Magazine article History Today

Britannia Roused: Political Caricature & the Fall of the Fox-North Coalition

Magazine article History Today

Britannia Roused: Political Caricature & the Fall of the Fox-North Coalition

Article excerpt

David Johnson looks at the art of Sayers and Gillray and the role of pictorial satire in the destruction of a government.

In DECEMBER 1783 the coalition government of Charles James Fox (1749-1806) and Lord North was removed from office by George III after a sustained campaign of public vilification. In this carefully orchestrated royal strategy the role of political caricaturists was not only central, but crucial, to success. In discrediting Fox and his colleagues, they turned the tide of popular opinion decisively away from the former `man of the people' towards the King's preferred choice as leading minister, the younger Pitt. Fox himself later admitted that James Sayers's caricatures `had done him more mischief than the debates in Parliament or the works of the press'. During January and February 1784 the coalition's majority in the House of Commons shrank rapidly, and in the ensuing general election ninety-six coalitionists lost their seats. Pitt's `mince-pie' administration was returned with a majority of over a hundred. Thomas Rowlandson's print, Brittannia Roused, or the Coalition Monsters destroyed, caught the national mood exactly. With her cap of liberty alongside, the giantess hurls Fox and North like puppets into political oblivion.

The campaign had started early in 1782 when defeat in America had led to the fall of Lord North, and George III had been forced to accept a Whig ministry under Lord Rockingham in which Fox was made Secretary of State. Rockingham's untimely death on July 1st enabled the King to establish the Earl of Shelburne as prime minister, and to rid himself of Fox, Burke and their friends who, having conflicted with Shelburne, resigned their offices in response. But Shelburne's ministry was divided and weak, and by February 1783 George III was faced with the uninviting prospect of employing Fox and North, making himself `a slave' to what he called `the most unprincipled coalition the annals of this or any nation can equal'. In practice this meant giving Fox predominance. It was the only realistic choice, but for five weeks the King prevaricated, even considering abdication. On April 1st, he accepted the inevitable and Fox became Foreign Secretary once more and North Home Secretary -- under the nominal lead of the Duke of Portland.

George III determined to rid himself of this infamous coalition as soon as possible, however. He would deny them royal confidence and patronage. He would line up an alternative ministry. These he did with the connivance of the younger Pitt who, after some persuasion, agreed to serve. He would then engineer parliamentary defeat on a coalition measure, and afterwards dismiss the chief ministers. To this end he considered using the royal veto, but realised that to do so would play into the hands of politicians who had spent the last decade attacking the influence of the crown. He might influence the House of Lords to reject a government bill, and although it would need direct intervention, this became the preferred course of action. But there was one overriding problem. The coalition had a healthy majority in the Commons that held up remarkably well. The King needed to sway opinion among independent MPs, and especially the electorate which would be asked to choose a new parliament once his new ministers were in place.

Early efforts to discredit the Whigs in the press and through the prints now escalated into a concerted campaign to arouse popular opposition to the coalition. Prints had one significant advantage -- they were visual, using `a universal language understood by persons of all nations and degrees'.

Despite their cost (sixpence uncoloured and from one to two shillings for a hand-coloured print) there was a significant increase in output during these years. An average year in the 1770s might produce fifty political prints, but there were 120 in 1782, and some 450 published within the twelve months of the Fox-North coalition, the King's attempt to remove it and the general election of 1784. …

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