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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

II. Political Writers and Speakers

§ 15. Charles James Fox

After Burke, Charles James Fox was the senior of the group of great orators in the mid reign of George III. He entered parliament in 1768 while still under age, but it was not till February, 1775, that he first showed his powers in a speech in favour of the Americans. Year by year, he grew in ability and debating skill, and Lord Rockingham’s death in 1782 left him the undoubted leader of the whigs. But he was now to share his pre-eminence in oratory with a rival. William Pitt the younger entered the commons in 1781, and his maiden speech at once raised him to the front rank of speakers. Perhaps, English public speaking has never again quite reached the level of those twenty-five years, when Fox and Pitt carried on their magnificent contest. Whichever of the two spoke last, said Wilberforce, seemed to have the best of the argument. Burke, whose eloquence, in his speeches revised for publication, and even in the verbatim report of what he said, stands far higher as literature than theirs, could not compare with them in effectiveness in actual speaking, or in the favour of the House of Commons. It was admitted that their successors, Canning and Grey, belonged to an inferior class of orators. The times were peculiarly favourable. These men spoke on great affairs to a highly critical, cultivated, but not pedantic, audience, which had been accustomed to hear the very best debating and which demanded both efficaciousness of reasoning, clearness of expression and splendour of style. Thus, spurred on by sympathy and success, the two masters of debate established a dual empire over the house. Their powers of persuading those connoisseurs of oratory, whom they addressed, appear, indeed, surprisingly small, when we look at the division-lists; but, at least, they cast a triumphal robe over the progress of events.

Like all great speakers, they were improvisers, and, in this line, Fox was admitted to excel. He could come straight from gambling at Brooks’s, and enter with mastery into the debate. He had an uncanny skill in traversing and reversing his opponents’ arguments, and in seizing on the weak point of a position. Then, he would expose it to the House with a brilliantly witty illustration. Admirable classic as he was, no one understood better the genius of the English language. His thoughts poured out, for the most part, in short vigorous sentences, lucid and rhythmical to a degree. Volubility, perhaps, was his fault, as was to be expected in an extemporary speaker, and there was little that was architectural in his speeches. Without any rambling, they showed but small subordination of parts; one point is made after another, great and small together. Even his speech on the Westminster scrutiny in 1784 has this defect, in spite of his cogent reasoning. As a result, he often reads thin, not from spreading out his matter, but from delaying over unimportant aspects of it. He was convinced that he could refute anything, so he refuted everything. But these blots were scarcely observable at the time. To a marvellous extent, he possessed the ability to reason clearly at the highest pressure of emotion.

  • He forgot himself and everything around him. He thought only of his subject. His genius warmed and kindled as he went on. He darted fire into his audience. Torrents of impetuous and irresistible eloquence swept along their feelings and conviction.