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Burke, Thomas

Burke, Thomas

BURKE, THOMAS. (1747?–1783). Physician, lawyer, congressman, governor of North Carolina. Ireland, Virginia, and North Carolina. Born in County Galway, Ireland, sometime around 1747, Thomas Burke may have attended the University of Dublin. In about 1764 Burke immigrated to America, settling in Norfolk, Virginia, where he practiced medicine and gained a modest reputation as a poet and deist, having abandoned Catholicism. Switching to law, Burke became the attorney for the Transylvania Land Company. In 1772 he moved to Hillsboro, North Carolina, playing a prominent part in local politics of his region. He served in the provincial Congress from 1775 through 1776, where he was a key figure in persuading the legislature to support independence. A delegate to the Continental Congress from February 1777 to June 1781, Burke championed civil rights whenever they appeared menaced by military power, and he was responsible for assuring that states be guaranteed any powers not specifically delegated by the Articles of Confederation to Congress.

Burke is famous in the history of the Continental Congress for his performance in April 1778. Disapproving of a proposed message of censure to George Washington, and seeing that his presence was necessary to make a quorum, he simply walked out of the hall in which the delegates were meeting, maintaining that he had no duty to attend an unreasonable assembly. When Congress attempted the next day to discipline him, Burke replied that he was responsible to his state and would not be tyrannized by a majority of Congress. Returning to North Carolina, he was exonerated by his constituents and re-elected. The irony is that even as he was defying the authority of Congress, he was defeated for re-election because he had favored the appointment of a Pennsylvania officer, Edward Hand, to take command of North Carolina's troops. The legislature changed its mind after he stood up to Congress.

Burke returned to Hillsboro at about the time that the southern region became the major theater of military operations. When the regulars under Generals Johann De Kalb and Horatio Gates moved through North Carolina, Burke led resistance to what many people considered to be the unwarranted demands of Continental officers for supplies. Meanwhile the well-fed North Carolina militia of Major General Richard Caswell marched uselessly around the state and refused to join the regulars until just before the Camden Campaign. In June 1781 Burke was elected Governor of North Carolina and vigorously undertook to stiffen the spine of his people; Burke had won on the political point of the primacy of civil authority over military, but the British regulars were chasing the ragged Continental troops across his state and the performance of the North Carolina militia had been sorry indeed.

David Fanning captured Governor Burke and his council in his raid on Hillsboro, on 12 September 1781. After being closely confined at Wilmington and then on Sullivan's Island in Charleston Harbor, Burke was paroled to James Island in November 1781. When told that he was being held hostage to guarantee the life of Fanning (should the latter be captured), Burke argued that his parole was no longer binding. He also claimed that he had been fired upon by Loyalists while at James Island. On the night of 16 January 1782, Burke escaped to Nathanael Greene's headquarters, and on the latter's advice informed British general Alexander Leslie that he would return if they guaranteed the terms of his parole, or that he would arrange a prisoner exchange. Receiving no reply from General Leslie, Burke returned to North Carolina and completed his term as governor. He refused to stand for re-election in the spring of 1782, and died on 2 December 1783 at his estate, "Tyaquin."

SEE ALSO Camden Campaign; Hillsboro Raid, North Carolina; Southern Campaigns of Nathanael Greene.


Burke Papers. North Carolina State Department of Archives and History: Raleigh, N.C.

Watterson, John Sayle, III. Thomas Burke: Restless Revolutionary. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1980.

                              revised by Michael Bellesiles

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