Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Burke, William (d.1798)
BURKE, WILLIAM (d. 1798), supposed author of ‘Junius's Letters,’ the son of John and the kinsman of Edmund Burke [q. v.], was born in London, admitted into Westminster 1743, elected to Christ Church, Oxford, 1747, contributed a copy of elegiacs to the university collection on the death of the Prince of Wales in 1751, and took the degree of B.C.L. in 1755 (Welch). [Some notices of William Burke will be found under Edmund Burke.] The two kinsmen were travelling companions in 1752, worked together on the ‘Account of the European Settlements in America,’ which seems to have been written by W. Burke, and joined in befriending Emin the Armenian. Burke came into notice in 1759, as the author of ‘Remarks on the Letter to Two Great Men,’ an answer to Lord Bath's ‘Letter to Pitt and the Duke of Newcastle’ on the prospect of peace. In this pamphlet, and in another entitled ‘An Examination of the Commercial Principles of the late Negotiation,’ 1761, Burke, who held the office of secretary to Guadaloupe in 1762, strongly advocated our retention of the island. In 1763 he appears as the friend of Lord Verney, and a confidential mediator between him and George Grenville (Grenville Papers, ii. 49). He was under-secretary to General Conway, the secretary of state for the southern department, and the following year was moved into the northern department. On the downfall of the Rockingham ministry Burke resigned his office, which brought him 1,000l. a year. ‘To encourage me,’ Edmund Burke wrote, ‘he gave his own interests the first stab.’ By this time it is evident that he must have embarked in speculation. He and Edmund Burke had already befriended James Barry and sent him to Italy, and in a letter written to Barry in 1766 Burke says that their affairs—evidently speaking of his kinsmen Edmund and Richard—were so ‘well arranged’ that they were not uneasy at the prospect of a change in the ministry which would entail loss of place (Barry, Works, i. 77). To his friendship with Lord Verney, who seems to have been a partner in his speculations, Burke owed his return to parliament as member for Great Bedwin, Wiltshire, on 16 June 1766; in March 1768 R. Brudenell was returned in his place, but, as the latter chose another constituency, Burke regained his seat in the following May, and held it until the dissolution in September 1774 (Members of Parliament, ii. 132, 144). Burke did not take a prominent part in the debates of the house. ‘As an orator,’ H. Walpole says, ‘he had neither manner nor talents, and yet wanted little of his cousin's presumption’ (Memoirs of the Reign of George III, ii. 274). He was an active pushing man, well acquainted with the leaders of the whig party, though generally disliked by them. He lived much with his cousin Edmund, first in Queen Anne Street and afterwards at Gregories, and a strong attachment existed between them. For a time Burke's stockjobbing transactions prospered. In 1769, however, the crash came, and he was ruined (Dilke, Papers of a Critic, ii. 334–42). With Dr. Markham, his old schoolmaster, he had long been on terms of friendship. About the time of his disaster, however, their intimacy ceased, and in 1771 Markham, then bishop of Chester, in a letter addressed to Edmund Burke, accused him of saying something in, as it seems, a private conversation with himself which rendered him liable to ‘a criminal prosecution in a matter of state.’ This accusation was part of an attack made by the bishop on Edmund Burke, who in the draft of his reply speaks warmly of his kinsman's character, and of the kindness he had shown him in introducing him to Lord Rockingham, in the resignation of his office, and on other occasions (Works, i. 158). Burke's relationship to his cousin gained him admission to the club in Gerrard Street, and accordingly he appears in Goldsmith's ‘Retaliation.’ Among the various stories told about the occasion of this poem, it is said that the notices Goldsmith first wrote of the Burkes were so severe, that Hugh Boyd [q.v.] persuaded the poet to alter them and entirely rewrite the character of William, for he was sure that if the Burkes saw what was originally written of them the peace of the club would be disturbed (Boyd, Miscellaneous Works, i. 188).
Having lost his seat for Great Bedwin, Burke, in the summer of 1774, contested Haslemere, Surrey, was defeated, and petitioned unsuccessfully, the election being confirmed in May 1775 (Beatson, Political Register, ii. 255). Broken in fortune and harassed by judgments against him for debt, Burke vainly sought a place in the East India Company's service. The feeling against him was strong, and he found no friends. In 1777 he managed to get to Madras by carrying despatches for Lord Pigot, from whom he hoped to obtain employment. On his arrival at Madras he found Lord Pigot dead. He brought out with him letters of recommendation from Edmund and John Burke to Philip Francis, asking Francis to do something for him in case he should go to Bengal. These letters he sent to Francis, who wrote kindly to him, inviting him to his house, but telling him at the same time that he could do little to help him (Memoirs of Sir P. Francis, ii. 101). He did not accept Francis's invitation, for having been fortunate enough to obtain the appointment of agent to the Rajah of Tanjore he at once returned to England. In 1779 he went back to India as deputy paymaster of the king's troops, and in 1782 was made commissary-general of the forces in the East Indies. Lord Cornwallis considered that the sending of him out was ‘an unnecessary job,’ and said in a letter to Lord Rawdon, dated 1789, that he had done him what service he could, but that with Burke service meant putting large sums of money into his pocket, and that if he had done that he would have deserved to be impeached, giving two examples of the ‘extraordinary’ proposals which Burke made for his own advantage, and to which he refused to consent (Cornwallis Correspondence, i. 450–2, ii. 172). These notices disprove the statement of the editors of the correspondence of Edmund Burke, that Burke was ‘much beloved’ by the earl (Burke, Works, i. 347). After his return to England in 1793 he lived chiefly, if not wholly, at Beaconsfield, and notices of the shattered state of his health occur in Edmund Burke's letters (ib. ii. 244, 312, 315). He survived his kinsman, and died in 1798. Burke is said by Horace Walpole to have written with ingenuity and sharpness, and to have done good service to his party with his pen. An attempt has been made to show that he was or may have been the author of ‘Junius's Letters.’ Besides the share he had in the ‘European Settlements in America,’ and the pamphlets on the peace negotiations, from 1764 onwards he appears occasionally to have written letters on political matters, chiefly under the signature of ‘Valens,’ in the ‘London Evening Post’ and other papers. Some of these letters are said to have been written in conjunction with Edmund Burke (Almon, Anecdotes, i. 22, ii. 347, where some of these letters are printed). He also translated the address of M. Brissot to his constituents in 1794. This translation he submitted to Edmund Burke, who freely condemned it, amended it, and wrote a preface to it. Several of Burke's letters are contained in the correspondence of Edmund Burke, and in Barry's works.[Welch's Alumni Westmon. (1852); Macknight's Life of Edmund Burke; Dilke's Papers of a Critic; Grenville Papers, ed. Smith; Cornwallis Correspondence, ed. Ross; Parkes's Memoirs of Sir P. Francis, ed. Merivale; Works of James Barry, 1809; Almon's Anecdotes; Boyd's Miscellaneous Works; Walpole's Memoirs of the Reign of George III, ed. Sir D. Le Marchant; Return of Members of Parliament; Beatson's Political Register; J. C. Symons's William Burke, the author of Junius.]