John Burgoyne

Portrait by Joshua Reynolds, 1766

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QUICK FACTS
BORN:
24 February 1722 in Sutton, Bedfordshire, England
  DIED:
4 August 1792 in London, England

  • After his surrender at Saratoga, Burgoyne is on parole until February 1782, when he is exchanged for Henry Laurens, who is imprisoned in the Tower of London.
  • In 1808 Burgoyne’s Dramatic and Poetical Works appear in two volumes.
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John Burgoyne — British general, politician, and dramatist — was born in 1722. He entered the army at an early age and was soon given the nickname Gentleman Johnny for his stylish uniforms and extravagant spending. In 1743 he made a runaway marriage with a daughter of the Earl of Derby, but soon had to sell his commission to meet his debts — after which he lived abroad for seven years. Through Lord Derby’s influence Burgoyne was reinstated at the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War (1754—63; known in the U.S. as the French and Indian War).

In 1758 he became captain and lieutenant colonel in the foot guards. In 1758—59 he participated in expeditions made against the French coast; in the latter year he was instrumental in introducing light cavalry into the British army. The two regiments then formed were commanded by George Eliott (afterwards 1st Baron Heathfield) and Burgoyne.

A Member of Parliament from 1761 to 1792, Burgoyne first sat in the House of Commons for Midhurst. In the following year he served as brigadier-general in Portugal, winning distinction by his capture of Valencia d’Alcantara and of Villa Velha. In 1768 he became a Member of Parliament for Preston, and for the next few years he occupied himself chiefly with his parliamentary duties, in which he was remarkable for his general outspokenness. At the same time, in addition to gambling recklessly, he devoted much attention to art and drama (his first play, The Maid of the Oaks, was produced by David Garrick in 1775).

In the army Burgoyne had by this time become a major general, and at the outbreak of the American Revolution he was appointed to a command. In 1777 he was at the head of the British reinforcements designed to invade the colonies from Canada. In this disastrous expedition he gained possession of Ticonderoga (for which he was made a lieutenant-general) and Fort Edward. Pushing on, however, he became detached from his communications with Canada, and was hemmed in by a superior force headed by American General Horatio Gates at Saratoga. On 17 October, some 3,500 troops laid down their arms.

Burgoyne’s failure became the colonists’ greatest success yet gained, and it proved the turning-point in the war.

The indignation in England against Burgoyne was great, but perhaps unjust. He returned to England at once to defend his conduct and demanded, but never obtained, a trial. He was deprived of his regiment and a governorship. However, when his political friends came into office in 1782, he was restored to his rank, given a colonelcy, and made commander-in-chief in Ireland and a privy councilor.

After the fall of the Marquess of Rockingham’s government a few months later, Burgoyne withdrew more and more into private life. In his later years he was principally occupied in literary and dramatic work. His comedy The Heiress (1786) ran through ten editions within a year and was translated into several foreign languages.

He died suddenly on 4 August 1792.

Though Burgoyne did not have children with his wife (who had died in June 1776 during his absence in Canada), he was survived by several natural children from Susan Caulfield, an opera singer — one of whom became Field Marshal Sir John Fox Burgoyne, who fought the Americans in the War of 1812.

ADAPTED FROM:
Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 ed.

Eighteenth-century writers seemed uncertain how best to describe Britain’s relation to its many overseas possessions. Only tepidly did they employ the concept of empire since for them it carried uncomfortable baggage from ancient history. The traditional usage suggested that control over distant colonies and expansion into new regions depended on military might. But the notion that Great Britain was a modern-day Rome, dispatching powerful legions to conquer the world, did not sit well with a people who celebrated liberty and rights, the blessings of living under a balanced constitution.

T. H. Breen
The Marketplace of the Revolution (2004)