FOX, Henry (1705-74), of Holland House, Kensington.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Constituency

Dates

28 Feb. 1735 - 1741
1741 - 1761
1761 - 17 Apr. 1763

Family and Education

b. 28 Sept. 1705, 2nd surv. s. of Sir Stephen Fox of Farley, Wilts. by his 2nd w. Christian, da. and coh. of Rev. Francis Copes, rector of Haceby and Aswarby, Lincs. educ. Eton 1713; Ch. Ch. Oxf. 1720. m.1 2 May 1744, Lady Georgiana Caroline Lennox (cr. Baroness Holland of Holland 3 May 1762), da. of Charles, 2nd Duke of Richmond, 4s. (1 d. in infancy). cr. Baron Holland of Foxley 17 Apr. 1763.

Offices Held

Surveyor gen. of works 1737-43; ld. of Treasury 1743-6; P.C. 23 July 1746; sec. at war 1746-Oct. 1755; Cabinet councillor Dec. 1754; sec. of state, southern dept. Oct. 1755-Oct. 1756; granted Apr. 1757 reversion to sinecure post of clerk of the pells [I] for his life and those of his two elder sons (suc. to it July 1762); paymaster gen. June 1757-May 1765; ‘Cabinet councillor and H.M.’s minister in the House of Commons’, Oct. 1762-Apr. 1763.

Biography

Henry Fox sat 28 years in the House of Commons; seemed as parliamentary manager in direct line of succession to Walpole and to Henry Pelham; was several times within reach of the premiership, actual or virtual, but then had not the spirit to undertake it. First given office in 1737, never (barring October 1756-June 1757) was he without it; and never in declared opposition to any Government; but in all these years he held front-rank office during 18 months only: as secretary of state, 1755-6, and as leader of the House of Commons, October 1762-April 1763—a meagre record for a man of Fox’s political eminence and connexions. And never was he his own master: in middle age he acted under the Duke of Cumberland; and he finished as parliamentary manager for Bute. ‘Mr. Fox’, writes Shelburne, ‘was not formed to be a man sui juris, else he would have been so.’2

Yet he was neither pliable nor submissive but independent and with a ‘warmth and impetuosity of temper’ which sometimes led him into capital mistakes.3 He was an organizer and manager and not a leader; not an orator but a debater. ‘A great hesitation in his elocution, and a barrenness of expression’ he conquered by ‘a vehemence of reasoning and closeness of argument that beat all the orators of the time’; he ‘always spoke to the question ... to carry the question’.4 ‘Quick and concise replication’ was ‘his peculiar excellence’.5 He had ‘an extraordinary degree of shrewdness and sagacity’; ‘a great spirit of order, arrangement, and economy in regulating everything that came before him’; was ‘infinitely able in business, clear, penetrating, confident and decisive in all his dealings with mankind, and of most extraordinary activity’.6

He was benevolently cynical: ‘every set of men are honest’, he argued; ‘it’s only necessary to define their sense of it to know where to look for it.’ And on 29 Dec. 1761 he wrote to Shelburne:7

A man who follows his own interest, if he makes no undue sacrifices either private or public to the worship of it, is not dishonest or even dirty ... . Whoever goes on with what I have left off (ambition) must wish for such supporters, and it would be an additional curse on that cursed trade, to have a constant bad opinion of one’s most useful friends and most assiduous attendants.

Probably more than any other statesman even of his period, Fox thought of power and employment primarily in terms of patronage and profits; when assuming or leaving office he would produce lists of preferments for friends, attaching cardinal importance to trivial matters. Shelburne calls his ambition narrow, interested, and mean; ‘never daring to look high’, he was ‘timid, with a certain dread of the public’. His attention was to individuals; he was ‘extremely honest in all his dealings’ with them; tried to ‘secure them each by particular services of consequence’; and was ‘apprehensive of such ... as were unsecured by bribes and promises, which being far the greatest part, his very conduct made him afraid of the public, if he was not naturally so, which ... there is the greatest reason to believe’. Horace Walpole describes Fox as ‘dark and troubled—yet ... an agreeable man’;8 and in Hogarth’s expressive portrait, in spite of a certain massive grandeur, he appears anxious, almost hagridden.

