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Charles James Fox: Incidental Patriot?

Charles James Fox, by Karl Arton Hickel, 1774

By Henry J. Voegtle,
Chancellor, Texas Society SAR
SAR Magazine
Winter 2017, Vol. 111, No. 3

Winston Churchill is reputed to have said that “history is written by the victors” and the history of the American Revolution is no exception. From a distinctly American point of view, we learn of events from the Stamp Act, the Boston Massacre and John Adams’ defense of the British soldiers involved, Washington at Valley Forge, and the assistance of the French and Spanish in securing independence. Sometime during our education, the point seems to be made that Americans were a group of upstarts taking on the greatest power at the time. It makes one wonder whether there was any support for the American cause in the mother country?

“… He has cost a whole continent.” In 1775, Charles James Fox spoke these words on the floor of the House of Commons. A member of parliament, a Whig and outspoken critic of Lord North’s government, the question remains: Was Fox a supporter of American independence? Could he, from the point of view of the Sons of the American Revolution, be considered a patriot?

Scion of a minor noble family, Fox today is known as much for his lifestyle as for his political views. Yet his actions during and immediately after the American Revolution and his relationships with its leading lights seem to indicate a bent toward the cause of independence. It is known that during the Revolution he corresponded with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. The question is: Did he actively support American independence or was it merely a political decision he made?

Born Jan. 24, 1749, Fox was the second surviving son of Henry Fox, First Baron Holland. Befitting his family’s position, Fox attended Eton and began his studies at Herewith College of Oxford University in 1764. Fox left college in 1766 to travel to the continent with his parents, two brothers and sister-in-law.1

Upon his return from the continent, Fox entered Georgian politics. In 1768, when he was 19, Fox’s family ties enabled him to easily acquire a seat in the House of Commons as a Whig. As befitting his connections, he moved quickly into the upper strata of the House of Commons. However, as quickly as he rose, he became estranged from the party leadership. In January 1770, the leadership of the House of Commons had passed from the Chathamite faction of the Whigs, led first by William Pitt the Elder and then by Augustus Grafton, to the so-called Tory2 government under North. At this time Fox began taking positions at odds with the leadership of both his party and parliamentary leadership. Nevertheless, he received two ministerial appointments. Fox’s first appointment was to the Board of Admiralty in 1770 and he served in that position until he had a falling out with North.3 In 1773, Fox was named to the Board of the Treasury.4 Both of these would have been rather unusual appointments for a junior member of Parliament were in not for Fox’s family ties. Apparently Fox did not take these appointments seriously— what was perceived as a cavalier attitude to these appointments was noted at court.

By 1774 Fox came under the influence of Edmund Burke, leader of the Rockingham faction of Whigs. This marked his split from the mainstream Whigs under the elder Pitt. Fox’s younger brother, Henry, had chosen a military career and was sent as a lieutenant to Boston with the 38th Regiment of Foot. In spite of this, Fox was vocal concerning the North government’s conduct of American affairs. Fox’s criticisms of the American Revolution dealt with both the origins of the war and its conduct. The quote in which he opines that North’s actions have cost a continent was made in response to the Intolerable Acts.5

As the British efforts to quell the American Revolution progressed, North introduced a bill on Feb. 6, 1777, authorizing the government to “secure or detain Persons charged with, or suspected of, the Crime of High Treason, committed in North America, or on the High Seas, or the Crime of Piracy.” The contents of this bill included the suspension of habeas corpus. Addressing this bill on its second reading, Fox was vehement in his opposition to it. His fear was not that it would further incite the Colonies, but that its application could be extended to the British Isles. The bill, in Fox’s opinion, had two great faults. The first was the authority of the crown to arrest an individual on mere suspicion of engaging in an action that could be perceived as aiding and abetting the “American rebels.” The other odious aspect of the bill was that it would abrogate the right to habeas corpus. In criticizing the bill Fox stated,

Suppose, for instance that I had an old school-fellow, or an intimate companion: I should most probably kept up
a correspondence; and, when writing to him, should have told him, ‘that the Whigs, and those that were friends to the Revolution, were looked upon now as factious persons; for these are the times that large strides are taken, not only to destroy the liberties of America, but of this country likewise.’ Would such a paragraph as
this furnish a good ground for suspicion?6

The bill passed the House of Commons on the second reading 196-43.7 In his opposition, it appears that Fox thought less of the the bill’s effect on America, and more that it would be a pernicious threat to civil liberties in England.

