Fox, William Johnson (DNB00)

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FOX, WILLIAM JOHNSON (1786–1864), preacher, politician, and man of letters, was born at Uggeshall Farm, Wrentham, in the north of Suffolk, 1 March 1786. From his father, a sturdy peasant-farmer, who had once got into trouble as a poacher, he inherited, he says in a fragmentary autobiography, ‘sluggish tenacity of brain;’ from his mother, a woman of sweet and liberal nature, ‘nervous irritability.’ Both parents were strict Calvinistic independents. When Fox was only three years of age his father gave up farming, and barely supported himself in several callings at Norwich. Fox was sent to a chapel school, became a weaver's boy, an errand-boy, and in 1799 clerk in a bank. Here he found leisure for self-improvement, worked hard at mathematics, and, like Leigh Hunt, Peacock, and De Quincey, won prizes offered by the ‘Monthly Preceptor,’ and planned a course of study which would have occupied him for seven years. He first studied Latin and Greek with a view to progress in mathematics, and improved his knowledge of them with a view to divinity. He appreciated, however, the melody of Greek versification, and the shrewd philosophy of Horace, ‘though much of it used to elbow and jostle my morality.’ He took to authorship, competed for essay prizes, and wrote occasionally for a local newspaper; until at length it was suggested that the pulpit was his proper destination. In September 1806 he entered the Independent College at Homerton under Dr. Pye Smith. He found there a considerable tendency to free inquiry, ‘which gradually subsided as the time came for the student to exchange his sure and safe retreat for the fiery ordeal of the deacon and the pew.’ Early in 1810 he took charge of a congregation at Fareham. He studied the unitarian controversy, reading books treating upon it for hours in bed. By March 1812 he had entirely broken with orthodoxy, and had become minister of the unitarian chapel at Chichester, after a brief and unsuccessful experience as pastor of a small seceding congregation at Fareham. At Chichester he studied hard, and formed an ill-advised engagement to his future wife, Eliza, daughter of James Florance, barrister. In 1817 he became minister of Parliament Court Chapel, London. He had now, by dint of assiduous practice, made himself a consummate rhetorician. His celebrity was enhanced by several published sermons, one of which, ‘On the Duties of Christians towards Deists,’ occasioned by the trial of Carlile, excited warm controversy. In 1820 he married, and the next few years of his life were marked by a severe illness, a visit to Scotland, his first regular contributions to a newspaper, the ‘Norwich Mercury,’ the removal of his congregation from Parliament Court to a chapel built especially for him in South Place, Finsbury (1824), a controversy with Dr. Blomfield on the gospel of St. John, and increasing connection with literature and politics. He began to be celebrated for his taste as a dramatic critic; he wrote on Nathaniel Lee, ‘Sethos,’ and other subjects for the ‘Retrospective Review;’ and, on the establishment of the ‘Westminster Review,’ he wrote the first article, entitled ‘Men and Things in 1824.’ He had already become editor, with Robert Aspland (1782–1845) [q. v.], of the ‘Monthly Repository,’ the leading organ of the unitarian denomination, which he conducted as a theological periodical until 1831, when he purchased the copyright from the Unitarian Association, and made it an organ of political and social reform, combined with literary criticism. Fox's quick recognition of youthful genius was especially shown in his welcome of Browning's ‘Pauline,’ which occasioned a lifelong friendship with the poet. Mill contributed philosophical papers under the signature ‘Antiquus;’ and in Fox's periodical appeared Crabb Robinson's remarkable series of papers on ‘Goethe;’ Harriet Martineau's poems and essays; Eliza Flower's musical contributions; Browning's poems; and W. Bridges Adams's essays on social subjects, signed ‘Junius Redivivus,’ whose freedom of tone gave offence in unitarian circles. Hazlitt pronounced Fox superior to Irving as a preacher, and his celebrity was extended beyond metropolitan limits by the publication of two collections of sermons, ‘Christ and Christianity’ and ‘Christian Morality.’ He was, however, drifting further and further away from theology; and during the agitation for reform he took a prominent part as a popular leader, daily addressing open-air meetings in Lincoln's Inn Fields. ‘He was,’ says Francis Place, ‘the bravest of us all.’ In 1834 his domestic difficulties came to the knowledge of leading members of his congregation. He resented their consequent interference; the majority of his congregation stood by him; and the controversy was closed by the secession of the minority in September 1834. No tangible imputation rested upon his personal conduct, but the confidence of many of his most influential supporters had been undermined by the advocacy in the ‘Repository’ of the dissolubility of marriage, and his evident alienation from theology. A separation on account of incompatibility of temper was arranged between him and Mrs. Fox.

