Billeder på siden
PDF
ePub

LIVES OF EMINENT

AND

ILLUSTRIOUS ENGLISHMEN.

Charles James Fox.

BORN A. D. 1749.-DIED A. D. 1806.

CHARLES JAMES Fox, third son of the Right Honourable Henry Fox, created Baron Holland of Foxley in 1763, and of Lady Georgina Caroline Fox, daughter of Charles, second duke of Richmond, was born in 1749.

From his birth he was the darling of his father, and experienced an amount of indulgence which most parents would pronounce in the highest degree culpable. His education was, however, conducted. with the greatest care, and chiefly at Eton, where he highly distinguished himself. At the age of fourteen his father permitted him to accompany him to Spa, at that time a place of highly fashionable resort. This visit, and the imprudent indulgence of his father in allowing him, at this tender age, to mingle in all the gaieties and dissipation of the place, laid a permanent foundation for that love of gaming, and other habits, which obscured and embittered so much of a life which might have been spent in infinitely higher pursuits. The vivacities of the young Etonian were the theme of conversation long after he had left that seminary, and were indeed spoken of with more candour than is generally bestowed upon school-boy levities by sometimes suffering neighbourhoods, because, however eccentric, he never appears to have had the smallest particle of malice in his composition; but, on the contrary, when he had 'gone too far,' was always ready to own, and, if possible, to repair his error, with a veracity and generosity which at once denoted principle and good nature.

From Eton, young Fox went to Hertford college, Oxford, where also he distinguished himself at once by his talents and dissipation; and seemed as if born to show the instability of affluence, and the mischievous consequences of the most brilliant talents, when unguided by prudence and sobriety. An allowance almost unlimited was not equal to the claims that arose upon it from his early taste for every species of extravagance and dissipation. At a period when quires of bills from Stephen and Charles Fox were presented to their father, a punster in one of the newspapers, (Lloyd's Evening Post,) stated that the Right Honourable Henry Fox was about to sue the county of Middlesex, and that there was no doubt of his success, because he could easily prove that

he had been robbed betwixt sun and sun! With a genius able to compass what to many would have been the study of a month, in a few hours, and a spirit and constitution that distanced all his companions, he spent his college life in one fascinating round betwixt the calm of learning and the storms of licentious indulgence. It is easy to conceive that, when emancipated from college, his habits and propensities expanded with the expansion of his sphere of action and gratification. Though the same ardent desire of scientific acquisition operated, and many an instance in his public life showed how ready he was to avail himself of every opportunity to store his mind with elegant, accurate, and useful knowledge of every description, still, perhaps, it is to be lamented that the extreme brilliancy of his faculties, and the energy of his genius, enabled him to discriminate characters, to develope circumstances, and to appreciate things almost instantaneously and intuitively, as this mental facility only afforded him more time for dissipation. We have more pleasure in observing that while at college young Fox was extremely partial to the Greek writers, of whom Longinus and Homer were his favourites. His familiar acquaintance with the works of the latter is displayed in the following anecdote: "A clergyman, eminent for his knowledge of Greek, was endeavouring to prove that a verse in the Iliad was spurious, because it contained measures not used by Homer. Fox instantly recited twenty other verses of the same measure, to show that the deviation from the usual feet was no evidence of interpolation. He was, indeed, capable of conversing with a Longinus on the beauty, sublimity, and pathos of Homer; with an Aristotle on his delineations of man; and with a pedagogue on his dactyls, spondees, and anapaests."-After a short residence at Oxford, he made a tour on the continent, during which he is said to have contracted vast debts in every capital which he visited; at Naples alone his liabilities amounted to £16,000. Alarmed at his boundless prodigality, Lord Holland at length summoned him home, and he returned one of the most egregious coxcombs in Europe. "It will be scarcely supposed," says a writer in the Monthly Magazine' for October, 1806, "by those who have seen Mr Fox, or examined his dress at any time during the last twenty years, that he had been once celebrated as a beau garcon; but the fact is, that at this period he was one of the most fashionable young men about town, and there are multitudes now living who still recollect his chapeau bras, his red-heeled shoes, and his blue hair-powder."

