BURGOYNE, John (1723-92).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1761 - 1768
29 Nov. 1768 - 4 Aug. 1792

Family and Education

b. 4 Feb. 1723, 2nd s. of Capt. John Burgoyne, and gd.-s. of Sir John Burgoyne, 3rd Bt., of Sutton Park, Beds., by Anna Maria, da. of Charles Burneston of Hackney. educ. Westminster 1733-8. m. 1743, Lady Charlotte Stanley (d. 1776), da. of Edward, 11th Earl of Derby, 1da. d.v.p. About 1780 Burgoyne took as his mistress Susan Caulfield, an actress, by whom he had 4 children.

Offices Held

Cornet 1 Royal Drag. 1744, lt. 1745, capt. 1745; sold out 1751; capt. 11 Drag. 1756; capt.-lt. 2 Ft. Gds. and lt-col. 1758; lt.-col. commandant 16 Lt. Drag. 1759; col. 1762; col. commandant 16 Lt. Drag. 1763-79; gov. of Fort William 1769-79; maj.-gen. 1772; lt.-gen. 1777; c.-in-c. Ireland 1782-4; col. 4 Ft. 1782- d.


Burgoyne is said to have formed a close friendship at Westminster School with Lord Strange, with whose sister he made a runaway match. Her father disapproved, but Strange and Burgoyne remained fast friends; and Burgoyne later described him as ‘the man of whose integrity and political judgment I had the highest veneration’.1

Burgoyne had little money of his own, and received none with his wife; in 1751 he sold his commission and retired to France to avoid his creditors. Having become reconciled with Lord Derby, in 1756 he returned to England and re-entered the army.

I cannot help saying [he wrote to George Warde, major 11th Dragoons, 23 Nov. 17572] that the circumstances of serving under so many men whom I had commanded appeared so disagreeable to me, when my friends proposed my entering a second time into the Army, that I should not have suffered any application to be made for me had I not had good assurances that I should not long continue a captain, and ... that my situation would have procured me ... as many indulgences as could be made consistently with the good of the service.

In 1758 he served on the expeditions to Cherbourg and St. Malo, and in 1759 raised a regiment of light dragoons of which he became lieutenant-colonel commandant. He drew up an elaborate set of instructions for his officers,3 in which he forbade swearing and exhorted them to treat their men as ‘thinking beings’. An officer should devote ‘a short space of time ... to reading each day’; should understand French; write English ‘with swiftness and accuracy’; be ‘well versed in figures’; have ‘a competent knowledge of farriery’; etc. His biographer remarks: ‘Burgoyne appears always to have been fond of writing’ (in fact he let his pen run away with him).

In 1760 Sir William Peere Williams, an officer in Burgoyne’s regiment, offered to bring him into Parliament for Midhurst. Williams told Newcastle, who seemed not to approve; but Hans Stanley informed the Duke that ‘Col. Burgoyne will honourably and steadily adhere to every assurance he gives your Grace on this occasion’.4 He was returned unopposed.

In April 1761 he went as a volunteer on the expedition to Belle Isle, and in March 1762 was sent to Portugal in command of an Anglo-Portuguese brigade. In August he distinguished himself by capturing Valentia. Count la Lippe, the commander-in-chief, wrote to Bute of Burgoyne’s ‘remarkable valour, conduct, and presence of mind’; and recommended him as a ‘most excellent’ officer, ‘extremely worthy of his Majesty’s remembrance’.5 In October he was promoted colonel—‘out of regard to Lord Strange’, wrote Bute, ‘and your own merit’;6 and in January 1763 returned to England.

He supported Grenville’s Administration, and applied for the post of chief secretary to the lord lieutenant of Ireland.7 On 16 Feb. 1764 he wrote to Grenville about the coming debate on general warrants:8

I take the liberty to communicate to you that I have considered the question of tomorrow’s debate ... and am very earnest in my wishes to avoid the decision of it at this juncture. I am also very desirous ... to speak my sentiments in the House, and ... I humbly offer myself to second any motion for postponing the question.