Top, Charles James Fox’s bust on plinth, Chertsey, United Kingdom; above, a vertical anatomical bisection of Charles James Fox, one half of him dressed as a Frenchman, and the other half an Englishman. [Colored etching by W. Dent, 1793]

Nearly a year later, in February 1778, Fox’s anti-war position was sharpened by his proposal that “no more of the Old Corps8 be sent out of the kingdom.”9 In making this proposal, which was defeated, Fox recited the history of the British missteps, both by the government and on the battlefield. His point, perhaps lost on his fellow members of Commons, was that the Revolution was, up to that point, a series of political blunders by the government and military errors.10 Was Fox able to see that war was becoming a hopeless cause for the crown? Another of Fox’s actions suggests that he might have thought so.

In April 1778, Thomas Powys proposed enlarging the powers of the peace commissioners, which at that time consisted of Lord Howe and his brother, General Howe; Frederick Howard, the Earl of Carlisle; William Eden; and George Johnstone, in their dealings with the Americans. Powys’ resolution was to permit the commissioners to have the authority to “declare the Americans absolutely and for ever [sic] independent.”11 Fox’s remarks favored the recognition of American “independency,” as he phrased it.

There was clearly an ulterior motive to recognition of independence. Fox noted that the relationship between France and America was substantial, with a commercial treaty and recognition of American independence by the French, and that there was the possibility of Spanish involvement in the Revolution. He also noted that the cost of the war was increasing and that “the dependency of America as a matter of very little moment to any part of this country, other than the Minister and his dependents.” Besides the immediate economic and military consequences, Fox saw that the recognition of independence could bolster trade between Britain and America, and that Britain “should probably secure a larger share of the commerce of the Americans. . . .”12 He also speculated that American independency would [not] so soon rise . . . to maritime pre-eminence. The Americans could have not inducement to hunt for territory abroad, when what they quietly possessed would be more than they could occupy and cultivate. They would find the advantages of conquest unequal to those of agriculture; and remembering that man had naturally a predilection for the enjoyment of landed property, they would find it impossible, in a country where land was to be had for nothing, to propagate a spirit of manufacture and commerce. Every American, more or less, would become the tiller and planter, and the country might, in some future and distant period, be the Arcadia, but it could never be the Britain of the world.13

As with other endeavors that Fox supported, this bill also died in the House of Commons, in this case with the proposal being ingloriously tabled. However it seems that Fox was moving from tweaking the government toward full support of American independence.
As the war continued, Fox continued his opposition to North’s conduct of the war. He supported opposition responses to government speeches and made some himself. He attacked members of the government even to the point of proposing the removal of the Earl of Sandwich as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1779.14 However, Fox’s political fortunes were changing as North’s power waned.

In May 1781 Fox responded to David Hartley’s15 bill to restore peace with America. As with his earlier undertakings, Fox’s comments concerning the bill appear to indicate a deep understanding of the dichotomy that existed about conflict between Britain and the United States.16 When Lord North finally resigned as prime minister in 1782, Fox became the foreign secretary in the Charles Watson-Wentworth, the Second Marquess of Rockingham’s administration. This government was short-lived, lasting only 14 weeks, but was notable for Rockingham’s acknowledgement of American independence.

Following Rockingham’s death on July 1, 1782, Fox left the government, refusing to serve in Shelburne’s administration. Eventually he formed a coalition with Lord North that came to power on April 2, 1783. Fox again became foreign secretary. During Fox’s second tenure as foreign secretary the Treaty of Paris was concluded and American independence recognized.