Waldegrave wrote about him c.1757:9

Few men have been more unpopular; yet when I asked his bitterest enemies what crimes they could allege against him, they always confined themselves to general accusation; that he was avaricious, encouraged jobs, had profligate friends and dangerous connexions; but never could produce a particular fact of any weight or consequence.

Among the great, Fox had many friends, including men of the highest character: the Duke of Devonshire, writing to him on 14 Oct. 1762,10 speaks of ‘the long friendship I have had for you, as well as the strongest love and regard’. But Fox picked Rigby, a political buccaneer, and Welbore Ellis, a professional placeman, for his closest associates, and for dependants men like John Calcraft, Peter Taylor, or Samuel Touchet, with whom politics, administration, and finance merged into shameless money making. Lady Caroline, with a sense of human values, was not partial to these friends—

They don’t improve upon acquaintance [she wrote to Lady Kildare11] ... I don’t like any of them in private life ... Mr. Fox with all his good sense does not know people’s characters at all, and ... admires people too much for being good company and clever.

Still, there was another side to Fox’s dealings with individuals: he was humane and helpful to those in need of him, to the obvious under-dog. He was capable of friendship and attachment, and sought friendship (and perhaps protection). But frustration would bring out a bitter vindictive strain in his character; and frustration is writ large over Fox’s career after 1754, years during which his power drive soon turned into despondency and self-effacement, and his ambition became fixed on the level of jobs and honours, for himself, his family and friends. The determining factor in this political fade-out was Pitt, a man of unbounded courage and in most things the opposite of Fox who feared and hated him, talked of him as a madman, but in reality was ‘conscious of his own inferiority’.12

Pitt, solitary and aloof, had more of a real following in the House than Fox who assiduously tried to gain supporters but never could raise a standard to which men would rally. A very rough survey of Members whom Fox was supposed to influence can be obtained from Dupplin’s parliamentary lists compiled after the general election of 1754, from Newcastle’s lists of October 1761 specifying through whom to send circular letters inviting attendance at the opening of the session, and from Bute’s parliamentary list of December 1761.13

While the Duke of Cumberland was captain-general, i.e. before October 1757, nine or ten army Members, closely connected with him, were directed by Fox, to whom the distribution of military preferment gave also a wider, numerically indefinable, influence in a House including another forty-odd army officers. But the prejudice caused by these ‘dangerous connexions’ perhaps outweighed the benefit Fox derived from them: he was described as ‘a proper minister to overturn the constitution, and introduce a military government’;14 and even Mansfield, though friendly to him, warned George II in June 1757 of a general apprehension that the intended Administration under Fox ‘was founded in violence and would be supported by violence’.15

Barring this professional group the Members assigned to Fox were in each list a variegated collection. He had no fixed borough interest of his own, only the temporary management of two boroughs (Malmesbury and Stockbridge); occasionally the nomination to seats controlled by friends (e.g. Dunwich); and he helped to manage some elections in which he was not personally concerned—Members thus in various degrees beholden to him for their seats appear in these lists. Besides, there are personal friends such as Horace Walpole, George Selwyn, Welbore Ellis, Sir John Wynn, etc.; Fox’s nephew Lord Digby, and Tudway, Digby’s colleague at Wells; Fox’s brothers-in-law, Thomas Conolly and Charles Bunbury; Members returned by Selwyn for Ludgershall and by the Duke of Marlborough for Woodstock; William Edwardes, Fox’s landlord at Holland House; etc. But no political principle or cohesion can be discerned in any of these different groupings: each is tentative, a jumble. There was no such thing as Fox’s own party; and his following, built up on personal friendship or personal advantage or a combination of the two, was potential more than actual: with the extensive connexions he had among the leading peers, and his known skill as political manager, it could have been quickly and powerfully enlarged had he obtained control of court and Treasury patronage.

