Sunday, September 27, 2009

Georgian Wrangle #1

When I was preparing for the Honors Seminar I taught last spring, Jane Austen's England, in order to properly set the stage for students unfamiliar with the time period, I did a lot of research on King George III's reign prior to 1790. In the course of that research, I learned about the long-standing dispute that is the subject of this post.

King George III did not like Charles James Fox. Fox was the third son of Henry Fox, 1st Baron Holland, and his wife, Lady Caroline Lennox, daughter of the 2nd Duke of Richmond. Fox's father exerted little control over him and encouraged him to be extravagant and dissolute. Fox lost vast sums gambling, and in 1774 Lord Holland paid his son's gambling debts at a cost of £140,000. (Almost 20 years later, political friends paid off Fox's debts and gave him a comfortable income, and Fox subsequently gave up both racing and gambling.) Fox was Falstaffian in character, and none too clean in appearance. He was openly a rake, and was rumored to be having an affair with Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

In 1768, he became MP for Midhurst, a family pocket borough. He was only 20 years old and, therefore, was under the legal age to sit in Parliament. (MPs could not take their seats until they were 21.) Fox soon attracted attention through his ability and the quality of his speeches. In 1770, he was appointed a junior Lord of the Admiralty, but resigned in 1772 to oppose the legislation that became the Royal Marriages Act (which was enacted later that year). In December 1773, he became a junior Lord of the Treasury, but the king---who considered Fox a vicious, intemperate man and an evil influence on the Prince of Wales (not that Prinny needed help choosing vices), as well as disliking him for opposing the Royal Marriages Act---dismissed Fox in February 1774.

In 1780, Fox became MP for Westminster, which he represented for the rest of his life.

Fox served as Foreign Secretary in Lord Rockingham's second ministry (March 1782-July 1783) and in the Duke of Portland's first ministry (April-December 1783), which was known as the Fox-North Coalition. The king tried for five weeks to avoid appointing what he called "the most unprincipled coalition the annals of this or any other nation can equal," but he had to give in, and the Fox-North coalition took office on 02 April 1783. The king refused to give the ministers any marks of royal confidence, but the ministry was able to maintain the support of the independent country gentlemen in the House of Commons. Fox did not help his precarious position at court by proposing to give his dear friend, the Prince of Wales, an income of £100,000 a year---a proposal that made Fox even more unpopular with the king.

The Fox-North coalition was brought down by the proposed India Bill. On 17 December 1783, the House of Lords rejected the bill after the king made it known that he would consider anyone who voted for it as an enemy. The coalition was dismissed next day, and William Pitt accepted an invitation to form a government. Fox alienated many of his supporters by attacking Pitt at every opportunity, and they showed their discontent by changing sides. In March 1784, Pitt called a general election. After the results were announced, the opposition found itself with only about 145 members in the new House of Commons. Those who lost their seats became known as "Fox's Martyrs."

Fox's attacks on Pitt's proposed commercial concessions to Ireland in 1785 and on a commercial treaty made with France in 1787 damaged his reputation. He made a further error of judgment in 1788-89, when the king was temporarily insane, by supporting the claim of the Prince of Wales to the regency as a right, whereas Pitt maintained that Parliament alone had the right and competence to appoint a regent. This was a total role reversal for both men, since Fox, as a Whig, supported parliamentary supremacy, and Pitt, as a Tory, was in favor of royal prerogative. (I presume that Fox believed the king was permanently insane and Pitt believed the monarch was temporarily so, and that these beliefs account for their seemingly uncharacteristic attitudes.)

Fox welcomed the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, and he continued to praise it even after Revolutionary France declared war on Great Britain in 1793. His support of the French Revolution brought his friendship with Edmund Burke to a dramatic and very public end, and a large part of the opposition went over to the government in 1794. The minority of 50 to 60 MPs who continued to support Fox became one of the weakest oppositions ever known in England, and about 1797, many of them ceased to attend Parliament.

Fox approved of the Peace of Amiens, which was signed in 1802, but spoke of the "shameful surrender of all our conquests" to Napoleon. He was critical of Henry Addington's ministry (March 1801-May 1804) for its failure either to maintain the peace or to put the country into an adequate state of defense to meet the threat of invasion after the resumption of the war in 1803. Addington's government resigned a few days later, and Pitt returned to office.

Pitt wanted to form a broad-based coalition, but was unable to persuade George III to accept Fox as Foreign Secretary. When Lord Grenville became prime minister after Pitt's death (in January 1806), the king accepted Fox's appointment as Foreign Secretary. By this time, Fox's health was failing. He made his last speech in Parliament on 19 June 1806. One of the last things he did was pledge to abolish the slave trade. Fox died in London on 13 September 1806. He was buried in Westminster Abbey by the side of his political archenemy, William Pitt.

(The portrait of King George III was painted by Sir William Beechey in 1799 or 1800. The painting of Fox was done by Karl Anton Hickel in 1794. The caricature of the Prince of Wales, which is titled "A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion," was by James Gillray and was published on 02 July 1792. Of all the excellent caricaturists of the Georgian and Regency eras, Gillray is my favorite, and this particular work is, in my opinion, one of his best.)


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