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Burke, Williamlocked

  • George C. McElroy

William Burke (1728x3030–1798)

by Sir Joshua Reynolds, c. 1778

© reserved

Burke, William (1728x30–1798), political writer and administrator in India, was the eldest son of John Burke (d. 1764), attorney, of St Marylebone, London, and Plaistow, Essex, and his first wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Burke, a London vintner. He entered Westminster School in September 1742, when he was described as being thirteen years of age, although reports of his age throughout his life are inconsistent. He was elected king's scholar in 1743. While at Westminster he won the notice of the headmaster, William Markham, afterwards archbishop of York. On 26 June 1747 William matriculated from Christ Church, Oxford, and on 26 May 1750 he began law studies at the Middle Temple, London. A fellow student, lodging with his father, was Edmund Burke, and the young Burkes, including Edmund's brother Richard Burke, became lifelong friends. But, as William Burke put it in a verse exchange with Edmund:

Your word, dear Friend, has been my guiding Line,Your Conduct was, and is the Rule of mine;

A Notebook of Edmund Burke, 27Edmund Burke referred to William as his cousin, and said that their fathers had done so, but research has been unable to establish a blood connection. Edmund sketched ‘Phidippus’ (William) as having sudden violent, unopposable, but short-lived passion-fits. His understanding was 'strong and Quick but … not steady'; he saw things plainly, but not for long enough in the same posture to make the best judgment. Edmund suggested that William be employed where penetration into character was needed to seize 'an opportunity never to be retrieved', but should not be relied upon where 'attention, care, and power of comparing various and discordant matters' were needed. He 'would make an excellent ambassador', and had the aspect and demeanour of a gentleman (ibid., 57–9).

In 1755 William Burke graduated BCL from Oxford University, and on 28 November was called to the bar, but he never practised. Instead, he pieced together An Account of the European Settlements in America, published by Robert Dodsley in 1757, which had appeared in six editions by 1777. Stylometric analysis suggests that Edmund Burke contributed a history of puritanism in old and new England to the Account, but the rest was probably by William Burke. Works by any one of the Burkes usually included contributions from one or both of the others.

Burke easily made friends; one was Henry Fox, paymaster-general, who in 1759 may have helped get Burke the post of secretary and register of newly conquered Guadeloupe. Before going, he wrote a pamphlet published that year, Remarks on a Letter to Two Great Men. This replied to an earlier pamphlet, which had proposed that for peace Britain should re-cede Guadeloupe, and keep Canada. The Remarks argued that sugar-rich Guadeloupe was more valuable than barren Canada; the style suggests that Edmund Burke contributed a substantial portion. The Monthly Review (January 1760) thought that 'the hand of a master' was evident; the Critical Review (January 1760) thought it written 'with uncommon elegance … in the most polite terms', an opinion shared by Benjamin Franklin.

Burke resided on Guadeloupe for a year (1760–61). The governor, Campbell Dalrymple, liked his company, but disliked private trading by Burke and other officials. When an abortive peace negotiation in 1761 did propose re-ceding Guadeloupe, Burke, who had returned to England, wrote An examination of the commercial principles of the late negotiation between Great Britain and France in 1761 (1762), arguing that the return of Guadeloupe to France was unnecessary. He argued his case unsuccessfully with the prime minister, John Stuart, third earl of Bute; and his friend Fox, who was working to have the peace treaty approved by parliament, complained that the pamphlet had helped opposition. Burke compensated by persuading his rich friend Ralph Verney, second Earl Verney, MP for Buckinghamshire and a borough patron, to support the peace.

Fox supported Burke's bid to become governor of a colony, but in 1763 moved to the Lords as Baron Holland of Foxley, and without the powerful leadership of the Commons was unable to help Burke's career further, though Burke still thought Holland his 'great north star' (Brooke) in politics for many years. Early in 1765 Burke joined Edmund Burke and others in writing newspaper letters from 'A Country Tory', which satirized George Grenville's ministry with spoof praise for its 'tory' policies. In the next decade Burke may have been the sole author of at least six substantial newspaper letters and joint contributor of over forty-five others, stylometric analysis suggesting that his most frequent collaborator was Richard Burke. Among these are four in the series of six from an 'Occasional Writer' that appeared in The Gazetteer early in 1765, justifying the removal of the Grenville ministry and arguing that the Rockingham ministry was not Bute's tool; the other two may be ascribed to Edmund and Richard Burke.

