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Horace Walpole's world, a sketch of Whig society under George III online

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rivals!" and a lady friend laments the evidently
great talents of Pitt, because, as he has an un-
blemished character, it is to be feared Fox will find
him, young as he is, a dangerous rival. Pitt was
ten years younger than Fox, who ceases now in
the eyes of his contemporaries to be the miraculous
youth, while the word character comes into fre-
quent use.

What was the character which Pitt is at once
acknowledged to have, and Fox to lack ? On the
first glance it appears to be a character for common
(but then, at least, very uncommon) sobriety, pro-
bity, chastity, and gravity. Pitt had, besides, credit
for application and industry. A further difference
between the rivals was instantly surmised, and in a
couple of years became with the nation a convic-
tion never thenceforth to be shaken. Pitt was a
man of duty and business, he devoted his energies
to the business of carrying out his duty. Fox was
a politician who endeavoured to seize office by any
means, and to whom political business was but one
interest among many. He "seemed to leave pleas-
ure with regret, and to bestow only spare moments
on the government of a nation," wrote Walpole.
" I do not believe that he had one black or loose
object it is pity that he was as inattentive to
having a good one. He acted as the moment im-
pelled him; but as his conception was just, and his


soul void of malice or treachery, he meditated no ill,
but might have advantaged himself and his country
more had he acted with any foresight or any plan." l

The melancholy little elegy would have grati-
fied Walpole's shrewd old friend, Madame du
Deffand, who years before had drawn for him the
true character of Charles Fox as she beheld it, in
acid terms which George III would certainly have
subscribed. Fox had visited Paris in 1771 with his
inseparable Fitzpatrick and * Bob ' Spencer, and
again in 1774 and 1776, and Madame du Deffand
had tried to be pleasant to her beloved Horace
Walpole's friend. But she laid her finger at once
on his weakness. He saw everything at a glance,
she said, but he got only a bird's-eye view, for he
took no time to examine. She decided that she
would entrust no messages to the young men, far
less parcels, " ils seraient tous capables de les
perdre." On a further acquaintance she became
more serious, and proceeded to warn Walpole that
it was a misfortune to have a fellow countryman
of Fox's character.

" II abeaucoup d'esprit, j'en conviens, maisc'est
un genre d'esprit denue* de toute espece de bon
sens : il n'a pas un mauvais cceur, mais il n'a aucune
espece de principes, et il regarde en pitie tous ceux
qui en ont." She notes that one could not reckon
on his accuracy.

Madame du Deffand could assuredly hardly be
termed strait-laced, yet it is remarkable how severe
her comments upon Fox and Fitzpatrick become.
1 " Last Journals," ii, July 1782.


At first she was simply annoyed by their silliness,
as she held their pose of total indifference as to
the future, shrewdly observing that they cultivated
this contempt of ruin because they fancied it placed
them on a loftier plane than other people. Three
years later, however, she loses her temper over
them: " Charles Fox est un fol, sans mceurs, sans
morale, et maintenant sans un sol, je ne le plains pas
parcequ'il se glorifie de ses vices et de ses folies."
The most unkindest cut is her announcement that
the brilliant youth bores her. She distrusts all the
Fox family, she says, the wealth of the parents and
the dissoluteness of the sons makes them all unin-
teresting; they verify the proverb, "que ce que
vient de la flute s'en retourne par le tambour,"
though nothing can excuse the bad hearts of the
younger generation.

On Fox's third Parisian visit the old lady shook
her head : he always seemed to be in a species of
intoxication, she said, which did not make for
attractiveness: " Qu'est ce que 1'esprit sansjuge-
ment et sans un grain de bon sens? " She could
not feel interested in such utterly wrong-headed
men. This time she decides to entrust her letter to
them; however, Walpole must be sure to tell
Charles Fox "que j'ai e"crit beaucoup de bien de
lui " : she breaks off to wonder what would be the
effect if Fox looked into the letter, but no! she
cannot think him capable of such treachery. He
was not, but he was still capable of forgetting it.
He promised to fetch the letter, and he promised
to spend a last evening at the Neckars, whither


the aged lady betook herself to say good-bye but
he did neither, and did not even send an excuse.