When Pelham died on 6 Mar. 1754, among commoners Fox seemed his most likely successor; and, with more eagerness than subtlety, within a few hours was calling on possible rivals and supporters, and sending ‘very humiliating and apologizing messages’ to Lord Hardwicke, whom he had recently offended.16 But instead of the Treasury he was offered a secretaryship of state, though he had never taken interest in foreign affairs. ‘Now what do you think of this new secretary of state?’ wrote Fox to Lord Digby17 on 12 Mar. ‘Why that he is got into the place in England that he is most unfit for. So he thinks I can assure you.’ He accepted on the assumption that placed ‘at the head of the House of Commons’ he would have its management (and that of the imminent general election). When he found that Newcastle meant to retain all effective power, he begged to be continued at the War Office; and (except at Malmesbury, under a previous arrangement) had no share in managing the Government interest at the general election. He himself was returned unopposed for Windsor, where he had Cumberland’s support.

Fox, keeping at this juncture in close touch with Pitt (similarly excluded from power), hovered on the brink of opposition, yet was averse to plunging into it; and acting under Cumberland, attended to the business of his office, without giving general support to the Government in a House which had no real leader. After some perfunctory pourparlers in the summer of 1754, negotiations with him were resumed towards the end of the year—he was desired to act with Government on all occasions, and not relative to the army only. What he himself apparently wished for was to have his post at the War Office turned into a third secretaryship of state (an unprecedented arrangement) which would have left him the military patronage, and, without burdening him with the conduct of foreign affairs, made him leader of the House. But finally all he asked was to be enabled ‘to speak like one well informed and honoured with your Majesty’s favour’, i.e. to be admitted to the Effective Cabinet; which was conceded with the limitation that it should not ‘derogate from the priority’ of the secretary of state in the Commons: a half-hearted compromise productive of further intrigues and negotiations.18 All connexion between Pitt and Fox was now broken off: Pitt, adhering to Leicester House, passed into sharp opposition, while at the end of September Fox was appointed secretary of state in charge of the House of Commons; and Newcastle was relieved when Fox stipulated for preferment for five Members only (William Sloper, Sir John Wynn, George Selwyn, W. G. Hamilton, and Welbore Ellis).

As soon as Fox was in the saddle, he gained the adherence of the Bedfords to Government; and during the first session things went surprisingly well. But in 1756 foreign affairs and ‘difficulties at home occasioned by the war’ gained paramount importance. ‘As to the first’, wrote Newcastle on 30 May, ‘he [Fox] is totally ignorant, and Pitt must be his master.’19 And Fox to Devonshire, 31 July, after the loss of Minorca:

The rage of people and of considerable people ... increases hourly ... when the Parliament meets the scene of action will be the House of Commons and I being the only figure of a minister there, shall of course draw all the odium on me.

By 4 Aug. he was willing to give way to Pitt ‘and yet join with him’—‘I think my situation like that of the public, bad but incapable of being mended.’ And on 12 Aug.:

I do not ... think my offer with regard to Pitt in the least generous. For this Administration has, I think, lost the good will and good opinion of their country ... and without them who can wish to be in Administration?

Two months later, when Digby was omitted from the Prince of Wales’s ‘family’, and eight Members were placed in it without Fox’s previous knowledge, he resigned, complaining of having ‘his full share of odium of every measure or misfortune’, ‘more trouble in Parliament than any other man’, and no share ‘in the distribution of favours there’. But he was ready to serve ‘in any other employment, not of the Cabinet or Court’. In a ‘plan of ministry’ he sent to Devonshire on 1 Nov., he named Pitt for secretary of state, and himself for paymaster general—‘I would do anything to join Pitt’, he wrote, 28 Oct.; but on the 30th: ‘Pitt ... refuses to act with me a minister.’20 The King had wanted Fox to form a Government: which Fox did not dare to attempt. And when omitted from the Pitt-Devonshire Government he pressed Devonshire for a peerage for Lady Caroline.21 Pay office and peerage now became the two objects of his ambition.