In July 1765, at the formation of the Rockingham ministry, Burke became under-secretary of state to General Henry Seymour Conway, secretary of state for the southern department. Burke was offered a parliamentary seat at Wendover, Verney's pocket borough, but instead he insisted it should go to Edmund Burke, who was seated just in time for the stamp tax debate. Verney eventually secured William Burke a seat at Great Bedwyn, where he was returned on 16 June 1766. He spoke frequently in the Commons, but made no remarkable speeches. He remained in office under the Chatham administration, but moved with Conway to the northern department. However, Edmund Burke was now in increasingly bitter opposition; William Burke joined in writing letters against his own administration, then resigned in February 1767 to join his fellow Rockingham whigs in opposition. He was returned by Verney for Great Bedwyn at the 1768 election. According to John Brooke's article on Burke for the History of Parliament, Burke spoke 173 times in the 1768–74 parliament, becoming one of the twenty most frequent speakers in the Commons.

Burke was out of office, but thought himself financially independent, because the Burkes' friend Lauchlin Macleane had organized a group, including William Burke, Richard Burke, Lord Verney (who advanced the capital), and Laurence Sulivan, head of the faction in the East India Company opposed to Robert Clive, to speculate on India stock futures—which was illegal in England—on the Amsterdam stock exchange. The stock price rose steeply until the great slump of mid-1769, when the speculators were ruined. Burke, Macleane, and Sulivan were never again solvent, and Verney was nearly bankrupted. At the 1774 election, Burke was unable to pay Verney the sum required to retain the Commons seat at Great Bedwyn, and Rockingham refused to help him. He stood for Haslemere, but was defeated at the poll, and his petition against the result was rejected. Without a seat, he had lost his parliamentary immunity from his creditors.

The cure for insolvency was India. Macleane was sent to Bengal by Sulivan to earn the £10,000 he owed, and in 1774 returned to Britain as agent for Warren Hastings, governor of Bengal, and for the nawab of Arcot. Burke, who owed Sulivan £6000, applied vainly to replace Macleane in Bengal. In late 1776 came news from Madras that the governor, George, Baron Pigot, had been arrested by a military commander, and his supporters excluded from the council of the company at Madras.

The coup against Pigot opened a new possibility for Burke. Edmund Burke and Lady Rockingham rounded up votes for a company general court to reinstate Pigot and recall his opponents. William Burke won the job of taking out the orders restoring Pigot, and Rockingham suggested, in a letter for him to take to Pigot, that he become agent for the raja of Tanjore, whose interests Pigot had tried to protect before the coup, to counter the nawab's virulent spokesmen, Macleane and James and John Macpherson.

Pigot died before Burke arrived at Madras in August 1777, but Pigot's friends secured Burke the post of agent that he sought. He came home 'with uncommon rapidity' (Correspondence, 4.352) and was the effective ambassador Edmund Burke had predicted. He disabused Lord North of James Macpherson's imaginative slanders of the raja, and with Edmund's help wrote representations to the directors of the East India Company and to the king. All three Burkes may have combined on an unpresented protest against the nawab's ambitions, the debts which gave company officials an incentive to serve them, and the threat to Tanjore. In answer to a Macpherson pamphlet, it was expanded into Considerations on the policy of making conquests for the Mahometans in India by the British arms (1779), about half of which may be attributed to Edmund and half to William on stylistic grounds.

The Burkes' friend William Hickey had returned from Calcutta bearing a petition from British inhabitants against their new ‘supreme court’, with money to support it. He hired Burke to write an anti-court pamphlet, Observations upon the administration of justice in Bengal; occasioned by some late proceedings at Dacca, but its authorship was kept secret lest it offend ministerial lawyers needed to help the raja. Burke left it half finished when he received the all-important royally commanded letter to the raja—bland, but implicitly recognizing his independence from Arcot—and left for India with the letter in September 1780, leaving Edmund Burke to deal with the ministry, take over his proprietor's qualification of India stock, and argue in the court of proprietors against the nawab's ambition and his creditors. Edmund Burke may also have finished the Observations for publication.

