Rhode Island's "bald eagle" of oratory.
by Wilfred H. Munro
The following excerpt was transcribed from pages 107-109 of Picturesque Rhode Island by Wilfred H. Munro (1881).
Washington Bridge connects East Providence with the city of Providence. On the brow of the first hill the traveler surmounts as he drives away from the river and through the well-cultivated fields that border the road which leads to Bristol County, stands, at a little distance from the broad thoroughfare, a somewhat pretentious mansion. It is guarded on every side by a row of sentinel columns, like one of the heathen temples of the olden days of Greece. Almost every one who has passed by must have noticed it, and admired its commanding position. The view from its upper windows to-day is wonderfully fine. Much more charming it must have been half a century ago, before the long lines of city streets and the monotonous array of tenement-houses crowded themselves into the landscape, to the exclusion of the waving branches and the emerald banks kindly Nature has provided. In this house one of Rhode Island's most eminent men once lived. The little State can claim for its own an unusually large number of famous names. As a soldier of the Revolution the fame of Nathaniel Greene is second only to that of Washington; as a sailor the name of Oliver Hazard Perry shines with unequaled lustre; as an orator hardly a man throughout the length and breadth of the land was better known, as a debater no antagonist was more greatly feared, than Tristam Burges.
Mr. Burges was born in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, in February, 1770. His father was by trade a cooper, and the future lawyer's early years were full of the severe manual labor which usually falls to the lot of children of the poor. He was taught to read by his sister; his father gave him, according to his ability, scanty instruction in mathematics, but at twenty-one, he had been at school but twelve weeks during his entire life. In 1792 he became a student in the Academy at Wrentham, Mass., and there he made his first appearance as an orator. The attempt was almost a complete failure. A natural impediment in his speech was intensified by the unfamiliar circumstances of his position; he found himself uttering but a succession of unintelligible syllables, and was compelled to retire in confusion from the rostrum.
As he was returning to his house, one of his companions suggested to him, in a rather unfeeling way, that he "ought to get some one to do his speaking for him." The words were like gall to the ambitious young man, but they spurred him on to success; like the late Lord Beaconsfield he resolved that his sneering associates should one day listen with respect to whatever he had to say. The difficulties in his path seemed almost insurmountable; with resolute will he set himself to work to overcome them. Day by day, amid the cool shades of the neighboring forest, he labored to change his stammering utterances to distinct articulations. After a long time he was successful, so successful that at the graduation of his class he was chosen not only to speak for himself, but for his class also, as its valedictorian. In 1793 he entered Brown University as a member of the sophomore class, and at once assumed a leading position among the students. His unusual powers of application made him facile princeps whenever he chose to be so. He was the orator of his class, and was chosen a second time to deliver a valedictory oration, at its "Commencement Exercises."
In 1799 Mr. Burges was admitted to the Rhode Island bar. Able lawyers then adorned it, but the young advocate was immediately accorded an unusually prominent place among them. To every case entrusted to his charge he devoted himself with an enthusiasm that was remarkable, even in that age of hard work. Whenever he rose to speak, he was sure of a most attentive audience. His profound knowledge of the law, his apt illustrations, and his exquisite command of language, rarely failed to win for him a favorable verdict. In 1825 he was elected a Representative to Congress, and his fame at once became national. The National House of Representatives afforded him an ample field for the display of his wonderful skill as a debater. It was the fashion at that time for the men from the South to revile New England, and the Northern members were, perhaps, not so ready in debate as they should have been to resent the insults cast upon their states. After Mr. Burges took his seat the insults were not offered with such frequency. Not a man in the House could cope with Rhode Island's representative when once his wrath had been aroused. Even the proud spirit of John Randolph, of Roanoke [Virginia], could not withstand the torrent of fiery indignation and the terrible bursts of sarcasm which the "bald eagle" of Rhode Island poured forth against those who had dared to slander his friends and neighbors. Mr. Burges served but two terms in Congress. He had espoused the losing side in politics, and thus was forced to retire from active political life before his work was half accomplished. The last years of his life were spent in comparative retirement upon his farm. He died in 1853.
Born in Bristol in 1849, historian Wilfred Harold Munro was a professor at Brown University from 1891 to 1911. In addition to Picturesque Rhode Island (1881), he also wrote The History of Bristol, R. I. (1880), The Most Successful American Privateer (1913), Some Legends of Mount Hope (1915), and Tales of an Old Seaport , a General Sketch of Bristol, Rhode Island (1917). Munro died in Providence in 1934.
Burges was born February 26, 1771, and died in Providence on October 13, 1853. He is buried in North Burial Ground.
Burges subdivided much of his farmland in the late 1840s and early 1850s, taking advantage of an influx of middle and working class families, and helping to create the section of East Providence known as Watchemocket. We've been told that his "pretentious" mansion no longer exists, although we haven't yet found out when or why it disappeared.
Encyclopedia Brunoniana by Martha Mitchell.