Thomas Burke Chosen Governor

Woodcut of Thomas Burke, date unknown. Image from the State Archives

Woodcut of Thomas Burke, date unknown. Image from the State Archives

On June 25, 1781, Thomas Burke was chosen by the General Assembly to serve as North Carolina’s third governor under the constitution of 1776. At the time of Burke’s appointment, the state was ravaged by war and on the brink of anarchy. Government on both the state and county levels had almost completely broken down.

Burke took extraordinary measures to reform the militia, increase essential revenues, banish intractable Loyalists and defend against renewed British attack from both Virginia and South Carolina. Acting on his own authority, he established special courts and assumed for himself veto power over legislative acts.

Less than three months after assuming office, Burke’s frantic efforts came to an end in Hillsborough when he and several other state officials and officers of the Continental Line were taken prisoner by the Loyalist leader David Fanning. Transported south to Wilmington and then to Charleston, (technically it was still Charlestown) Burke was released on parole after an ordeal of two months. Fearing that his life was in danger, however, he escaped from his very loose confinement and returned to North Carolina and the governorship, thereby violating both his parole and the code of honor in the eyes of many contemporaries.

When the embittered Burke convened the General Assembly in April of 1782, his rather ambiguous offer to retire from public office was accepted almost without remark. Having served only 10 months as governor, two of those as a prisoner, he returned to Hillsborough a ruined and deeply disillusioned man. He died less than two years later.

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