The King had reluctantly accepted Pitt and Temple for ministers; and soon, to get rid of them, was ready to ‘throw all in’ to Fox.22 But in Fox’s schemes of Government it was again the pay office which he by preference claimed for himself, regarding the Treasury as ‘a most disagreeable and perhaps untenable post’. Nor did he want any other office in which he would be ‘supposed, as formerly, to have a share in measures and power’.23 When Temple and Pitt were dismissed (5 and 6 Apr.), Fox received the King’s promise of the pay office, and conducted several tangled negotiations for a new Government. But Pitt would not have him for colleague, nor Newcastle undertake office without Pitt. Early in June a scheme of Government was discussed with Waldegrave for figurehead, and Fox for minister. But after a meeting at Devonshire House on 12 June, attended by Granville, Gower, Bedford, Winchilsea, Waldegrave, Fox, and Devonshire, Bedford whispered to Waldegrave, ‘that it would be to no purpose to give ourselves further trouble: for we could not possibly go on without a principal actor in the House of Commons, and that Fox had not spirit to undertake it’.24 In the Newcastle-Pitt Government Fox, through the King’s intervention, obtained the pay office, ‘the situation of all others I like best’.25 He was to hold it for the next eight years, but even after that was able, for technical reasons, to retain in his hands vast sums of public money (about £500,000 between 1768 and 1774) which he employed to his own advantage; and while the official income of the paymaster was about £3,000 p.a., Fox’s unofficial profits during the seventeen years 1757-74, as calculated from his ledgers, amounted to about £400,000, half of which he laid out in landed property.26

Between June 1757 and the end of the Parliament Fox seldom attended the House, and no speeches by him are recorded; and he himself in his ‘Memoir’27 speaks in 1762 of his ‘five years silence in Parliament’. In the new reign Lady Caroline wrote to Lady Kildare, 30 Oct. 1760, that to remain in the pay office ‘is all his ambition as well as mine’.28 But he still craved for the peerage for her, ‘an honour I had long and indeed beyond measure been ambitious to obtain for my family’.29 He tried through Cumberland; and next placed himself through Lord Fitzmaurice at the service of the new court, especially in regard to the general election. And when Lady Caroline was omitted from the new creations, ‘I am ashamed’, wrote Fox to Fitzmaurice on 20 Feb. 1761, ‘of ... the little resolution with which I bear this disappointment’.30 His exasperation rose still more when on Pitt’s resignation Lady Hester was created Baroness Chatham (and George Grenville made leader of the House of Commons—‘put over my head, sans dire gare’); but he was pacified by assurances ‘of obtaining the favour before the end of the next session’, and agreed to support Grenville, to forward Bute’s wishes, and ‘enter no sort of engagement with any one else’.31 He was once more politically active though even now he rarely spoke in the House; and

I tell you once for all [wrote Lady Caroline to Lady Kildare, 27 Jan. 1762] ... Mr. Fox is to have no employment but paymaster. Mr. Fox wants nothing but the peerage. Mr. Fox will not be desired to be minister or have any responsible place, and Mr. Fox would not be it if he was desired.32

On 6 May Lady Caroline was created Lady Holland.

Even after Newcastle had been removed from office in May 1762, active employment was not offered to Fox; but when in September Bute ran into difficulties with Grenville over the peace terms and the management of the Commons, Fox was called out from his country retreat, and on 7 Oct. was pressed by the King to accept Grenville’s place as secretary of state and leader of the House—‘He believed I was ... the only proper person to take upon me his support in the House of Commons.’33 Fox replied that his declining health would not admit of ‘taking the seals and acting a busy part in the House of Commons’; and that his being minister would ‘greatly add to the unpopularity of which Lord Bute had full enough already’, and might put off ‘many, particularly of the Tories’, otherwise willing to support Bute. But the King persisted, though indulging Fox in his objection to the seals. ‘Short of being secretary of state I am, for the necessary time, at his Majesty’s service’, wrote Fox to Shelburne,34 and in a tentative and round-about way suggested himself for the Treasury—an idea which Bute did not relish.35 On 13 Oct. Fox was appointed ‘Cabinet councillor and his Majesty’s minister in the House of Commons’.36

Why did he accept? Asked by his brother whom this would benefit, he replied, 9 Oct.:37 ‘To the King and the public it would be useful and should be meritorious. To my nearest friends (I want nothing for myself) it would certainly be useful too.’ The personal disclaimer is hardly convincing—he did expect reward for ‘meritorious’ service but named no precise terms. Moreover, after six years of effacement here was revenge on its authors: he would be instrumental in excluding Pitt from power and Newcastle from patronage, and at last have the management of the House with the resources of the Crown at his disposal. He now addressed himself to individual Members and omitted no chance of gaining a supporter or eliminating a possible opponent. Of his most extraordinary activity there is plentiful evidence in his extant correspondence, especially with Bute and Shelburne. But being ‘apprehensive of such as were unsecured by bribes and promises’, Fox went further than was required. Hardwicke, in a letter to Newcastle, 27 Nov., having referred to ‘the motives, which prevail in general’,38 added:

Yet we ought not to deceive ourselves. We ought not to ascribe the whole to such causes; for I am persuaded ... that the burden and tedium of the war and the desire of peace, are so strong in the generality of the Parliament, and of the nation (abstracted from the interested or wild part of the City of London), that the very name of peace is agreeable to them, and they would have been content with terms rather lower than all we have yet been told of these preliminaries.