His offer was not accepted, and the very full reports of that debate by Walpole and Harris do not mention him; but he is named by Newdigate among the speakers.

In July 1765 Rockingham classed him as ‘pro’, but he voted against the repeal of the Stamp Act. 1765-8 only one speech by him is recorded: on 3 Feb. 1766 for the Declaratory Act. In the autumn of 1766 he visited Germany to study the battlefields of the seven years’ war; attended the Austrian manoeuvres; and wrote a paper, ‘Observations and reflections upon the present military state of Prussia, Austria, and France’,9 which he gave to Chatham. He supported Chatham’s Administration, and voted with them over the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767.

In 1768 he contested Preston on Lord Derby’s interest, and after one of the most violent elections of the century was seated on petition. In 1769 he was tried for incitement to violence at the election; and admitted that he had gone to the poll with a guard of soldiers and a loaded pistol in each hand. He was fined £1,000, and was fortunate to escape imprisonment.

On 29 Oct. 1768 Grafton wrote to Lord Granby recommending Burgoyne’s ‘fair pretensions’ to ‘an early mark of royal favour, on account of an expensive attack he has made in a part of the country the least affected to Government, and which has cost him a sum which I dare hardly name’.10 Burgoyne’s appointment to be governor of Fort William followed. To be colonel of a regiment and governor of a fort without having reached the rank of major-general in the army was unusual even for an officer with Burgoyne’s good connexions. He was anxious to please and succeed in society; and took pride in being known as a wit, man of fashion, and successful dramatist (Walpole thought his play The Heiress ‘the best modern comedy’11).

Burgoyne described his ‘principles of acting in public’ as ‘to assist Government in my general line of conduct; but that in great national points ... I would ever hold myself at liberty to maintain my own opinion’.12 On at least three occasions between 1768 and 1774 he spoke and voted against the court: 13 Feb. 1771, the Spanish convention; 15 Feb. 1773, the expedition against St. Vincent; and 25 Feb. 1774, Grenville’s Act. Over 70 speeches by him in the Parliament of 1768 are recorded, but he had no great reputation as a speaker: Walpole calls him ‘a pompous man, whose speeches were studied and yet not striking’,13 and ‘who had more reading than parts’.14

On 13 Apr. 1772, encouraged it is said by the Duke of Grafton,15 he moved for a select committee to examine into the affairs of the East India Company; and became its chairman. It investigated events in India since 1757, and its revelations had considerable influence on parliamentary opinion, but it did not shape Government policy: Burgoyne was only the fly on the chariot wheel. He did not, however, intend to allow the reports of his committee to go unheeded: ‘Not to proceed against persons who by the reports appear guilty’, he said on 3 May 1773,16 ‘will be to give encouragement to others hereafter to offend. We should show that we have an eye to discern, a hand to correct.’ Disclaiming all personal motive and acting independently of Government (‘I have undertaken the work of a Hercules with the strength of a pigmy’17), he aimed to despoil Clive of his Indian wealth. On 10 May his resolutions condemning the conduct of the Company’s servants in India were passed, but his vote of censure on Clive was defeated.

He resented the failure of Administration to support him and by 1774 was on bad terms with North. ‘Nothing short of professed enmity’, he wrote,18 ‘could place me further than I found myself from the confidence of this minister.’ Yet he supported the Government’s policy towards America. ‘We have like an indulgent parent already ruined America by our lenity and tenderness’, he said, 19 Apr. 1774, on Rose Fuller’s motion to repeal the tea duty.19 ‘I am sure the tax is not the grievance but the power of laying it. That power I shall ever maintain exists in the Parliament of Great Britain.’

When in January 1775 he was offered a command in America he at first professed unwillingness to go but agreed when told he had been named by the King. Next, dissatisfied with ‘the bare superintendence of a small brigade’ and desirous of ‘a principal or at least an active part’, he asked to be made governor of New York.20 On 27 Feb. 1775, in a set speech, he delivered his creed on America:21 ‘Is there a man in England ... who does not think the parliamentary rights of Great Britain a cause to fight for, to bleed and die for? ... The reason of the nation has been long convinced; the trial now only is whether we have spirit to support our conviction.’ ‘I spoke from my heart’, he wrote of this speech,22 ‘and to that cause I impute its success ... Lord North professed ... that it had done more essential service to Government than any speech of the year.’ But it did not procure him the command at New York, which, though the King thought Burgoyne ‘would best manage any negotiation’,23 had been promised to Howe.

