educated at Westminster school and Oxford, and afterwards traveled
in France and Switzerland. He was in Paris during the earlier days
of the French Revolution, a visit that doubtless influenced his
political opinions. Returning to England he married Sophia, daughter
of banker Thomas Coutts, in 1793. She brought him a large fortune.
In 1796 he became Member of Parliament for Boroughbridge, having
purchased this seat from the representatives of the Duke of Newcastle,
and in 1797 succeeded his grandfather as 5th Baronet.
Parliament he soon became prominent as an opponent of Pitt, and
as an advocate of popular rights. He denounced the war with France,
the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, and the proposed exclusion
of John Horne Tooke from parliament, and quickly became the idol
of the people. He was instrumental in securing an inquiry into
the condition of Coldbath Fields prison, but as a result of this
step he was for a time prevented by the government from visiting
any prison in the kingdom. In 1797 he made the acquaintance of
Horne Tooke, whose pupil he became, not only in politics, but
also in philology.
the general election of 1802 Burdett was a candidate for the county
of Middlesex, but his return was declared void in 1804, and in
the subsequent contest he was defeated. In 1805 this return was
amended in his favor, but as this was again quickly reversed,
Burdett, who had spent an immense sum of money over the affair,
declared he would not stand for parliament again.
the general election of 1806 Burdett was a leading supporter of
James Paull, the reform candidate for the city of Westminster;
but in the following year a misunderstanding led to a duel between
Burdett and Paull in which both combatants were wounded. At the
general election in 1807, Burdett, in spite of his reluctance,
was nominated for Westminster, and amidst great enthusiasm was
returned at the top of the poll.
took up again the congenial work of attacking abuses and agitating
for reform, and in 1810 came sharply into collision with the House
of Commons. A radical named John Gale Jones had been committed
to prison by the House, a proceeding that was denounced by Burdett,
who questioned the power of the House to take this step, and vainly
attempted to secure the release of Jones. He then issued a revised
edition of his speech on this occasion which was published by
William Cobbett in the Weekly Register.
House voted this action a breach of privilege, and the speaker
issued a warrant for Burdett's arrest. Barring himself in his
house, he defied the authorities, while the mob gathered in his
defense. At length his house was entered, and under an escort
of soldiers he was conveyed to the Tower. Released when parliament
was prorogued, he caused his supporters much disappointment by
returning to Westminster by water, and so avoiding a demonstration
in his honor. He then brought legal actions against the speaker
and the sergeant-at-arms, but the courts upheld the action of
parliament Burdett denounced corporal punishment in the army,
and supported all attempts to check corruption, but his principal
efforts were directed towards procuring a reform of parliament,
and the removal of Roman Catholic disabilities. In 1809 he had
proposed a scheme of parliamentary reform, and returning to the
subject in 1817 and 1818 he anticipated the Chartist movement
by suggesting universal male suffrage, equal electoral districts,
vote by ballot, and annual parliaments; but his motions met with
very little support.
succeeded, however, in carrying a resolution in 1825 that the
House should consider the laws concerning Roman Catholics. This
was followed by a bill embodying his proposals, which passed the
Commons but was rejected by the Lords. In 1827 and 1828 he again
proposed resolutions on this subject, and saw his proposals become
law in 1829. In 1820 Burdett had again come into serious conflict
with the government.
severely censured its action with reference to the Manchester
massacre, he was prosecuted at Leicester assizes, fined 1000 pounds,
and committed to prison for three months. After the passing of
the Reform Bill in 1832 the ardour of the veteran reformer was
somewhat abated, and a number of his constituents soon took umbrage
at his changed attitude.
he resigned his seat early in 1837, but was re-elected. However,
at the general election in the same year he forsook Westminster
and was elected member for North Wiltshire, which seat he retained,
acting in general with the Conservatives, until his death on the
23rd of January 1844. He left a son, Robert, who succeeded to
the baronetcy, and five daughters,the youngest of whom became
the celebrated Baroness Burdett-Coutts.