A native of Ireland, Thomas Burke served as the third governor of North Carolina under the 1776 constitution. He played an instrumental role in the committee that submitted the Halifax Resolves to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. A one-term governor, he was imprisoned by Loyalists, taken to Charleston, South Carolina, escaped and resumed the governorship, and then resigned in 1782.
Born in Ireland in 1744, Burke later migrated to Norfolk, Virginia. In 1772, he and his family (wife, Polly, and one child, Mary) moved to Hillsborough, North Carolina. There, he started practicing law and operating a plantation.
Burke’s political career and influence began shortly after he arrived in North Carolina. Although he served in three of the Provincial Congresses, his work in the Fourth Provincial Congress (1776) is worth explanation. As part of a committee that included Cornelius Harnett and Abner Nash, Burke evaluated “the usurpations and violences attempted and committed by the King and Parliament of Britain against America.” The committee empowered delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia to declare independence. When the Constitutional Convention met, the Halifax Resolves, the name given to the committee’s report, was read to all delegates. Simply put, Burke was part of the first calls for independence in what would become the United States of America.
In 1781, Burke became governor of North Carolina. He assumed office during a turbulent time; guerilla bands, Loyalist and Patriot, terrorized the countryside. Burke desired a return of law and order, so he, according to historian Michael Hill, took “extraordinary measures to reform the militia, increase essential revenues, banish intractable Loyalists, and defend against renewed British attack from Virginia and South Carolina. Acting on his own authority, he established special courts and assumed for himself veto power over legislative acts.”
Three months after Burke took office, Loyalist militia commander David Fanning attacked Hillsborough and captured 200 prisoners, including Governor Thomas Burke. The executive was transported to Charleston, South Carolina. He received a parole in two months, yet he escaped and returned to Hillsborough to resume his gubernatorial duties. Many of Burke’s colleagues and contemporaries, writes some historians, considered this escape to be a dishonorable parole violation. Burke resigned in 1782, only ten months after assuming office.
He died in September 1783.
Michael Hill, ed., The Governors of North Carolina (Raleigh, 2007); William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries (Chapel Hill, 1989); and Milton Read, The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina (Columbia, 2006).