Before leaving he obtained permission to return to England for the winter, ‘unless he should have a separate command, or ... should be employed in any service ... beyond the common routine of military business’.24 He also showed great concern for his wife in case he should be killed: ‘To supply the requisites of her rank, to reward the virtues of her character’, he wrote,25 ‘I could only bequeath her a legacy of my imprudences’; and he wrote a letter, to be delivered ‘when the writer of it will be no more’, recommending her to the King’s charity.26

Hardly had he arrived at Boston before he complained to North that his situation was ‘too humble ... to promise ... any hope of contributing essentially to his Majesty’s service’:27 Gage, the c.-in-c., was ‘unequal to his present station’; there was a ‘want of capacity’ in the administrative departments; money, food, and equipment were needed; the intelligence service was bad, etc.28 After witnessing the battle of Bunker Hill he wrote to Lord Rochford:29 ‘You can have no probable prospect of bringing the war to a speedy conclusion with any force that Great Britain and Ireland can supply’; and recommended the use of foreign mercenaries, ‘a large levy of Indians’, ‘a supply of arms for the blacks to awe the southern provinces’, and ‘a numerous fleet to sweep the whole coast’. And every letter contained a plea for greater responsibility for himself.

In 1776 he became second-in-command in Canada, and drew up a plan for an advance from Canada into the northern colonies. In March 1777 he was appointed commander of the expedition, and in June attained his first objective by the capture of Ticonderoga. This was received in England as a ‘great and glorious success’,30 and the King announced his intention of making Burgoyne a Knight of the Bath, which Burgoyne declined—‘From whim, caprice, or some other motive’, wrote Lord Derby to Germain,31‘he has, I know, a strong objection to the honour.’ At Ticonderoga on 30 June Burgoyne, brimful of confidence, issued a proclamation to the Americans which began with bombast (‘The troops united to my command are designed to act in concert ... with the numerous armies and fleets which already display in every quarter of America the power, the justice, and, when properly met, the mercy of the King’) and ended with idle threats (‘I have but to give stretch to the Indian forces under my direction, and they amount to thousands, to overtake the hardened enemies of Great Britain and America’—he had less than 500 Indians, and they were useless in battle).32

Burgoyne’s plan had taken no account of the nature of the country; his administrative arrangements were bad; his troops were too few. In his proclamation he had described Congress as ‘the completest system of tyranny that ever God in his displeasure suffered for a time to be exercised over a froward and stubborn generation’; but on 20 Aug. he wrote:33 ‘The great bulk of the country is undoubtedly with the Congress, in principle and in zeal.’ Surrounded by superior forces, his retreat cut off, and his provisions exhausted, on 17 Oct. Burgoyne capitulated.

‘My army would not fight and could not subsist’, he wrote to Howe, 20 Oct. 1777,34 ‘and ... I have made a treaty that saves them to the state for the next campaign.’ But however pleased he felt with the terms of his capitulation, he was anxious about its reception in England. ‘My honour and my life in great measure depends upon my return to England ...’, he wrote, ‘I think it not impossible that the persons who are most bound to vindicate me will be the first to attack my reputation.’ On 25 Oct. he sent another letter to Howe35—half an apology for his conduct, half a plea to be allowed to return; and when Congress refused to ratify the capitulation, Burgoyne, now a prisoner-of-war, obtained permission to give his parole.

He arrived in England on 13 May 1778 and requested an audience of the King, but was told that he should wait until a board of general officers had inquired into his conduct. He took offence at this refusal, which he professed to believe was to prevent him from telling the King the true state of affairs in America. On 26 May he delivered an oration in Parliament,36 defending his conduct and demanding a parliamentary inquiry. This was refused, and on 28 May Burgoyne came out into open Opposition. ‘The salvation of the country depends upon the confidence of the people in some part of the government’, he said.37‘The ministry have it not; the whole nation see, or think they see, their insufficiency.’ He considered himself ‘a persecuted man ... a marked victim to bear the sins that do not belong to me’; and ended by declaring his ‘full support’ for Hartley’s motion for American independence.