Fox was disowned by his brother unitarian ministers, and resigned his office as a trustee of the Williams Library. His freedom from restraint, already irksome, gave him a more independent position in the pulpit. The service, under Eliza Flower's direction, became musical, Fox himself contributing some highly poetical hymns; his addresses ranged widely over the fields of morals and politics, and attracted a very intellectual auditory, including many members of parliament. Twenty-six of these discourses, published between 1835 and 1840 under the title of ‘Finsbury Lectures,’ represent the general topics and tone of his teaching. Discourses on such themes as ‘Morality illustrated by the various Classes into which Society is divided’ alternate with secular subjects, as the coronation, the corn laws, and national education. The tone, however, is invariably lofty. They were usually delivered after a few days' meditation, with slight assistance from a shorthand abstract, but published entirely from the reporter's notes. They gained greatly in delivery from the impressive intonation of the speaker. Rapturous descriptions of Fox's oratory will be found in John Saunders's sketch in the ‘People's Journal’ and in Evans's ‘Authors and Orators of Lancashire.’ Their testimony is confirmed by James Grant (1802–1879) [q. v.], writing in 1840, who infers, however, from his statue-like absence of gesture, that he would fail with a popular audience. In 1843 Fox was thrilling enthusiastic popular assemblages. To meet heavy expenses he wrote more than ever, especially upon politics. Bulwer, Talfourd, Macready, and Forster were now among his most intimate friends, and his relations with Mill led Carlyle to believe that he was to be offered the editorship of the ‘London and Westminster Review.’ He transferred the proprietorship and editorship of the unprofitable ‘Repository’ to R. H. Horne in 1836, and for a time chiefly devoted himself to journalism. Daniel Whittle Harvey [q. v.] enlisted him in the ‘Sunday Times,’ and when Harvey became proprietor of the ‘True Sun’ (1835) Fox's contributions raised the circulation from two thousand to fifteen thousand copies. He laboured at the office regularly for five days a week until the end of 1837, when Harvey's sudden relinquishment of his journal terminated the engagement. Fox joined the ‘Morning Chronicle,’ where his politics were much more under restraint. He devoted especial attention to the performances of Macready, of whom he was an intense admirer.

When, in 1840, an address from the Anti-Cornlaw League to the nation was required, Cobden drew up a paper of memoranda, and entrusted the composition to Fox as the person most competent to administer ‘a blister to the aristocracy and the House of Commons.’ The address was followed by a long series of most effective letters to leading public characters published in the ‘League’ newspaper, under the signature of ‘A Norwich Weaver Boy.’ Fox became a leading orator of the league, speaking especially at Drury Lane and Covent Garden. ‘The speech read well,’ says Prentice, ‘but the reader could have no conception of the effect as delivered with a beauty of elocution which Macready on the same boards might have envied.’ His connection with the ‘Morning Chronicle’ ceased about this time, and was followed by an engagement with the ‘Daily News,’ to which, as to the ‘Chronicle,’ he contributed four leaders weekly. When Forster retired in September 1846, Fox followed his example. He further undertook a course of Sunday evening lectures to the working classes at the National Hall in Holborn, commenced in 1844, and continued until 1846; which, after being published first in ‘The Apprentice,’ and afterwards in the ‘People's Journal,’ were collected into four volumes in 1849. They showed the author to be one of the wisest as well as the warmest friends of the working classes. This character, even more than the eloquence of his Anti-Cornlaw League orations, gained Fox an invitation to stand for the working-class constituency of Oldham, for which he was returned after a keen contest in July 1847. His congregation had already found it necessary to provide an assistant minister. He was relieved from embarrassment by the munificence of Samuel Courtauld of Braintree, who settled upon him an annuity of 400l. His last address to his congregation was given in February 1852. He had previously summed up his conclusions in his lectures of the ‘Religious Ideas’ (published in 1849), in which these ideas are treated as the natural production of the human mind in the course of its development, corresponding to external realities, as yet but dimly surmised.

