Charles James Fox

Charles James Fox by Joshua Reynolds

Charles Fox left Eton for Oxford in 1764. He was entered at Hertford College, which, crushed down for a time by its wealthier neighbours in the struggle for academical existence, has in our own day been munificently re-endowed as a training-school of principles and ideas very different from those ordinarily associated with the name of its greatest son. Early in George III's reign the college flourished under the care of Dr Newcome, a good, wise, and learned divine, who afterwards became Primate of Ireland on the nomination of Lord Fitzwilliam. A poor foundation has attractions for none but rich scholars; and Dr Newcome's pupils were for the most part young men of family. The first Lord Malmesbury, who was in the same set as Charles Fox, though not in the same college, informs us that the lads, who ranked as gentlemen-commoners, enjoyed the privilege of living as they pleased, and were never called upon to attend either lectures, or hall, or chapel. 'The men,' says his Lordship, 'with whom I lived were very pleasant, but very idle, fellows. Our life was an imitation of high life in London. Luckily drinking was not the fashion; but what we did drink was claret, and we had our regular round of evening card-parties, to the great annoyance of our finances. It has often been a matter of surprise to me how so many of us made our way so well in the world, and so creditably.'

Among these pleasant fellows Charles Fox passed for the pleasantest; but idle he was not. He read as hard as any young Englishman, who does not look to university success for his livelihood or advancement, will ever read for reading's sake. He gave himself diligently to mathematics, which he liked 'vastly'. 'I believe they are useful', he writes, 'and I am sure they are entertaining, which is alone enough to recommend them to me.' Pursuing them with zest, at the age when they most rapidly and effectually fulfil their special function of bracing the reasoning faculties for future use, he got more profit from them than if he had been a senior wrangler.

I did not expect my life here could be so pleasant as I find it; but I really think, to a man who reads a great deal, there cannot be a more agreeable place [said Fox speaking of the University of Oxford]

He loved Oxford as dearly as did Shelley, and for the same reasons; and he quitted it almost as much against his will. By his own request he was permitted to spend a second year at college, where he resided continuously, both in and out of term, whenever his father could be induced to spare his company. He remained at Oxford during the long vacation of 1765, reading as if his bread depended on a fellowship, and was seldom to be seen outside his own rooms, except when standing at the bookseller's counter, deep in Ford or Massinger. He was one of those students who do not need the spur. 'Application like yours,' wrote Dr Newcome, 'requires some intermission; and you are the only person with whom I have ever had connexion, to whom I could say this.' Many years afterwards, when Charles Fox was Secretary of State, he took the precaution of carrying his old tutor's letter in his pocket-book, as a testimonial ready to be produced whenever he was rallied for laziness by his colleagues in the Cabinet.

Three more years of such a life would have fortified his character, and moulded his tastes; would have preserved him from untold evil, and quadrupled his influence as a statesman.