Lord Strange, one of the most upright and independent Members, wrote to Fox on 1 Nov. that a good peace was the most desirable thing for the nation, and it should not be too good, for ‘none that is not reasonable can be durable’; and the list drawn up by Fox c.3 Dec. of Members favourable to the peace preliminaries, though incomplete, contains the names of a great many independent and utterly incorruptible Members.39 Yet Fox’s reputation and his feverish exertions produced an impression fixed in Walpole’s oft-quoted (and misquoted) account of how ‘in a single fortnight a vast majority was purchased to approve the peace’.40

On 27 Nov. Fox wrote to a friend:41

My success has fully answered my activity. And the Duke of Newcastle will appear, as I ever thought he would, nothing without a court; provided my advice is taken, to pursue the victory, without delay; and without ... lenity.

And to Bute, 30 Nov.:

Upon my word, my Lord, I have been asked by several today whether the Duke of Newcastle has any chance of coming to court again. Strip him of his three lieutenancies immediately, I’ll answer for the good effect of it, and then go on to the general rout. But let this beginning be made immediately.

And after the signal victories of 9 and 10 Dec.:42 none of the numerous dependants of their conquered enemies should be left in lower employments; if no leniency is shown they will for safety flock to Bute in their thousands; which is the only way to make the rest of the King’s reign easy. ‘I ... am willing to take upon myself all the odium of the advice ... And I don’t care how much I am hated’ for doing ‘such honest and essential service to the King’. But the King himself warned Bute43 of ‘the many harsh things’ Fox will try to drive him into—‘no man should be dismissed’ on Fox’s evidence alone.

Victory earned Fox no friends and brought him no joy: it left him bitter and irritable. ‘He has been ... nervous lately and slept ... ill’, wrote Lady Holland to Lady Kildare on 5 Jan.44 In the House he experienced humiliations. He received scant support from his own side when on 11 Feb. 1763 Sir John Philipps moved for a commission of accounts, of which Fox ‘was most unaccountably afraid ... insomuch that he could not conceal it from anybody’;45 and a further debate on 4 Mar. made him remark in a rage to George Onslow, ‘though an enemy, “Did you ever see a man so treated in my situation?”’46 Similarly, on 23 Mar., over a petition from Newfoundland presented by him, which was a copy and was described as a forgery, he was treated with such disrespect that he withdrew the petition and left the House, although the cider bill, ‘so much a measure of Government’, was next debated.47

Bute, about to retire, early in March recommended Fox for his successor at the Treasury. The King objected: Fox was ‘a man void of principles’—‘it is not prejudice but aversion to his whole mode of government’. As a half-measure he was consulted about the new Government without being asked to form it. His paper of 11 Mar.48 seems to suggest that he was once more playing with the idea of the Treasury for himself. When pressed by Bute, the King agreed to appointing Fox if no other solution was possible,49

but I own from the moment he comes in I shall not feel myself interested in the public affairs and shall feel rejoiced whenever I can see a glimmering hope of getting quit of him.

The offer was made to him on 14 or 15 Mar.: the supreme prize of political life was within his easy reach. ‘Mr Fox’, wrote Calcraft, ‘is plainly ... much inclined to the Treasury, but Lady Holland ... much against it.’50 He refused—was it not because she voiced his own deepest fears and feelings?

