‘The Story of Parliament’: Pitt and Fox

Last year the History published ‘The Story of Parliament: Celebrating 750 years of parliament in Britain’ to mark the anniversary of Simon de Montfort’s parliament in 1265. The book is a brief introduction to the full 750 years of parliamentary history, aimed at the general reader, and available to purchase from the Houses of Parliament bookshop.

On this blog we are publishing some tasters of ‘The Story of Parliament’ from a number of the academics who contributed to the book. Our fifth post looks at two of Parliament’s greatest rivals: William Pitt and Charles James Fox.

 This article was originally written by Dr Paul Seaward, Director of the History of Parliament.

William Pitt the Younger, by James Gillray, © National Portrait Gallery
William Pitt the Younger, by James Gillray © National Portrait Gallery
Charles William Fox, by Samuel William Reynolds, after John Raphael Smith. (c) Palace of Westminster Collection, WoA 186.
Charles James Fox, by Samuel William Reynolds, after John Raphael Smith. © National Portrait Gallery Palace of Westminster Collection, WoA 186.

William Pitt (“Pitt the Younger”, 1759-1806) and Charles James Fox (1749-1806) were the most famous and talented politicians of their time. They were also among the best connected. Both emerged from the highest ranks of the Whig party. Pitt was the son of another William Pitt (“the Elder”), a politician who had led Britain’s global struggle in the Seven Years’ War with France of 1756-63. Fox, a descendant of King Charles II, was the son of Henry Fox, a politician who had responded to a humiliating subordination to Pitt the elder in the House of Commons by helping George III to end the war after he gained the throne in 1760, and by supporting the new king’s hated minister Lord Bute. Charles James Fox and Pitt the Younger were both hot-housed children, favourites of their fathers (his father’s indulgence was said to have made Fox into an idle spendthrift, addicted to gambling and women).

Fox was elected to parliament in 1764 at the age of 19, despite the fact that men were not supposed to become MPs until they were 21. Twenty years later, deeply distrusted by royalty because of his support for the Americans in their war of independence, he was forced from office by the king. The replacement for his ministry in which he had been foreign secretary (the much-derided Fox-North coalition) was headed by Pitt, only 24, and elected to parliament just three years before. Shaky at first, Pitt remained premier continuously and exhaustingly until 1801, with a further period from 1804 until his death under two years later. For most of that time he faced Fox who, as head of a Whig Party, was dedicated to limiting the powers and prerogatives of the crown. The French Revolution of 1789 was greeted by Fox with enthusiasm as a blow to royal power in another country. But as the Revolution turned violent and bloody many in his party deserted him. Fox himself, while lamenting the atrocities, attempted to explain the excessive brutality as an understandable reaction to monarchical despotism.

From 1793 Britain was at war with France. Pitt, like his father, became celebrated (though less successful) wartime leader. Fox, with a dwindling band of supporters, became associated with a growing radical movement, opposing a war that he believed to be unnecessary. Between 1797 and 1801, thoroughly disillusioned, he seceded from parliament altogether. Poles apart, the two men’s differing political positions now reflected their apparently contrasting characters: Fox the brilliant but carefree playboy, Pitt the calculating political machine.


‘The Story of Parliament’ is available at the Parliamentary bookshop for £14.99. You can purchase it here.

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