The Celebrated Dr Burgh

British politician

James Burgh established his dissenting academy on Newington Green in 1750. He was the son of a Church of Scotland minister in Madderty, Scotland, where he was brought up to be a Presbyterian. Upon moving to London, Burgh found himself deemed a ‘non-conformist’ and thus defined by the law as a second-class citizen. People who dissented from the Anglican Church, like Burgh, were thus made to feel alienated from English society[1], a fact that might account for Burgh’s interest in libertarian issues, notably, Parliamentary reform, throughout his life.

Burgh not only taught at his academy but also published books on education including  ‘Thoughts on Education’ (1747) and “Youth’s Friendly Monitor” (1754) in which he offered “religious, moral and intellectual guidance”[2] to young people. In ‘Thoughts on Education’, Burgh proposed a broad curriculum that would “enable boys to achieve a comfortable, decent life”[3]. It included “a grounding in grammar, Latin, Greek, French, penmanship, music, drawing, mathematics, book-keeping, geography, astronomy, anatomy, history, biography and political principles” [4]. Even by today’s standards, this is a widespread of subjects, despite conspicuously lacking the science subjects we would consider part of a core curriculum today. Although the sciences were developing rapidly and causing widespread interest during the 18th century, they were not regarded as important enough for inclusion in a vocational curriculum. Another notable omission is Religious teachings that might have stemmed from his own experience.

Burgh’s commitment to the radical causes of his day took him far beyond his educational work. He is best known for his magnum opus ‘Political Disquisitions; or an Enquiry into Public Errors, Defects, and Abuses’ (1774-1775) in which he developed the reformist themes of equal representation, shorter Parliaments, rotation in office, and the use of the ballot; themes that were circulating amongst radical thinkers at the time, and which were to have a direct bearing on the framing of the American constitution in 1789.

Benjamin Franklin, a member of the ‘Committee of Five’ that drafted the declaration of independence, met Burgh at the “Club of Honest Whig’s”[5] which was held at St Paul’s Coffee House beside St Paul’s Cathedral. Here, Burgh discussed his radical ideas with Richard Price, minister to the Newington Green Meeting House, and other “leading dissenting clergymen and schoolmasters in the metropolitan area” [6]. Apart from Franklin, Price and Burgh, the club’s members included Joseph Priestly, a leading scientist and Unitarian, William Rose, who co-founded the Whiggish ‘Monthly Review’, and John Canton an eminent scientist and friend of Benjamin Franklin. When Canton died in 1775, the Rev John Calder, “a leader of the Unitarian movement”[7] joined the group that was dominated by dissenters like Burgh. It was described as a “club of friends of liberty and science” by one of its members [8]. Discussions ranged widely, taking in “natural philosophy, morals, education, mathematics, statistics and libertarian political thought”[9].  James Burgh’s ideas about parliamentary reform, such as his famous saying; “All lawful authority, legislative and executive, originates from the people”[10],  would have found a warm reception amongst such company.

Burgh, was described by Boswell (the biographer of Samuel Johnson), as “a stiff positive man” who was “knowing and shrewd”[11]. For his part, Burgh praised Boswell’s writings. In Burgh’s own writings, parliamentary reform became the dominant theme[12]. He attacked the principle of taxation without representation, both at home and in the British colonies in his ‘Political Disquisitions (v1 Bk 2).  Not surprisingly, his book attracted a following when it was published in Philadelphia in 1775, with a list of subscribers that included George Washington and a dozen delegates to the Second Continental Congress; effectively the first attempt at forming a government of all the American states, and the precursor of a ‘United States of America’.  The parliamentary reforms that Burgh advocated found a receptive audience amongst the American patriots who were busy drafting a new constitution for an America soon to be freed from colonial oppression.

Aged 61 and in failing health, Burgh had to leave off his writings, apologising to the readers of his ‘Political Disquisitions’ for laying down his pen;

 “When the author wrote the general preface to these disquisitions, he proposed to lay before the public more than three volumes of the material he had collected. What these three volumes contain, is the most interesting to the public; and his daily health breaking disqualifies him for proceeding farther at present”. (Preface to v3 of the 1775 edition)

By the time of his death in 1715, Burgh had become popular enough for Josiah Quincy II, an American patriot, to describe him as “the celebrated Dr Burgh”[13].


[1] Carla H. Hay. The Making of a Radical: The Case of James Burgh. Journal of British Studies V. 18, No. 2 (Spring, 1979), pp. 90-117

[2] Michael G. Moran (ed.) Eighteenth-century British and American Rhetorics and Rhetoricians: Critical studies and sources. Westport Conn. Westwood Press.

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] Verner W. Crane. The Club of Honest Whigs. Friends of Science and Liberty. The William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 23, No. 2 (Apr., 1966): 210-233.

[6] Ibid p216

[7] ibid p221

[8] ibid p223

[9] ibid p223

[10] Political Disquisitions. Book 1 Ch.1

[11] ibid p228

[12] ibid p230

[13] ibid p232

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