The exact responsibility for Burgoyne’s failure has never been determined, but so much is clear: Burgoyne, Howe, and Germain were each anxious to shift the responsibility from himself. Burgoyne by so precipitately going into opposition lost all sympathy at court; while his friendship with Fox made it clear that he intended to use his misfortunes and grievances as a weapon against Administration. On 5 June, after the War Office had decided that he could not be tried while on parole, he was ordered to rejoin his troops in America—‘my ruin was made a measure of state’, he wrote; but on pleading that ‘repeated visits to Bath’ were necessary to his health, was granted a respite.38 Germain told him in the Commons on 26 Nov. 1778, after having listened to an harangue on his grievances, that he had ‘no great cause to complain of intentional hard treatment’ since the order had not been enforced ‘notwithstanding he seemed to be in perfect health’—which only provoked another harangue, twice as long as the previous one.39 Henceforth Burgoyne voted consistently with Opposition, believing, as he said on 14 Dec. 1778, that the war ‘could never be terminated with success on our side’.40 By 1781 he had convinced himself that ‘he was ever of opinion that this country had no right to raise taxes upon America’,41 and that ‘the American war was but part of a general design levelled against the constitution of this country and the general rights of mankind’.42 His speeches were frequent, long, and tedious: filled with reiterations of his grievances and general censure of the incompetence of Administration; and almost every session he told the story of his campaign.

At last in May 1779 papers were laid before the House, and an inquiry was opened into the failure of his expedition. Burgoyne himself began the inquiry with a long speech43 (17 pages in the printed debates) in which he told his tale complete with statistics, and took the lead in examining the witnesses. No resolutions were passed by the committee. On 24 Sept. he was informed that his failure to return to America was considered by the King ‘a neglect of duty and disobedience of orders’. To this he replied in a long screed, full of the arguments he had used again and again, and ending with the demand for a court martial or the offer to resign his regiment and governorship.44 ‘Your Majesty’s accepting the resignation’, wrote Amherst, commander-in-chief, ‘may be more than what the lieutenant-general intended, and what might be deemed severe usage’; but the King referred Burgoyne’s ‘very indecent answer’ to the Cabinet, and replied to Amherst:45 ‘I am very far from clear what lenient measures he has left me room to employ without a total subversion of all military discipline.’ His resignation was accepted. ‘It is no less than £3,500 a year that he gives up’, wrote Richard Fitzpatrick to Lord Upper Ossory,46 ‘and I suppose [he] has hardly anything left.’

Having burnt his boats he hastened to gain credit with the Opposition, sent copies of his correspondence with the War Office to Rockingham, and talked Opposition cant. ‘I have ever thought with your Lordship’, he wrote to Rockingham on 5 Nov. 1779,47‘that the prevalence of the term the King’s army and the King’s fleet in preference to their being called the forces of the state, was one among the many manifestations of the Tory doctrine of this reign.’ Advised by Burke and Rockingham he published his correspondence with the War Office, and in 1780 a full account of his campaign and of his dealings with Administration48 (there is nothing new in the practice of generals publishing their memoirs). He now ranked as an Opposition martyr second only to Keppel. But Horace Walpole, no supporter of the American war, wrote:49 ‘General Burgoyne flatters himself that everybody will forget their own sorrows to be occupied with his. I ... beg to be excused myself. I cannot forget how ready he was to be a great favourite.’

When the Rockinghams took office Burgoyne was given a regiment and made commander-in-chief in Ireland. On Fox’s resignation it was expected that Burgoyne would follow him; but his office, Portland wrote on 8 Dec. 1782,50 was ‘purely military’; and he continued: ‘I could see no objection to your retaining it, and in carrying on the most violent opposition to the court at the same time in a political line’—a sentiment which Burgoyne himself then endorsed.51 When the Coalition was formed he hoped to become lieutenant-general of the Ordnance,52 but Fox could only secure for him the reversion of the 8th Dragoons53—which did not become vacant until 1787 when the engagement was forgotten.

