Burnet, Thomas

, the third and youngest son of the bishop, had an education equally advantageous with that of his two elder brothers. When he had acquired a sufficient preparation of grammatical learning, he was sent to the university of Oxford, where he becam^a commoner of Merton-college. After this, he studied two years at Leyden, from whence he seems to have made a tour through Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. Having chosen the profession of the law, he was entered at the Temple, where he appears to have contracted wildness of disposition, and irregularity of conduct. To this part of his character there are frequent allusions in the satirical publications of the times; and particularly in Dr. Arbuthnol’s notes and memorandums of the six days preceding the death of a right reverend prelate. Mr. Thomas Burnet was even suspected of being one of the Mohocks mentioned in the Spectator, whose extravagant and cruel exploits made much noise, and excited no small degree of terror at that period. Swift, in one of his letters to Stella, has the following passage: “Young Davenant was telling us, how he was set upon by the Mohocks, and how they ran his chair through with a sword. It is not safe being in the streets at night. The bishop of Salisbury’s son is said to be of the gang. They are all whigs. A great lady sent to me, to speak to her father, and to lord treasurer, to have a care of them, and to be careful likewise of myself; for she heard they had malicious intentions against the ministry and their friends. I know not whether there be any thing in this, though others are of the sante opinion.” The report concerning Mr. Burnet might be groundless; but it is certain that his time was not wholly | spent in dissipation; for, being warmly devoted to the cause of the whigs, he commenced political writer against the administration of the four last years of queen Anne. No less than seven pamphlets of this kind, though without his name, were written by him, in 1712 and 1713. His first was entitled “A Letter to the People, to be left for them at the Booksellers; with a word or two of the Bandbox Plot.” This small tract is drawn up in short paragraphs, after the manner of Mr. Asgill; but not in ridicule of that author, who is spoken of in terms of high commendation. Another piece of Mr. Burnet’s was: “Our Ancestors as wise as we, or ancient Precedents for modern Facts, in answer to a Letter from a noble Lord;” which was followed by “The History of Ingratitude, or a second Part of ancient Precedents for modern Facts,” wherein many instances are related, chiefly from the Greek and Roman histories, of the ungrateful treatment to which the most eminent public characters have been exposed; and the whole is applied to the case of the duke of Marlborough. A subsequent publication, that had likewise a reference to the conduct of the ministry towards the same great general, and which was dedicated to him, was entitled “The true Character of an honest Man, especially with relation to public Affairs.” Another of Mr. Burnet’s tracts, which was called “Truth, if you can find it; or a Character of the present Ministry and Parliament,” was entirely of an ironical nature, and sometimes the irony is well supported. But our author’s principal political pamphlet, during the period we are speaking of, was, “A certain Information of a certain Discourse, that happened at a certain Gentleman’s House, in a certain County: written by a certain Person then present; to a certain Friend now at London; from whence you may collect the great Certainty of the Account.” This is a dialogue in defence of the principles and conduct of the whigs; and it gave such offence to queen Anne’s Tory ministry, that on account of it, Mr. Burnet was taken into custody in January 1712—13. He wrote, also, “Some new Proofs by which it appears that the Pretender is truly James the Third;” in which, from the information, we suppose, of his father, he gives the same account, in substance, of the Pretender’s birth, that was afterwards published in the bishop’s History of his own Time. What Mr. Burnet endeavours to make out is, that three supposititious children Vol. VII. C c | were introduced; and consequently, that the “Pretender was James the Third;” or, to put it more plainly, “the third pretended James.” Whilst our young author, notwithstanding his literary application and engagements, still continued his wild courses, it is related, that his father one day seeing him uncommonly grave, asked what he was meditating. “A greater work,” replied the son, “than your lordship’s History of the Reformation.” “What is that, Tom?” “My own reformation, my lord.” “I shall be heartily glad to see it,” said the bishop, “but almost despair of it.” This, however, was happily accomplished, though, perhaps, not during the life of the good prelate, and Mr. Burnejt became not only one of the best lawyers of his time, but a very respectable character. After the accession of king George the First, he wrote a letter to the earl of Halifax, on “the Necessity of impeaching the late Ministry,” in which he urges the point with great zeal and warmth, and shews the utmost dislike of treating with any degree of lenity, a set of men whose conduct, in his opinion, deserved the severest punishment. He insists upon it, that the makers of the treaty of Utrecht ought to answer for their treasons with their heads. The letter to the earl of Halifax, which appeared with Mr. Burnet’s name, was followed by an anonymous treatise, entitled “A second Tale of a Tub; or the History of Robert Powel the Puppet-Showman.” This work, which is a satire on the earl of Oxford and his ministry, and is far from being destitute of wit and humour, hath never had the good fortune (nor, indeed, did it deserve it,) of being read and admired like the original “Tale of a Tub.” The author himself, in the latter part of his life, wished it to be forgotten; for we are well