Madame du Deffand saw how the gambling curse
was tainting Fox's nature. It was not only the
extravagance of his conduct that she blamed, only
beginning to count at a thousand louis, four or
five hundred louis are a trifle not worth mention-
ing : ' ' je ne saurais estimer les fous de cette espece ;
il me parait impossible qu'ils puissent etre parfaite-
ment honnetes gens." Worse than their mad ex-
travagance was their callousness : the prospect of
being totally unable ever to pay the debts they
contracted so carelessly weighed not a jot with
them ; such an attitude appeared to the aristocratic
French lady " un peu blesser 1'exacte probite." It
was not scrupulous to accept their friends' help
in that manner, " quoique en ruinant leurs amis
ainsi qu'ils se ruinent eux-memes, ils ont beaucoup
de bonte et un bon cceur." It is a pity, she sums
up, Charles Fox had plenty of wit, good-nature
and ingenuousness, but all this becomes detestable
without principles " je n'ajoute pas sans probite."

There were others who expected still worse of
Fox than did Madame du Deffand, and who ex-
pressed themselves more crudely. When he was
turned out of North's ministry, Walpole told
Madame du Deffand, he called himself a martyr
for the dignity of Parliament, " Charles the Mar-
tyr," jeered the fashionables, but the common
people thought he was dismissed because he had
stolen public funds. 1

1 " Lettres de Madame du Deffand," vol. ii, p. 589 note.


When William Pitt suddenly appeared as Charles'
antagonist, George Selwyn expressed a popular
view of the contrast between the rivals by terming
them (after Hogarth's celebrated pictures) the Idle
and the Industrious Apprentices, and all the con-
sidering part of the nation, taxpayers and electors,
thought much the same.

Fox had been under no misapprehension as to
the serious effect of his disruption of Shelburne's
ministry upon the national interests; Walpole asked
him if he did not think that France would hear the
news with transport: " He replied Oh, it will do
a great deal of mischief." In the same temper,
though knowing that it was Shelburne who had
succeeded in bringing the King to the necessary
recognition of the independence of America, a
task which had been beyond North, did he thunder
against his insincerity over every detail of the Peace,
as if England, with her enemies' fleets in the Chan-
nel and the North Sea, was in a position to secure
better terms when the negotiating ministers were
daily charged by their fellow countryman and ex-
associate with deliberate treachery.

Men might well wonder what had been the true
worth of Fox's appeals to principle when they
heard him taunt Conway with being "an innocent
who knew nothing, thought nothing, of men, but
looked to measures. . . . Mr. Fox not only de-
clared that he regarded men, not measures, but
you will laugh insisted that the nation calls for
the Duke of Portland." Portland's qualification
for the premiership, other than being the Duke of


Devonshire's brother-in-law, appeared to lie in his
being so poor that the salary would be very accept-
able to him ; but it was a Whig method to have a
nominal figurehead, that the other Ministers might
better preserve their equality and balance powers
and places among them fairly. Fox's total absorp-
tion in personal pique and lack of any sense of re-
sponsibility gave sore disappointment to Walpole.
11 I was on the point of saying to him t'other
morning, ' Well, but you must not go and play at
taw again ! ' but I thought it would be impertinent.
... I did flatter myself that he now was on the
high road to all he ought to attain he would have
attained it but he will neither live to reach the
goal, nor, when Parliament is not sitting, take
the least pains to promote his own views."

Fox, in truth, could never realize that there was a
political world elsewhere than in his House of Com-
mons. Of national feeling he appeared as stead-
fastly ignorant as any Whig of the past century.
However, devoting his energies to the House as
his sole political world, he suddenly succeeded (in
1783) in jockeying himself into office for a few
months, and remaining in opposition for practic-
ally the rest of his life.

It had been one of the articles of accusation
hurled by Fox at the perfidious Shelburne that he
was meditating a combination with the unconstitu-
tional minister who had perpetrated the American
War, North. Suddenly Fox and North announced
their own coalition against Shelburne, carried mo-
tions against him, and drove him to resign. The


treaties were not yet all signed, but for six weeks
the country was without a government. Then the
King gave in and admitted to office his renegade
one-time friend and servant, North, and his
peculiar aversion, Fox, sheltered under the name
of the nonentity Portland, and supported by all the
influence of the houses of Cavendish, Russell,
Keppel, and Townshend. Burke followed Fox, and
so did his and the Prince's boon companion,
Sheridan. "My son's ministry," the King sar-
castically termed it.