It appeared to outside observers that Fox was less than supportive of the absolute recognition of independence. Writing to David Hartley in September 1783,17 Benjamin Franklin urged him to counsel Fox about his “mistaken notions of the American people.” Franklin continued,
You have deceived yourselves too long with vain expectations of reaping advantage from our little discontents. We are more thoroughly an enlightened people, with respect to our political interests, than perhaps any other under heaven. Every man among us reads,
and is so easy in his circumstances as to have leisure for conversations of improvement, and for acquiring information. Our domestic misunderstandings, when we have them, are of small extent, though monstrously magnified by your microscopic newspapers.18

Such a rebuke could have had the effect of sabotaging the ratification of the treaty had it not been concluded, yet it would appear from Franklin’s underscoring the journey from the Declaration of Independence through the Treaty of Paris, that the United States are “free sovereign and independent States”19 was intended to quiet any residual thought of American dependency on Britain. Franklin’s opinion that Fox or other English politicians might still harbor the idea that the states might seek to reunite with the mother country or might be retaken, emphasizes that he was suspicious that Fox harbored some concept that might, if not eventually restore British sovereignty of the Americas, allow Britain to exercise significant control over the American economy.

Fox’s view of the American Revolution must be filtered through his political leanings. It is difficult to ascertain
whether as an opponent of North he was motivated by political animus or by his liberal leanings. Nonetheless, as member of Parliament, Fox was able to express opinions that were likely to be seen as anti-government, if not outright treasonous. But the mercantilist policies of the 18th century clearly colored his opinion about an independent America. Taking all of that into account, Fox might best be seen as a fair-weather supporter of American independence, or perhaps an incidental patriot.


  1. Speeches of Charles James Fox (“Speeches”), p. 1.
  2. Although it would re-emerge as a party under William Pitt the Younger, at this time the traditional Tory party had ceased to exist and the term was applied as “an unfriendly epithet for politicians closely identified with George III.” Wikipedia, “Tory.”
  3. Speeches, p. 1
  4. Ibid.
  5. These were the Boston Port Act (closing the port of Boston until the East India Company was repaid for its lost tea), the Massachusetts Government Act (making all governmental appointments of the king or governor and restricting town meetings to once a year), the Administration of Justice Act (giving the crown the power to move trials to different colonies or to Great Britain), the Quartering Act (granting broad power to house British troops), and the Quebec Act (extending the boundaries of Quebec into the Northwest Territories and granting the free practice of Catholicism).
  6. Speeches, p. 13
  7. Speeches, p. 13.
  8. The “Old Corps” were British foot regiments of the line that had royal badges predating the adoption of the two color
    system consisting of a King’s color and a regimental color in 1751. Archives of the Colors. His Majesty’s Foot.
  9. Speeches, pp. 13-21.
  10. Speeches, pp. 13-21.
  11. Speeches, p. 22
  12. Speeches, p. 22.
  13. Speeches, pp. 23-24.
  14. Speeches, pp. 32-38.
  15. A reform Member of Parliament who would become the United Kingdom’s representative to treaty negotiations.
  16. Speeches, pp. 84-93.
  17. The letter is dated September 6, 1783, three days after the signing of the Treaty of Paris.
  18. The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. 10, p. 1.
  19. Treaty of Paris, Article 1 in Public Statutes at Large.

Works Cited

  • The Speeches of Charles James Fox, 3rd edition. London: Aylott & Co., 1853. Print.
  • Archive of the Colors. His Majesty’s Foot. 2012. Web. April 15, 2013. Peters, Richard (ed.). The Public Statutes at Large, vol. 8: Treaties.
  • Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1867. Print.
  • Sparks, Jared (ed.). The Works of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 10. London: Benjamin Franklin Stevens, 1882. Print.
  • Tory (British political party). Wikipedia. 5 April 2013. Web. April 15, 2013.

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