He was summoned to England to vote for Fox’s East India bill, and spoke on the third reading. On Fox’s dismissal Burgoyne resigned: ‘the trust of commander-in-chief’, he now discovered, required ‘the most confidential connexion with his Majesty’s ministers on both sides the water’;54 and on 28 Feb. 1784 he denounced Pitt’s Administration as unconstitutional. Henceforth his parliamentary career ceases to be of interest or importance: he was a regular follower of Fox (but never in the first rank), and his many speeches are mostly concerned with details of military administration. He voted for parliamentary reform, 18 Apr. 1785; and was one of the managers for the impeachment of Warren Hastings, but did not speak during the trial.

Burgoyne died 4 Aug. 1792.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke


  • 1. E. B. de Fonblanque, Life and Corresp. John Burgoyne, 124.
  • 2. Ibid. 11.
  • 3. Ibid. 16-22.
  • 4. Stanley to Newcastle, 21 Oct. 1760, Add. 32913, f. 257.
  • 5. De Fonblanque, 45-46.
  • 6. Ibid. 49.
  • 7. Grenville to Burgoyne, 28 Jan. 1764, Grenville mss (HL).
  • 8. Grenville mss (JM).
  • 9. De Fonblanque, 62-82.
  • 10. Rutland mss.
  • 11. Walpole to Lady Upper Ossory, 14 June 1787.
  • 12. De Fonblanque, 124.
  • 13. Last Jnls. i. 80.
  • 14. Ibid. 304.
  • 15. L. S. Sutherland, E. I. Co. in 18th Cent. Politics, 231.
  • 16. Brickdale’s ‘Debates’.
  • 17. Ibid.
  • 18. De Fonblanque, 123.
  • 19. Brickdale’s ‘Debates’.
  • 20. De Fonblanque, 124-7.
  • 21. Almon, i. 252-3.
  • 22. De Fonblanque, 130.
  • 23. The King to North, 11 Apr. 1775, Fortescue, iii. 202.
  • 24. North to the King, 14 Apr. 1775, ibid. 203.
  • 25. De Fonblanque, 122.
  • 26. Burgoyne to the King, 18 Apr. 1775, Fortescue, iii. 133-5.
  • 27. Burgoyne to North, 14 June 1775, ibid. 137.
  • 28. Burgoyne to Edw. Harvey, ibid. 140-1.
  • 29. Ibid. 142-53.
  • 30. Germain to the King, 23 Aug. 1777, Fortescue, iii. 471.
  • 31. De Fonblanque, 249.
  • 32. Ibid. 490-2.
  • 33. Ibid. 274.
  • 34. HMC Royal Institution, i. 140-2.
  • 35. Ibid. 143-4.
  • 36. Stockdale, viii. 308-24.
  • 37. Ibid. 344-8.
  • 38. Corresp. bet. Burgoyne and Ld. Barrington, June 1778, Annual Reg. 1779, pp. 302-4.
  • 39. Almon, xi. 50.
  • 40. Ibid. 154.
  • 41. Debrett, iii. 551.
  • 42. Ibid. v. 138-9.
  • 43. Almon, xiii. 124-41.
  • 44. This corresp. between Burgoyne and Chas. Jenkinson, secretary at war, is published in Annual Reg. for 1779, pp. 304-9.
  • 45. Fortescue, iv. 456-7.
  • 46. Add. 47579, f. 69.
  • 47. Rockingham mss.
  • 48. State of the Expedition from Canada .
  • 49. To Mason, 16 Nov. 1779.
  • 50. De Fonblanque, 415-16.
  • 51. Ibid. 428.
  • 52. Temple to W. W. Grenville, 28 Mar. 1783, HMC Fortescue, i. 206.
  • 53. De Fonblanque, 429.
  • 54. Burgoyne to Ld. Sidney, 4 Jan. 1784, ibid. 434.