It was no unusual proceeding for two of the
aristocratic cliques to combine against a third, and
had indeed been the constant rule before 1770, but
there were reasons why this particular coalition
shocked men's political consciences violently.

North and Fox had been for eight years abso-
lutely opposed on vital questions of policy ; if Fox's
passionate conviction of North's treason to the
constitution, of North's personal responsibility for
coercion, injustice and tyranny was so easily for-
gotten, what permanence might prove to be in his
other convictions? While North, who had been
the King's right hand for twelve years in the royal
" management " of the constituencies and the mem-
bers, was now to carry to the opposite camp, which
had for so long declaimed against that manage-
ment, the knowledge, and undoubtedly the methods
which had been for the past twelve years so effica-
cious. The King might well hold North as per-
sonally little better than a traitor.

Elaborate excuses were made for the coalition


Like the elaborate excuses for Lord Holland's
colossal fortune, each technical plea might be
allowed in itself but the accumulation of quibbles
forms an overwhelming" condemnation. The coali-
tion of parties might have been excused, but the
two men who contrived it could not.

" Unless a real good government is the conse-
quence, nothing can justify it to the public," con-
fessed Fitzpatrick. It was a gambler's throw.

In the nine months for which Fox was in power
he could not accomplish very much. He tried in
vain to league with Prussia and Russia against the
House of Bourbon, failing before the impassivity
of his should-be allies. He gave what he termed
his personal support to Pitt's motion for parlia-
mentary reform, but allowed all the votes to go
with North against it. He demanded an establish-
ment for the Prince of Wales which conflicted with
the King's own proposals, and had to give way.
He conferred a pension on an ex-mistress of the
Prince, the famous Mrs. "Perdita" Robinson, for
whom he himself had lately shown such an extreme
passion as to rouse Horace Walpole's almost con-
temptuous amazement. He ruined a vast number
of humble and respectable persons by sweeping
ejectments from a host of offices, non-political, but
in the gift of the ministry, in order to introduce
political supporters of his own into their places,
and thereby roused personal resentment in numer-
ous unconsidered localities. And he came utterly
to grief over his sweeping India Bill. His treat-
ment of this grave business seems to have been




characteristic; on the one hand he assumed that
Warren Hastings, the East India Company and
all its shareholders and officials were monsters
of deepest dye, and that, therefore, the char-
tered rights and vested interests of these monsters
might be disregarded, while on the other hand,
arranging on excellent principles a completely new
system, it so happened that the immediate practical
effect was to lodge in his own hands (the seven com-
missioners were all party devotees) an immense
patronage which, covering the time of the elections
to the new parliament, would more than outbalance
any royal influence which could be used against
him, and thus secure a long and solid tenure of

If it can now be thought that this great advan-
tage to the minister involved in his India Bill was
a mere accident of dates it was impossible in those
days to think so. The device appeared so obvious,
and the calm overriding of all the legal rights, by
no means obsolete, of the most famous chartered
company in history appeared so arbitrary, that the
real merits of the remainder of the measure were
not examined, and a public, already staggered by
the sight of the prophet of Principle eating his
own words and embracing a minister whom he had
threatened with impeachment, was now excited to
extreme indignation. A flood of pamphlets and
caricatures exposed the weak side of Fox's scheme,
and the once popular hero was burned in effigy by
the mob. The votes of the coalition carried the
bill, of course, in the Commons; but the King,


aware of the public feeling, used his own influence
in the Lords, and got it there defeated, and dis-
missed his ministers next day. The King's act was
as clearly unconstitutional as Fox's, but the public
bestowed little criticism, for the King had but
executed the general desire ; as Fitzpatrick might
have said, if the consequences were a real good
government it would seem perfectly justified to the

The Pitt ministry was the consequence, and
the public was thoroughly satisfied.