On 17 Mar. he sent Bute a second plan of Government, naming George Grenville, no friend of his own, for the Treasury.51 But this raised new fears in his mind: that he might have to settle his pay office accounts with a perhaps unfriendly Treasury; which made Nicoll, a pay office official, suggest, and Fox consider, his taking the Treasury after all.52 And now his closest friends, Calcraft, Rigby, and Shelburne insisted that on becoming a peer he was expected to relinquish the pay office. The conflict over it finished by producing a complete breach between them and Fox,53 and some friction even between Fox and Bute. In the end Fox retained the pay office, and on 17 Apr. was created Baron Holland—but he had expected a viscountcy and had hoped for an earldom. His going into the House of Lords, wrote Lady Holland on 12 Apr.,54 was against her opinion. ‘I can't help feeling mortified at his ceasing to be of consequence, though I would neither have him in power nor in opposition. ... However, if he is happy I shall soon get over that.’

But happy he was not. ‘I have lost too many friendships, which I had spent my life in deserving’, he wrote to Selwyn, 2 Dec. 1766.55 And the earldom, already the hallmark of leading ministers in retirement, eluded him and became well-nigh an obsession. He courted anyone who he thought could help; continued to cultivate Bute; through his old friend Sandwich kept in with the Grenville Administration (by whom, however, he was deprived of the pay office in May 1765 on suspicion of having been concerned in the recent attempt to displace them); in October 1765 tried an approach to the Duke of Cumberland and Rockingham;56 and next turned to Grafton. But to no avail. ‘I am humbled, and shall endeavour to conform to my fate’, he wrote to Selwyn on 23 Dec. 1767; and on 27 Jan. 1768, referring to the various new creations and his own ‘absolute insignificance’: ‘I cannot help sometimes asking about myself ... why I am in such disgrace with the King? Have I deserved it?’57

His last years were embittered by the extravagance and callousness of his two elder sons. He died 1 July 1774.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: Sir Lewis Namier

Notes

  • 1. For the story of his reputed first marriage see Ilchester, Hen. Fox, i. 35-37.
  • 2. Fitzmaurice, Shelburne, i. 135; Dodington, Diary, 374-5.
  • 3. Waldegrave, Mems. 24.
  • 4. Walpole, Mems. Gen. II, i. 94; ii. 148-9.
  • 5. Waldegrave, 25.
  • 6. Fitzmaurice, i. 130-2.
  • 7. Ibid. 101.
  • 8. Mems. Geo. II, 148.
  • 9. Mems. 24.
  • 10. Ilchester, Letters to Hen. Fox, 162.
  • 11. 15 June 1759; Leinster Corresp. i. 227-8.
  • 12. Fitzmaurice, i. 133; Lady Ilchester and Lord Stavordale, Life Letters of Lady Sarah Lennox, 57-59.
  • 13. Add. 33034, ff. 173-4; 32995, f. 170; 32929, ff. 303-11; 38333, ff. 74-106.
  • 14. Waldegrave, 22.
  • 15. Add. 32871, ff. 298-9.
  • 16. Yorke, Hardwicke, ii. 205-8.
  • 17. HMC 8th Rep. pt. 1, p. 220.
  • 18. Ilchester, Hen. Fox, i. 212-31, 234, 236-7, 364-5.
  • 19. Add. 32865, f. 205.
  • 20. Devonshire mss; Ilchester, Hen Fox, ii. 3, 5.
  • 21. 11 Nov., Devonshire mss; Ilchester, ii. 15.
  • 22. Hardwicke to Newcastle, 7 Jan. 1757, Add. 32870, f. 58.
  • 23. Ilchester, Hen. Fox. ii. 38, 45.
  • 24. Waldegrave, 128; Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, iii. 29; Leinster Corresp. i. 47.
  • 25. Ilchester, Hen. Fox, ii. 61-62.
  • 26. L.S. Sutherland and J. Binney, ‘Henry Fox as Paymaster General of the Forces’, EHR, 1955.
  • 27. Lady Sarah Lennox, 71.
  • 28. Leinster Corresp. i. 300.
  • 29. Lady Sarah Lennox, i. 24.
  • 30. Fitzmaurice, i. 86.
  • 31. Fitzmaurice, i. 89-96; Ilchester, Hen. Fox, ii. 147-52; Add. 32929, ff. 255, 258.
  • 32. Leinster Corresp. i. 310, 315.
  • 33. Ilchester, Hen. Fox, ii. 190.
  • 34. Hen. Fox mss; Fitzmaurice, i. 120-1.
  • 35. Namier, England in Age of American Rev. 352-3.
  • 36. Fox to B