Thomas Burke (1747-1783)

Written By North Carolina History Project

Born in Ireland in 1747, the namesake of Burke County, North Carolina arrived in Virginia in 1763.  In his early twenties he opened a medical practice but soon turned to studying law.  This legal and political inclination is evident in his poems protesting the Stamp Act (1765).  The young lawyer moved to Hillsborough, North Carolina in 1772 and there his professional reputation and political influence soared.  

The pock-faced lawyer, with an incredible wit yet an abrasive personality, served North Carolina in the Continental Congress from 1777 to 1781.  At times, he was the only North Carolina delegate in Philadelphia, but he soon wielded national influence by crossing intellectual swords with the likes of James Wilson, John Adams, and Roger Sherman. Power impaired judgment, remarked the North Carolinian one day in Congress, for it was a “Delusive Intoxication.”  Burke feared centralizing power and speculated that states’ rights might be lost if North Carolina joined a union under the Articles of Confederation.

According to historians David Morgan and William Schmidt, the Tar Heel “made certain that America—as long as the Articles of Confederation remained its constitution—would be a land of thirteen separate states.”  Burke believed that what became Article III in the Articles (the “league of friendship” article) would chip away at state sovereignty.  He worked to include what became Article II: “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”

In 1781 Thomas Burke became Governor of North Carolina—the third under the 1776 state constitution.  The time was tumultuous; it was practically a civil war as North Carolina Tories and Patriots battled each other.  Burke worked to restore order, and angered more than a few in doing so.  Colonel David Fanning, a loyalist from Randolph County who participated in The Battle of the Horseshoe, captured Burke.  The governor was held prisoner at James Island, South Carolina.  

After months of being mistreated and insufficiently fed, he soon escaped and returned to North Carolina. He assumed gubernatorial duties in January 1783, but for undetermined reasons, he fell out of favor with many North Carolinians who believed he had broken his word regarding his parole with the British Army.

After not seeking reelection, he was succeeded by Alexander Martin.  Burke returned to his plantation and tried to revive his legal practice.  He never fully recovered from his wartime ordeal, however.  He died on December 2, 1783 and is buried on his plantation that was located in what is now Orange County.