Front Page Titles (by Subject) Thomas Burke: Whig Radical - Literature of Liberty, Spring 1981, vol. 4, No. 1
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Thomas Burke: Whig Radical - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Spring 1981, vol. 4, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Thomas Burke: Whig Radical
“Thomas Burke, Paradoxical Patriot.” The Historian 41(August 1979):664–81.
Thomas Burke's erratic political philosophy has made him a puzzling figure in Revolutionary history, even though his influence as a delegate in Congress securely grounded the concept of balancing powers—a concept unique and essential to the newly created bicameral legislature.
Burke migrated to the colonies from Ireland in the 1760s, taught himself law, and became a debt collector for Scottish merchants. He was elected to the second provincial convention where he lept to influence in the emerging revolutionary movement. Soon after, Burke was elected a delegate to the Congress in Philadelphia, where he dramatically acted out his intense commitment to republican ideology.
The hallmark of Burke's Whiggism in his early congressional career was opposition to national authority. He was very skeptical of the undelegated, unrestricted powers exercised by Congress. “The more experience I can acquire,” he wrote, “the stronger is my Conviction that unlimited power can not be safely Trusted to any man or set of men on Earth.”
Burke supported a bicameral system, believing such a government would forestall potential tyranny and more faithfully mirror the popular will.
Had Burke retired from Congress in May of 1777, his career could be viewed as one who assisted in the “restructuring of power.” Yet his unpredictable outbursts and the vehemence of his opposition showed signs of instability which led to a major crisis in Burke's life, and eventually to a turning point in his career.
In April of 1778, Burke walked out on a committee session and thereby left Congress one vote short of a quorum. Burke's temperamental withdrawal rankled Congress, but exposed a glaring weakness of the Congressional system. Burke was not so much astounded that his departure immobilized the Congressional act, as he was appalled at the violation of his right “to judge the reasonableness or unreasonableness of any act of power, and even to resist it if unreasonable.”
Burke held fast to the justice of his stance but the protracted ill feelings of his colleagues forced a turning point in his career. No longer did he allow himself to be as isolated among peers.
Burke departed ideologically from states' rights republicanism to embrace a pragmatic nationalism. This radical change carried over into his personal life, where Burke subordinated abstract ideals to practical financial considerations.
After leaving Congress in 1781, Burke was made governor of North Carolina in a troubled period of civil warfare between the Tories and the Whigs. By 1783, through a series of misfortunes, he once again lost his faith in popular government. Only his Whig distrust of power and tyranny remained a consistent element in his political credo. If the term radical can be used to describe Burke, it applies to the erratic alterations of his views rather than to any specific position. Nevertheless, we should not ignore the impact of Burke's influence in the creation of checks and balances.