In India the raja paid slowly; Burke, not being in company service, found a scheme for better employment dutifully vetoed by his old friend George, Baron Macartney, governor of Madras from 1781. When Edmund Burke was briefly paymaster-general in the Rockingham administration, he made William Burke deputy paymaster with responsibility for the British forces in India, a new job that Charles, first Marquess Cornwallis, governor-general of India from 1786, would call 'most unnecessary' (Correspondence of … Cornwallis, 1.465), and for which William Burke, wretched at calculations, was unfit. His deputies calculated while Burke dreamt hopeless schemes to make a fortune and pay debts. In 1784 Verney calculated that William Burke owed him £20,000. The regime of Governor-General Cornwallis, installed by William Pitt the younger, was unsympathetic to Burke, whom it regarded as superfluous. None the less, Burke attempted to show his devotion to his office, and in December 1790 joined Cornwallis at the governor-general's headquarters during the third Anglo-Mysore war.

Meanwhile, in Britain, Burke's salary payments were drawn by the younger Richard Burke, Edmund's son, and devoted to drawing down Burke's debts until, in May 1792, Richard wrote to Burke in India to say that it was safe for him to return to Britain. He did so in 1793 and tried to return to writing, and in 1794 translated for Edmund an address by Jacques-Pierre Brissot, but his out-of-date French needed much correction. By autumn 1795 his health was in decline, and in December he was arrested for the remains of his debt to Verney, who had died in 1791. Edmund Burke arranged for him to be released on a bond and for his salary and effects to be used to pay the Verney trustees, but Edmund remained uncertain of the extent of his debts and in late 1796 smuggled him to the Isle of Man, where debts from outside the island could not be collected. By this time Burke was helpless from two strokes, but he lingered on Man until his death in August 1798. He was buried on the Isle of Man. He was unmarried.


  • The correspondence of Edmund Burke, ed. T. W. Copeland and others, 10 vols. (1958–78)
  • Correspondence of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, ed. Earl Fitzwilliam and R. Bourke (1844)
  • D. Wecter, Edmund Burke and his kinsmen (1939)
  • W. B. Todd, A bibliography of Edmund Burke (1964)
  • L. S. Sutherland, The East India Company in eighteenth century politics (1952)
  • G. C. McElroy, ‘Edmund, William, and Richard Burke's first attack on Indian misrule, 1778’, Bodleian Library Record, 13 (1988), 52–65
  • W. Burke, letters to Lord Macartney, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague
  • Macartney MSS, Bodl. Oxf.
  • BL, Macartney MSS
  • Sheffield Central Library, Wentworth–Fitzwilliam MSS
  • BL OIOC, Francis MSS
  • F. P. Lock, Edmund Burke, 1: 1730–1784 (1998)
  • J. N. M. Maclean, Reward is secondary: the life of a political adventurer and an inquiry into the mystery of ‘Junius’ (1963)
  • The memoirs of William Hickey, ed. A. Spencer, 4 vols. (1913–25)
  • P. D. G. Thomas, ‘Check list of MPs speaking in the House of Commons, 1768–1774’, BIHR, 35 (1962), 220–26
  • Correspondence of Charles, first Marquis Cornwallis, ed. C. Ross, 2nd edn, 3 vols. (1859)
  • H. A. C. Sturgess, ed., Register of admissions to the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple, from the fifteenth century to the year 1944, 1 (1949), 342
  • J. Brooke, ‘Burke, William’, HoP, Commons, 1754–90
  • OId Westminsters


  • BL, dispatches relating to raja of Tanjore, Add. MS 39856
  • Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague
  • Northants. RO, corresp.
  • Sheff. Arch., corresp.
  • BL, Macartney MSS
  • BL OIOC, Francis MSS
  • Bodl. Oxf., Macartney MSS
  • NL Ire., letters to Charles O'Hara
  • Sheffield Central Library, Wentworth–Fitzwilliam MSS
  • U. Nott. L., letters to the third duke of Portland


Wealth at Death

in debt: Correspondence of Edmund Burke

British Library, Oriental and India Office Collections
L. Namier & J. Brooke, eds., , 3 vols. (1964); repr. (1985)
Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research
Bodleian Library, Oxford