The great factor which Charles Fox habitually
overlooked was the public. He could talk of it, as
when he told North, during the American War,
that he would have to face the wrath of an indig-
nant people, and face it perhaps on the scaffold.
But whatever he might say about the reform of
elections or the importance attaching to county
petitions, he never really altered his natural Whig
assumption of the supreme and sole importance of
Parliament. At heart and in practice he was an

When people deceive themselves it is usually
quite easy for other people to see through the de-
ception, and Fox thundering against the uncon-
stitutional action of the King when his own Reform
of India Bill was, it seemed, a gigantic electioneer-
ing trick, excited little more than derision. Fox
and the Whigs always held that their opponents
were bound to " play the game" according to the
Whig rules and regulations, and found it a moral
and constitutional crime if opponents played by


rules of their own. When they talked of the prin-
ciples of 1688 they meant the practices of Pel-
ham, and their " constitution " presupposed a
foreigner or a statue permanently on the throne.
With something of the same scepticism did con-
temporaries remain less moved than is posterity
by Burke's earnest appeals against corruption, or
Dunning's scathing indictment of royal influence.
The Fox fortune was matter of notoriety, the
Burkes were understood to be endowing themselves
quite efficiently by help of the India Office, Dun-
ning, two years after his famous motion, had de-
manded and obtained a peerage, while another
eminent member of the Fox and Burke party,
Barre, had secured a great sinecure and exposed
in the House his demands for ' * compensation "
with cynical effrontery. The reforming Bill, which
"the Rockinghams " had finally produced, had
saved the paltry sum of ,72,000, paltry compared
with their sweeping accusations and lofty profes-
sions and with the scale of salaries and compensa-
tions which they had reserved for themselves. Was
this the sincerity and honesty whereof the party
had made such boast?

44 1 have been emptying my [gold fish] pond,"
writes Walpole, "and in the mud of the troubled
water I have found all my gold, as Dunning and
Barre did last year."

In spite of Horace Walpole's for once correct
presentiment, expressed in July 1783, that various
reasons, " and you can guess them," might prevent
Mr. Fox from holding power long enough to restore


the credit of the country, he could not suppress
his chagrin and wrath when ''immaculate Master
Billy," as he comforts himself by calling Pitt,
proved the truth of his, and other people's, warn-
ings, and grasped and kept the helm of the state.
With his usual infelicity of prophecy Walpole had
announced at first that "our raw boy of a minis-
ter" would last but ten days, as Gibbon had also
announced that " Charles's black collier would
soon sink Billy's painted galley," but the elections of
1784 revealed so complete a catastrophe that even
Walpole's dogged conservatism could not impute
to "the industry of the court and the India Com-
pany" the universal secession. A momentary
frenzy, he says, had seized the whole nation * ' as if
it were a vast animal, such aversion to the Coali-
tion and such a detestation of Mr. Fox . . . that,
even where omnipotent gold retains its influence,
the elected pass through an ordeal of the most
virulent abuse. The great Whig families, the
Cavendishes, Rockinghams, Bedfords have lost
all credit in their own counties; nay, have been
tricked out of seats where the whole property was
their own."

It was the debacle of the sacred Whig system,
and it was due to Charles Fox.

A new force had, in fact, now made its appear-
ance felt on the political field, in that middle class
so long patronized from aristocratic heights. In a
sense William Pitt may be called its apotheosis.
And what this class demanded in its leaders was
practical handling of facts probity, earnestness,


steadfastness, " a real good government." Wai pole
was a little puzzled, he owned, by hearing less than
formerly of the King's friends. The Pittite party,
the new Tory party, was absorbing not only a
number of the royal supporters but a number, and
with every crisis an increasing number, of the
Whigs: with the oligarchy disappeared the royal
phalanx which had been formed to withstand it.
Even the mannerisms of parliamentary speakers
betrayed the change in the audience, classical quota-
tion, says Rose (and Wraxall seems to corroborate
him), was already, in 1784, going out of fashion,
as being unfamiliar to a large part of the members.

"The passions of the vulgar made and kept
Mr. Pitt minister," sneers a supercilious Irish con-
fidant and biographer of Fox.

When Fox exploded his quarrel with Shelburne
and, refusing to hearken to the overtures brought
by Pitt, broke for ever with the latter, he incident-
ally wrecked the Whig party ; what he intended, we
are told, was to destroy the royal system of govern-
ment which had enabled a monarch to thwart the
Whigs. He was for founding a new tool factory
when the nation, plunged in military and commer-
cial disaster, wanted practical work undertaken
with any and every tool at hand. At such a mo-
ment to place in the forefront of politics the "con-
stitutional " relations of monarch and cabinet, and,
yet worse, the personal relations of party section-
leaders, revealed the incorrigible "academic," or
the mere egoist.