·

At the general election in 1768, Charles Fox, notwithstanding his nonage, was returned for Midhurst in the county of Sussex. He entered parliament a decided ministerialist, and soon became one of the most strenuous defenders of an unpopular administration. He made his maiden-speech on the 15th April, 1769, on the presentment of Wilkes's petition from the king's bench; and he subsequently defended the legality of general warrants, and loudly declaimed against the proceedings of the Friends of the People.' We shall here introduce a sketch of the young member from the Public Characters' originally inserted in the Advertiser paper, and afterwards collectively published in 1777. It has the advantage of being a fresh and contemporary sketch, however imperfectly executed in many respects: "Having had the curiosity to inspect this young gentleman's parish-register, we find he was born in the month of March, 1749; and, consequently, that he

united in his own person talents and circumstances unparalleled in the annals of parliament, or the strange vicissitudes of state-intrigue: for he was appointed a lord of the admiralty, resigned in disgust,-was a second time appointed,-was afterwards removed to the treasury board, -whence he was dismissed some few weeks before he completed the twenty-fifth year of his age,—namely, on the 17th or 18th of February, 1774. Two other circumstances strongly mark his political career; before he was twenty-four years old, he was by much the most able support the minister had in the course of a whole session, and within a year after, one of his most powerful and dangerous antagonists.

"The political history of this extraordinary young orator furnishes very few things worthy of notice. His conduct, as long as he remained in office, was that of the most violent and unreserved courtier. He not only discharged his duty as a mere placeman, called upon by his situa tion to defend the measures of administration, to cover their blunders, to urge their propriety, to predict the salutary consequences that must flow from them, and the whole science of augmenting and diminishing at pleasure, but he caught the decisive tone of a violent partisan, in a kind of state of war and open hostility against every man who dared to differ from him, or question the ministerial infallibility of his leader and financial creator.1

66

His parliamentary operations, in this line, were chiefly directed against Mr Burke, and a few other leaders in opposition. This part of his task he performed with remarkable punctuality and alacrity, and with no small degree of success. Some detached part of Mr Burke's speech, not perhaps at all essential to the main subject of debate, was misquoted or misrepresented; the fallacy or absurdity of its pretended contents was pointed out and animadverted upon; and the whole thrown into a ridiculous light; a laugh was created in every ministerial corner of the house; the treasury bench was set in a roar, and Charles smacked the clerk's table with his hand, and moulded his feathered hat into ten thousand different forms, Burke's fine speeches were thus cut up; Charles was applauded; and every tool of administration, from his lordship down to Robinson, Eden, and Brummel at the door,' or in the gallery, loudly proclaimed victory. This office is now occupied by his particular friend and worthy associate.2 There were two other gentlemen on whom he bestowed a great deal of attention in the same way. They at length perceived their folly, and the justice of his ridicule so much, that one of them changed places with him, and the other1 accepted of a white wand, as a public testimony of his conversion.

3

"In the midst of victory, flushed with success, and running at the rate of fourteen knots an hour, with every sail set, and in the warmest expectation of at least procuring at a short day the chancellorship of the exchequer, his friend and patron having frequently assured him, in confidence, that he wished to divide the fame, profits, and labour of conducting public affairs with him, our hero, like a certain wellknown ambitious young man of Ovidian memory, was thrown from the box, as he says, by the baseness and treachery of the first coachman.

'He was appointed a commissioner of the treasury, through the interest of Lord North, in the room of Charles Jenkinson. 3 Mr Cornewall.

"Mr Thurlow, attorney-general.

Sir William Meredith.

To drop all allegory, terrene or marine, the following trifling matter was what produced the sad catastrophe! The speaker, a few days before, having put the question on a petition against an inclosing bill, a letter, said to have been written by the celebrated Parson Horne, appeared three or four days after in a morning-paper. The letter was conceived in very coarse terms, and betrayed an ignorance of both the usages of the house, of the truth of the transaction, and indeed of every rule of decency. A complaint was accordingly made by a member, of the unjustifiable liberties that had been taken with Sir Fletcher Norton, of the injustice of the charge, and the necessity there was for bringing the author or authors to the most exemplary punishment. The printer was ordered to attend: he complied with the order, and gave up his author, the parson. What happened on that occasion is recent in every body's memory; it is now enough to observe, that the charge not being brought home to Mr Horne, the displeasure of the house fell on the printer. Mr Fox either misunderstanding the previous instructions given him that morning by the minister, or the minister forgetting them, or choosing to forget them, the former insisted that the printer should be committed to Newgate, while the latter moved that he should be committed to the Gatehouse. At length the question on Colonel Herbert's original motion being put, for committing the printer to the custody of the serjeant-at-arms,' it was carried by a great majority.