Fox's later exertions were mainly confined to parliament and the composition of the ‘Publicola’ letters for the ‘Weekly Dispatch,’ which he continued until 1861. His success in parliament was limited by his age and the didacticism acquired in the pulpit. Regarded at first as ‘a sort of heterodox methodist parson,’ he soon gained general respect by his tact, discretion, and moderation. His most remarkable speeches were that delivered on seconding Mr. Hume's motion for an extension of the franchise in 1849, and that on the introduction of his own bill for establishing compulsory secular education in 1850. He made the subject of education in large measure his own, and always regretted that Lord John Russell had taken it out of his hands. He usually acted with the politicians of the Manchester school, but differed from them on the Crimean war, and declared his dissent in a great speech to his constituents in the winter of 1855. His success at Oldham had involved the rejection of John Fielden [q. v.], who had thrown in his lot with Mr. J. M. Cobbett. Fox thus excited the fiercest antagonism in a section of the liberal party. He was defeated in 1852, regained his seat in the autumn of the same year, after tumults described as ‘sacrificial games dedicated to the manes of the late Mr. John Fielden,’ was again ejected in 1857, and re-elected in the same year upon another unexpected vacancy. He then held the seat without opposition until his retirement in 1863, though taking little part in public business. He died after a short illness on 3 June 1864, and was buried in Brompton cemetery. His memory was celebrated in the most fitting manner by a memorial edition of his complete writings. Fox's master passion was philanthropy, and he had adopted the philosophy of Bentham as that apparently most conducive to human welfare. But his temperament was that of a poet, his tastes were literary, dramatic, musical. His utilitarianism was pervaded with imagination, and he was far more effective as a man of letters than as a thinker, and a speaker than as a reasoner. The orator in him was rather made than born, his seeming gift of improvisation was the acquisition of long and careful practice. The construction of his speeches was in the highest degree rhetorical, and they owed much of their effect to his marvellous elocution. They are, however, admirable for powerful diction, manly sense, and abound in fancy, humour, and sarcasm; nor were his innumerable contributions to the press less excellent in their way. No one could better popularise a truth or embody an abstraction. The great aim of his life was to benefit the classes from which he had sprung. No one has counselled those classes more freely, or on the whole more wisely. His nature, though not exempt from angularities, was genial and affectionate; he said of himself that he could never learn to say ‘No’ till he had attained middle life, and then but imperfectly. He craved for sympathy, and when disappointed of obtaining it, took refuge in a reserve which, combined with the phlegm of his physical constitution, sometimes made him appear inert and inanimate, when in reality his mind was actively at work.

[About 1835 Fox began to dictate an autobiography, which he only brought down to his settlement at Fareham, with many gaps and omissions. He began another in 1858, but made still less progress. These documents, with many other unpublished papers, have been placed at the writer's disposal by Fox's daughter, Mrs. Bridell Fox. See also the memoir in vol. xii. of his collected writings; Memoirs of Eliza Fox; James Grant's Public Characters; Evans's Lancashire Authors and Orators; Prentice's History of the Anti-Cornlaw League; Sir John Bowring in the Theological Review for 1864; John Saunders in the People's Journal for 1848.]

R. G.