informed that he sought much for it, and purchased such copies as he could meet with, at a considerable price. Soon after his father’s death, he published “A Character of the right reverend father in God, Gilbert lord bishop of Sarum; with a true copy of his last Will and Testament.” In ridicule of this publication, was printed in Hudibrastic verse, and with a very small portion of merit, “A certain dutiful Son’s Lamentation for the Death of a certain right reverend; with the certain Particulars of certain Sums and Goods that are bequeathed him, which he will most certainly part with in a ctrtain time.” In 1715, Mr. Burnet, in conjunction with Mr. Ducket, wrote a truvestie of the first book | of the Iliad, under the title of “Homerides;” which exposed him to the lash of Mr. Pope, and occasioned that great poet to give him a place, though not with remarkable severity, in the Dunciad. He was likewise concerned in a weekly paper, called “The Grumbler.” He was, however, soon, taken from these literary occupations, by being appointed his majesty’s consul at Lisbon, where he continued several years. Whilst he was in this situation, he had a dispute with lord Tyrawley, the ambassador, in which the merchants sided with Mr. Burnet. During the continuance of the dispute, the consul took an odd method of affronting-’ his antagonist. Employing the same taylor, and having learned what dress his lordship intended to wear on a birthday, Mr. Burnet provided the same dress as liveries for his servants, and appeared himself in a plain suit. It is said, that in consequence of this quarrel (though how truly, may, perhaps, be doubted), the ambassador and consul were both recalled. Upon Mr. Burnet’s return to his country, he resumed the profession of the law. In 1723, he published, with a few explanatory notes, the first volume of his father’s “History of his own Time;” and, in 1732, wrote some remarks in defence of that history, in answer to lord Lansdowne’s letter to the author of the “Reflections historical and political.” When Mr. Burnet gave to the public, in 1734, the second volume of the bishop’s history, he added to it the life of that eminent prelate. In Easter term 1736 he was called to the degree of serjeant at law; and, in May 1740, was appointed king’s serjeant, in the room of serjeant Kyre > deceased. When, in 1741, judge Fortescue was raised to the mastership of the rolls, Mr. Burnet, in the month of October in that year, succeeded him as one of the justices of the court of common-pleas. On the 23d of No-/ vember, 1745, when the lord chancellor, the judges, and the associated gentlemen of the law, waited on the king, with their address on occasion of the rebellion, his majesty conferred upon him the honour of knighthood. He was also a member of the royal society. Sir Thomas Burnet continued in the court of common -pleas, with great reputation, to his death, which happened on the 5th of January, 1753. He died of the goat in his stomach, and left behind nim the character of an ab<e and upright judge, a sincere friend, a sensible and agreeable companion, and a munificent | benefactor to the poor. Dr. Ferdinando Warner, in his dedication of sir Thomas More’s Life to the then lord keeper Henley, haying mentioned that Mr. justice Burnet recommended to him the translation of the Utopia, adds: “of whom I take this opportunity to say with pleasure, and which your lordship, I am sure, will allow me to say with truth, that for his knowledge of the world, and his able judgment of things, he was equalled by few, and excelled by none of his contemporaries.” The following clause in our learned judge’s will was the subject of conversation after his decease, and was inserted in the monthly collections, as being somewhat extraordinary. “I think it proper in this solemn act to declare, that as I have lived, so I trust I shall die, in the true faith of Christ as taught in the Scriptures; but not as taught or practised in any one visible church that I know of; though I think the church of England is as little stuffed with the inventions of men as any of them; and the church of Rome is so full of them, as to have destroyed all that is lovely in the Christian religion.” This clause gave occasion to the publication of a serious and sensible pamphlet, entitled: “The true Church of Christ, which, and where to be found, according to the Opinion of the late judge Burnet; with an Introduction concerning divine worship, and a caution to gospel preachers; in which are contained, the Reasons for that Declaration in his last Will and Testament.” A judgment may be formed of his abilities in his profession, from his argument in the case of Ryal and Rowls. In 1777 were published in 4to, “Verses written on several occasions, between the years 1712 and 1721.” These were the poetical productions of Mr. Burnet in his youth, of whom it is said by the editor, that he was connected in friendship and intimacy with those wits, which will for ever signalise the beginning of the present century; and that himself shone with no inconsiderable lustre amidst the constellation of geniuses which then so illustriously adorned the British hemisphere.

It is related of him, that he would himself have published his verses, if he had not thought that some of them were too light and sportive for the gravity of the judicial character, and would derogate, in a certain degree, from the dignity of the tribunal to which he had ascended. With regard to the poems themselves, which are for the most part very short, and chiefly upon amorous subjects, and | among which are several songs, and translations from the Odes of Horace, their characteristic excellence is an easy negligence and elegant simplicity. They are such productions as might be expected from a young man of lively parts and classical taste; but who, at the same time, was not endued with any extraordinary vigour of poetical imagination. 1

1

Biog. Brit.—Nichols’s Life of Bowyer.