6

"This unexpected desertion of the minister and his faithful coadjutor, bore, it is true, a very awkward appearance. Charles and his patron

recriminated on each other; Charles said he would have carried his concerted motion, if the minister had not deserted and betrayed him; the latter as strenuously insisted that he must have prevailed, if the other had not distracted and divided the friends of administration. Be that as it may, it was necessary that the blame should be laid somewhere, in order to mitigate the displeasure of the junto; it was all therefore laid on our hero's shoulders, in the following concise but comprehensive manner. The next day but one, Charles and his noble patron were sitting on the treasury bench; after chatting of indifferent matters, particularly of the business of the day coming on, and what passed the preceding day at the treasury board, which intervened between the night the difference of opinion arose and the transaction here related, Pearson," or his substitute, threw a sign, which Charles understanding, went to the door, where he received a billet, couched in the following laconic terms: His majesty has thought proper to order a new commission of the treasury to be made out, in which I do not perceive your name.

'NORTH.'

"From that very hour to the present he has been as violent in opposition as he was before for the court. Luckily however for him, in point of consistency, during the busy scene he acted in, and the very conspicuous part he took, the affairs of America never came under formal or solemn discussion. In about a fortnight or three weeks after he commenced patriot, Colonel Jennings, as has been before observed, as it were compelled the minister to take the state of that country into

5 The door-keeper of the house of commons.

consideration; the first decided part Charles took therefore in that business was against administration. The ground he has taken is pretty nearly the same as Lord Camden's in the other house; with this additional circumstance, that besides arraigning the injustice, cruelty, impolicy, and impracticability of succeeding in an attempt to subdue America, or compel its inhabitants to consent to the terms of unconditional submission, he has from time to time alternately foretold and demonstrated the inefficacy, folly, and madness of the several measures as they were proposed in parliament, and the ignorance, temerity, and dangerous designs of their authors, supporters, and defenders. Besides this general disapprobation of the conduct of those to whom the direction of public affairs has been intrusted, he has very frequently exercised his wit and his spleen on the minister; sometimes charging him with indolence and inability; at others with incapacity, duplicity, and the most ill-founded affectation of candour and independency; again with being the real author of the present civil war in America, by refusing to repeal the whole of the Port-duties; or, lastly, supposing (which was what he said his lordship sometimes affects to insinuate, and wishes his friends to insinuate for him) that he disapproves of the measures he supports himself in parliament, his conduct is still the more reprehensible, because in one event he can be supposed to act wrong through prejudice or incapacity only, whereas in the other he must be guilty from a premeditated perversion of his understanding.

"Mr Fox is certainly one of the first native orators in the house, but he is extremely negligent. His discourses are frequently finished pieces of argumentation, abounding in the best pointed observations, and the justest conclusions; and supported by a weight of reasoning, a manly boldness and energy of expression, almost unequalled, and never, within the course of our knowledge or experience, surpassed. His extemporary speeches on facts, arguments, and details, not immediately arising nor connected with the proper subject of debate, at least not foreseen, are truly admirable. They bear every appearance of the most studied and laboured harangues, in every thing but the delivery, which, however rapid, is not able to keep pace with the crowded conceptions of the speaker. His ideas are inexhaustible, and are ever ready at his command; but even if this were all, we could account for it easily; but we must listen in silent astonishment, when we observe him rise upon some sudden unexpected incident, and discuss perhaps a deep intricate subject for an hour, with an ability, perspicuity, and precision, that would induce such as are unacquainted with his habits, or are ignorant of his talents, to be persuaded that he came to the house previously prepared and informed, in order to deliver his opinion. With these almost unrivalled gifts which nature has bestowed, Mr Fox is far from being a pleasing or persuasive orator. His utterance is rapid, disagreeable, and sometimes scarcely intelligible. He speaks always as if he was in a passion, and the arguments of passionate people do not come well-recommended. He sometimes descends to personal at tacks, to anecdotes and puerilities, much beneath the dignity of a British senator, particularly a man of his consummate talents. Another circumstance which takes away from the weight and consequence of what he urges in debate, is, that his patriotism is presumed to have originated in pique, and to have taken a taint of personal rancour and

« ForrigeFortsæt »