This article is from the February issue of Total Politics
John Burgoyne was a genuine 18th-century multi-tasker. Though an army general, he surrendered humiliatingly to the rebels at Saratoga early in the American War of Independence. He wrote plays and an opera libretto. And, for over 30 years, he was an MP.
In 1761, Burgoyne was nominated for a parliamentary seat at Midhurst by an army colleague who had bought into its franchise. To avoid a contest, the local powerbrokers agreed that he would stand along with William Hamilton (husband of Emma, Lady Hamilton). On 30 March, the two candidates were returned unopposed.
After this unchallenging ‘campaign’, Burgoyne resumed his military activities abroad until early 1763, when he finally took his seat in the Commons. There, he was praised for his exploits with his regiment in Portugal.
He favoured a hard line towards the restive American colonies, even voting against repeal of the unpopular 1765 Stamp Act. In February 1766, he made a very rare speech in support of the Declaratory Act, which explicitly confirmed Parliament’s sovereignty over the American colonies.
His Midhurst patron died in 1761, so Burgoyne had to look for another seat at the 1768 general election. The influence of the aristocratic Derby family, into which he had married, secured him the nomination for Preston. However, this election was no formality. There was a dispute between local Whigs and Tories over the extent of the Preston franchise. Outbreaks of violence were sensationalised in the press: “murdering, maiming, pulling down the houses, destroying places of worship… are among the acts of the inflamed mob".
At the 2 April poll, the Tory mayor’s count led to the two Tory candidates being narrowly elected. The Whigs’ own poll, unsurprisingly, showed a clear win for Burgoyne and his fellow Whig. Petitions to the Commons ensued, and with government support, the latter view prevailed in November 1768, and the Whig candidates were declared elected.
Nevertheless, Burgoyne was charged with inciting violence at the election. He admitted that he had attended the poll with two loaded pistols, guarded by soldiers for his protection, and was fined £1,000. He was not, however, jailed, as some of his fellow defendants were.
The next decade of relative peace saw Burgoyne focus more on his parliamentary and literary interests. He spoke often in the House, generally supporting the government/court line, though he declared “in great national points… I would ever hold myself at liberty to maintain my own opinion".
In 1772-73, he attacked Robert Clive and the East India Company’s running of India, moving the appointment of a select committee, which he then chaired. Though it uncovered, in Burgoyne’s own words, “crimes… which shocked human nature even to conceive”, it ultimately did not win support from the government, and in May 1773, his vote of censure against Clive was defeated.
Though an opponent of Lord North’s government, he supported its policy on the rebellious American colonies. In April 1774 he warned: “I look upon America as our child, which we have already spoilt by too much indulgence."
He saw active service in America in 1775, and, in 1777, he commanded the fateful expedition into New England that ended in disastrous surrender at Saratoga. Burgoyne was taken prisoner, but was eventually allowed to return home.
Back in Parliament, he strongly defended his conduct, especially in a speech on 26 May, 1778, when he sought to refute in detail all the criticisms made against him, and unsuccessfully demanded a full inquiry.
Thereafter, he publicly supported American independence, and allied himself with the Whig opposition. A parliamentary inquiry into the 1777 expedition was eventually set up, but no conclusion was ever published. When North resigned in 1782, Burgoyne’s star rose, and he was given command of the army in Ireland.
He held on to his Preston seat throughout, despite being strongly opposed in 1780 and 1784, and subject to unsuccessful petitions to Parliament by his opponents.
The remaining parliamentary years until his death in September 1792 were unremarkable, other than his participation in the dramatic Warren Hastings impeachment affair. Though an MP for more than three decades, it is for his military exploits that Burgoyne will best be remembered.