate.

When the war in America broke out, Fox was outlandish in his support for the enemies of his country. He was pen pals with Thomas Jefferson, met Benjamin Franklin in Paris, doing his best to boost the morale of the rebel public by saying that Britain could not go on fighting much longer and, most famously, he and his friends took to wearing the blue and buff colors of the Continental Army, celebrating every colonial victory and mourning every British success. All too often people today look at this as being rather comical and indeed at the time Fox seemed to regard the whole thing as a purely political debate over some grand game of chess. However, even if he had not a shred of loyalty to his King and country, these rebels he cheered so enthusiastically were killing his own countrymen, making new widows and orphans and ruined families for each redcoat they shot down. And he was best pleased when as many of his own countrymen were slaughtered as possible to give the colonials victory. The fact that he remained free and at large, even holding government office while carrying on in this fashion should have been ample evidence enough that the King he was living under was no arbitrary tyrant. Certainly those loyalists in America who dared to oppose the revolutionary government were not tolerated in the same way but assaulted, driven from their homes, imprisoned, their property taken and oftentimes even killed.

This, of course, put Fox even further at odds with the King who was the most ardent of his countrymen that the war in America had to be pursued to the utmost until final victory was achieved. He was, sadly, joined in his antagonism toward the King by the Prince of Wales and this furthered the personal animosity between the two as the King blamed Fox for influencing his son toward his lifestyle of excess. The Prince actually needed little encouragement but the King was not without cause in blaming Fox for the corruption of his eldest. It was then with the greatest reluctance that the King countenanced a coalition government, formed out of necessity, between the bitter enemies Lord North and Charles Fox. It didn’t last long and despite his claim to be a popular champion it was the people who largely opposed Fox for his determination to interfere with the prerogatives of the King and the British constitutional monarchy as it was established. As usual, Fox had few original ideas of his own and it says something that he would come to be seen as the father of radical liberalism in Britain as he was seemingly always against everything and for nothing.

The King was finally able to be done with North and Fox and replaced his old enemy with William Pitt who henceforth became the primary target of Fox’s limitless wrath. Of course, his contempt for his monarch never slackened and it is no wonder that when King George III began to go “mad” (suffering from porphyria) that many believed Fox had poisoned the monarch in order to replace him with the Prince of Wales who he regarded as his creature. Fox, of course, lacked the courage to take such drastic action himself, despite his having railed against the monarchy for so long in favor of “popular sovereignty” such as existed in the new United States. However, Fox was nothing if not consistent in always doing what was in his own best interests at the time and when news came that the King was incapacitated, he immediately became the biggest champion of royal power in London because he assumed that once the Prince of Wales had taken over things it was he would become the real ruler of Britain. Fortunately, Pitt was able to drag the legal debate out long enough for the King to recover and put to rest any talk of his throne being usurped by his son and Mr. Fox.

Not surprisingly, when the French Revolution broke out, Fox rejoiced against at the violence, bloodshed and rebellion. Again, like so many utopians, he seemed to totally disregard the ramifications and intense human suffering that accompanied the ideology he so championed. It was also during this period that he showed his hypocrisy again in taking up the cause of, among other things, Catholic emancipation. This in spite of the fact that, during the war in America, he had sympathized with the mob in the Gordon Riots which flared up as a result of easing the legal discrimination against Catholics. But, of course, Fox had proven throughout his career that there was no cause he would not hesitate to betray and no policy he condemned which he would not later champion if it served his purpose in opposing the Crown and the King’s government. And, even when the French Revolution degenerated into the orgy of murder known as the Reign of Terror, he still defended the blood-soaked republic as preferable to the monarchy that preceded it, setting a course still followed by republican historians to this day.

Fox as the serpent on the Tree of Liberty
Fox did finally rise to a place in the government, owing to the tolerance of the monarch he so often portrayed as a tyrant. Although the King had once vowed never to accept Fox even if it meant civil war, when presented with the situation, he agreed with sorrow and reluctance. Fox, by championing the French Revolution with all its disastrous consequences, opposing any kindness showed to French royalists, and so on finally caused a popular clamor against him with cartoonists portraying him as a British Jacobin and people finally denouncing him as a traitor. However, his own unpopularity and the great and growing popularity of the King may have had an effect on Fox as once he became Foreign Secretary he became much more conciliatory and declined to take up any measures that were sure to annoy his sovereign. King George III lived long enough to see his lifelong enemy in his grave, though he took no pleasure in it, as Fox died on September 13, 1806 still as opposed as ever to monarchy and religion, though he agreed to have prayers said at his bedside simply to please his wife. Today, many carefully pick their facts about Charles James Fox to portray him in the most positive light possible as a champion of liberty. However, throughout his life he was contradictory, arguing for the rights of Parliament and then against them as it suited his interests. Even the plaudits he is given for opposing slavery seems rather unfair when, at the same time, his King was portrayed as a pinchpenny for boycotting sugar over his disgust at the slave trade. Taken as a whole, Fox was simply a horrible man; a man of disgusting habits, gross immorality, arrogance, selfishness and who never missed an opportunity to take the side of the enemies of his own country. That so many republicans today regard him as a hero says a great deal about the cause they champion.

2 comments:

  1. Never heard of this guy, but he sounds like a nasty human being or an excuse for one. Why HRH King George III didn't have him strung up as a traitor proves to me the state of the King's health.

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