The national need had found Fox unpractical,


and Pitt, ready to face the responsibility, to use
the tools at hand and, above all, to deal quickly
and firmly with the immediate crisis, became the
accepted chief of the new class and the new party.

Pitt drew most of his assistants from the middle
class; he left great powers to the permanent and
the "under" officials, but the individuals were
efficient; if he bestowed lavish rewards upon sub-
ordinates, they were certainly earned ; and if royal
favour was directed, as usual, to ministerial sup-
porters, these were not merely steady voters, but

The struggle may have been one between the
advocates of Principle and Practice, but a sneer at
" materialism " or " commercialism " will not settle
the question.

Of the details of Fox's long opposition of
twenty-two years it is impossible here to speak,
but it should be remembered that his preconceived
conviction that Pitt must be in the wrong led him
not only to oppose every measure, but to accuse
the minister of moral turpitude, e.g., of having
deliberately arranged the luckless and mismanaged
Quiberon expedition in order to betray the French
royalists to their enemies! This came well from
the man who had sent his henchman, Adair, to
St. Petersburg to thwart by intrigue the diplomacy
of the British ambassador. 1 Adair's meticulous

1 A mean personal manoeuvre was used. Adair was intro-
duced by the Duchess of Devonshire, Fox's devoted champion-
ess, as her friend, to Whitworth, who thereupon presented him
at the Russian Court. See Rose, " William Pitt and National
Revival," p. 623 ff.


quibbles no more conceal the truth than Sackville's
avoidance of verbal lies translated his actual false-
hoods into veracity. Fox was probably not diplo-
matist enough to perceive that his private foiling of
Pitt at St. Petersburg helped to ruin the last chances
for that cause of Polish liberty which he professed
to befriend. He looked only to the personal advan-
tage. He acted in similar underhand fashion
towards Pitt's liberal efforts for Ireland in 1785,
first organizing opposition in British newspapers,
till the Bill was whittled down to suit Scotch and
English jealousy, then fomenting Irish resentment
to the pitch of rejecting it. Yet he posed as the
friend of Ireland. Even Fox's admirers confessed
a certain falling off in him after 1782. Grattan
said that " no person had heard Mr. Fox to advan-
tage, who had not heard him before the Coalition ;
or Mr. Pitt, who had not heard him before he
quitted office [in 1801]. Each defended himself on
these occasions with surprising ability : but each
felt that he had done something that required
defence : the talent remained, the mouth still spoke
great things, but the swell of soul was no more." 1
Fox knew, better probably than most, that for
many years of his premiership Pitt was no supreme
First Minister, in the old sense of the term. But
it suited his tactics of accumulating personal attack
upon Pitt to charge him with having inspired
George III with aversion to himself a charge zeal-
ously repeated by Fox's followers. It suited his
tactics, again, when Pitt made overtures to him, to

1 Butler's " Reminiscences," p. 172.


make as preliminary an impossible stipulation
that Pitt should resign " as a matter of form"
and to treat his natural and necessary refusal as a
proof of insincerity. Fox transferred to Pitt the
moral indignation he had once hurled upon North,
but this time his wrath was avowedly stirred by
his own "wrongs," as his followers termed them.

In the same way, when the King's mental break-
down necessitated a Regency Bill, Fox's personal
ambition and interests dictated his principle of the
prerogative rights of the Prince of Wales, remark-
ably inconsistent with his former attacks upon the
prerogative rights of a King. Consistency is per-
haps in itself hardly a virtue, but abrupt changes
of principle require the excuse of new light. The
only new circumstances in the constitutional posi-
tion in 1788 were that the Prince would make Fox
Prime Minister and that the proposed restrictions
on his temporary power would hinder Fox's fol-
lowers from securing peerages, pensions and per-
manent sinecures immediately, and they feared to
wait lest the King might recover. What Fox and
his party asserted, that the restrictions on the

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Online LibraryAlice Drayton GreenwoodHorace Walpole's world, a sketch of Whig society under George III → online text (page 15 of 17)