Date of Award
Master of Arts in History
William DeWitt Metz
Tristam Burges was born in Rochester, Massachusetts, on February 26 1770. After beginning his educational career rather late in life, he entered Brown University as a sophomore in 1793. A fine student, he was chosen to deliver the class valedictory address in l796. Burges then settled down to practice law in his adopted state.
Through his law practice Burges became well known in Providence and interested in local politics. He took the Federalist Party stand in opposition to Jefferson’s economic policies before the War of 1812. In 1811 he was elected to the State House of Representatives. He served one term and resigned in 1812 after being reelected. In May, l817 he was chosen by the State Grand Committee as Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. After a year of service he was replaced by the Republicans when his party fell out of power.
In 1825 Burges was nominated to run for Congress by the federalist element in the Republican Party. This nomination was made possible when Job Durfee, an incumbent Congressman who failed renomination; bolted the party and ran as an Independent. In the ensuing election Burges polled the highest number of votes and was elected. This began a career in Congress that was to span a ten year period, for he was consistently re elected until l835.
In Congress Burges ardently defended Rhode Island from the attacks of the south. His most vehement clashes came with Congressman George MacDuffie of South Carolina over the tariff. Burges, influenced by family connections in the Rhode Island woolen industry as well as by the needs of the State, fought for a high protective tariff. He supported the Tariff of Abominations in 1828 and the bill. of 1830. Over the compromise lowering of the tariff in 1833, however, he denounced Henry Clay and voted against the measure. His later years in Congress might be termed the anti-Jackson years. With the exception of the nullification controversy, Burges
was in constant opposition to the President. This is especially true in the controversy over the Bank of the United States and the French spoliation claims. The bank controversy also caused Burges to break with his fellow Rhode Island Congressman, Dutee J. Pearce. This had political repercussions at home.
As a member of the anti-Jackson forces, it was easy for Burges to follow the general shift into the Whig Party. In 1835 he ran as a Whig for his sixth term in congress but was beaten by a narrow margin. Along with his break with Pearce, this defeat may be attributed to a general decline of Whig popularity at that time. In l836 Burges ran as a Whig for the governorship, and was again defeated. After this defeat Burges’ only political activity occurred in 1839 when he lost in a race for the governorship. Burges had not wanted to run in this election, but was put forth against his will by Whigs who were dissatisfied with the existing administration.
After this final defeat in l839, Burges retired to his family farm in Seekonk, Massachusetts, where he lived in partial seclusion, Tristam Burges died at his home on October 13, 1853, in his eighty-third year. He was buried in Providence---the town he had represented for many years.
Sullivan, Thomas John, "From Federalist to Whig: The Political Career of Tristam Burges" (1964). Open Access Master's Theses. Paper 1804.