Thomas Burke (c. 1747 – 2 December 1783) was an American physician, lawyer, and statesman from Hillsborough, North Carolina. He represented North Carolina as a delegate to the Continental Congress and was Governor of the state.
Burke was born in Galway around 1747. By 1764 he had emigrated. Thomas went to Virginia and practiced medicine for a number of years. He studied law, and began its practice in Norfolk, Virginia. He became an early supporter of the American Revolution, writing tracts in opposition to the Stamp Act. In 1774 he moved to Hillsborough, North Carolina.
Burke’s neighbors made him a member of the provisional or rebel government that met in convention at Halifax in 1776. There he had a part in the debate that led to Carolina’s new constitution. He was chosen as a delegate to the Continental Congress on 20 December 1776 and arrived in Philadelphia to take his seat on 4 February 1777. In September that year most of the Congress were preparing to flee Philadelphia as the British advanced. Burke instead went to join General Nash’s North Carolina troops defendfing the city. He fought in the Battle of Brandywine before rejoining the Congress.
Burke served in Congress until 1781, when he was chosen to be Governor of North Carolina. He returned home to assume that office. As governor he was active in supporting and encouraging the militia in its resistance to British and Tory forces. Then, in September, he was captured by Tories, and imprisoned by the British Army on James Island near Charleston, South Carolina.
Burke was allowed to live freely on the island under parole, but he was subject to mistreatment and feared assassination. Finally, on 16 January 1782, he escaped and made his way to North Carolina. He wrote to the British that he still considered himself under the terms of his parole. Soon after this he was exchanged and set at liberty, so he resumed his duties as governor. But many voters considered that he had broken his word, so in April of 1782 he was defeated in his run for governor by Alexander Martin.
Burke’s health never recovered from his term of imprisonment. He retired to his home, known as Tyaquin in Orange County. He died there on 2 December 1783 and was buried in the Mars Hill Churchyard near Hillsborough.
Burke was unusual for being a practicing Roman Catholic who succeeded politically in an era when Catholics held little political power and were often discriminated against.
Burke County, North Carolina is named for him.