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Burke, Richardlocked

  • George C. McElroy
  •  and Elizabeth R. Lambert

Burke, Richard (1733–1794), political writer and lawyer, was born in Dublin on 18 December 1733, the sixth of the eleven children of Richard Burke (d. 1761), attorney, and his wife, Mary, née Nagle (c.1702–1770), daughter of Garrett Nagle. Both his parents were Irish. Among his elder brothers was the politician and writer Edmund Burke.

From 1741 Richard Burke, alongside his brothers Garrett and Edmund, attended Abraham Shackleton's school at Ballitore. In 1752 he went to London to train in commerce, and in 1759 he travelled to Grenada. His first published political writing may have been a contribution to Remarks on the Letter to Two Great Men (1760). This has been attributed to his kinsman William Burke on the basis of stylometric analysis by George C. McElroy, but was considered by earlier commentators to be the work of Charles Townshend. The section warning that colonies with no fear of the French were more likely to seek independence gained most attention, and McElroy has argued that this section, written in short pointed sentences, was Richard's. Richard Burke's writings have been difficult to identify as he always wrote anonymously or pseudonymously and mostly in collaboration with Edmund or William Burke. He may have written the accounts of the fighting in India for the Annual Register in 1760 and 1764 and the review in the latter of volume 1 of Robert Orme's History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan, suggesting that he, not Edmund, was the first Burke to become interested in Indian government. He continued to contribute small items to the Annual Register, particularly concerning Edmund's speeches and actions, after Edmund handed over the editorship to Thomas English.

Burke was in Liverpool in 1762, when he successfully urged traders to address the crown in protest against the anticipated return to France of islands in the West Indies captured during the Seven Years' War. In 1763 he was appointed collector of customs in Grenada, but he was given a leave of absence because of ill health two years later. If he was the author of a series of pro-Rockingham letters from 'A Spitalfields Weaver' in the Public Advertiser that year, he had returned to London by July. He was probably one of the many writers who contributed letters in support of the Rockingham administration, behind pseudonyms such as Tyro, Liber, Vindex, Idem, Tranquilius, Thersites (in the case of the principal series supporting the administration), and ‘A Disappointed Tory’. The sentence constructions associated with Richard Burke appear less frequently after the fall of the Rockingham ministry, but probably contributed to several articles critical of the government and defending his brother Edmund Burke. In 1768 Edmund Burke sought for him a parliamentary seat, without success.

Burke returned to Grenada in 1769, but his career there was again marred by health problems. In 1770 he purchased land in St Vincent from the Caribs, but the government opposed his purchases and those made by other adventurers, and the purchases were declared illegal by act of parliament in 1771. He had returned to Britain by 12 November 1771, when he entered Lincoln's Inn. He continued to attempt to validate his purchases in St Vincent, and a ruling from the commissioners for trade in July 1772 disallowed the 1771 act, but his claim was decisively rejected by the Treasury board in November 1775. In September that year he was removed from his office in Grenada following a breach of government orders by his deputy William Senhouse. He also assisted his brother in electoral politics, writing Edmund Burke's farewell letter to the electors of Wendover for him in 1774, and represented him in October 1774 during the election in Bristol. He was called to the bar in 1777, and travelled the western circuit.

During this period Burke probably wrote reports of his brother's speeches in the press, and wrote acidly against the ministry's American policy. As early as 15 April 1769, ‘O. C.’, arguably a collaboration between Richard and Edmund Burke, had derided an assertion by James Macpherson (‘Seneca’) that the Grafton ministry had extinguished American discontent, and that the colonists could soon be expected to take up arms. When this occurred, from 23 September 1775 he pursued a high-spirited, satirical attack on the ministry and its American actions in a series of fourteen letters from Valens in the London Evening-Post (several of which were reprinted in The Gazetteer), which the Post treated as a special feature. When the letters were published in pamphlet form by John Almon in 1777, Edmund Burke wrote the preface, but Almon believed that most of the letters were written by Richard. The styles of William and Edmund Burke can be identified in the latter seven of the series from other sources; the author of the first seven letters and most of the last three may therefore have been Richard Burke.

Richard Burke, like his brother, was active in the Buckinghamshire meeting of 1780 which called for economical reform. He also appeared in two legal cases that were important to the opposition. On 29 August 1780 he was a counsel for Captain John Caton, a Bristol merchant who opposed the American War of Independence, and had been seized by the press gang, allegedly for political motives, and subsequently released when it was confirmed that he no longer owned any merchant ships that could be commandeered by the navy. Burke successfully pursued Caton's claim for damages, but won only £150 instead of the hoped-for £5000. That year he was also counsel for General John Burgoyne in the successful defeat of the petition by government supporters against Burgoyne's election as MP for Preston. During the second Rockingham administration, Richard Burke was briefly secretary to the Treasury, from 6 April to 15 July 1782. He resumed that office a year later under the FoxNorth coalition. He may have been the author of A brief and impartial review of the state of Great Britain at the commencement of the session of 1783, actually an overview of the coalition ministry's proposed legislative measures, although the section urging the Irish to be content with their recent gains was written in a style more like that of Edmund Burke. The section on India not only addressed topics that would reappear in Edmund's India Bill speech, but outdid anything Edmund had yet said of Warren Hastings and his supporters: British misfortunes in India 'originated solely and exclusively from the wild ambition of one man, supported by a corrupt confederacy at home, unchecked by directorial or parliamentary control' (p. 45). If this opinion was Richard Burke's, no wonder that during the Hastings impeachment, for which he was retained as counsel by the prosecution, it was he, not Edmund, who was impersonated by the actress Mary Stephens (Becky) Wells.

In 1783 Richard Burke was appointed recorder of Bristol. The post did not fully compensate for his debts, many of which had been incurred in 1769 when he, William Burke, and others had lost thousands of pounds when East India Company futures collapsed on the Amsterdam stock exchange. From November 1787 to April 1788 he lived in Paris while his brother and friends arranged for the payment of his creditors. His last published writing was his charge to the Bristol grand jury, delivered in April 1793, less than a year before he died, which the jurors agreed should be printed as a pamphlet at their expense. The reason was not his businesslike and humane recommendation that the jurors, conscious of the rise in criminal gangs, should be cautious of indicting anyone without truly convincing evidence, but the lengthy adjuration added to the speech by Edmund Burke against subversive doctrines, with a stinging contrast between the proclaimed goals of the French revolutionaries and the contrary results.

As the younger brother of Edmund Burke, Richard Burke suffered by comparison. His good-natured sense of humour and the debts he accumulated in East India stock and through land speculations on the island of St Vincent added to the perception of him as an intellectual lightweight who was a millstone around his brother's neck. James Boswell described him as rough and wild, but others, such as Oliver Goldsmith and Fanny Burney, remarked upon and appreciated his wit and good spirits. David Garrick and Sir Joshua Reynolds readily assisted him financially. Both John Almon and Robert Bisset praised his abilities as a writer.

Richard Burke never married, but his devotion to Edmund's wife, Jane, and to his nephew, also named Richard, gave him a rich family life. Following a period of ill health, he died unexpectedly on 5 February 1794 at Lincoln's Inn, London (where he had lived for some years), after a coughing fit. He was buried on 10 February 1794 in the parish church of St Mary All Saints, Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire.


  • The correspondence of Edmund Burke, ed. T. W. Copeland and others, 10 vols. (1958–78)
  • A. P. I. Samuels, The early life, correspondence and writings of the Rt. Hon. Edmund Burke, LL. D. (1923)
  • C. Dilke, The papers of a critic (1875)
  • Boswell: the applause of the jury, 1782–1785, ed. I. S. Lustig and F. A. Pottle (1982), vol. 12 of The Yale editions of the private papers of James Boswell (1950–89)
  • Boswell: the English experiment, 1785–1789, ed. I. S. Lustig and F. A. Pottle (1986), vol. 13 of The Yale editions of the private papers of James Boswell (1950–89)
  • Boswell, laird of Auchinleck, 1778–1782, ed. J. W. Reed and F. A. Pottle (1977), vol. 11 of The Yale editions of the private papers of James Boswell (1950–89)
  • E. E. E. Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, countess of Minto, Life and letters of Sir Gilbert Elliot, Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, 41 (1956)
  • R. J. S. Hoffman, Edmund Burke: New York Agent (Philadelphia, 1956)
  • D. Nester, Edmund Burke and his kinsmen (Boulder, 1939)
  • G. McElroy, ‘Edmund, William, and Richard Burke's first attack on Indian misrule, 1778’, Bodleian Library Record, 13 (1988), 52–65
  • J. Maclean, Reward is secondary (1963)
  • Public Advertiser (1765–76)
  • London Evening-Post (1775)
  • The Gazetteer (1775)


  • BL, letters to Sir Frederick Houldimand, Add. MSS 21706–21707
  • BL OIOC, Francis papers
  • Bodl. Oxf., Macartney papers
  • Northants. RO, corresp. with Edmund Burke
  • Sheff. Arch., corresp. with Edmund Burke