From Rochester to Congress: the history of Tristam Burgess

Nov 21, 2022

In the most recent installment of From the Files of the Rochester Historical Society, Connie Eshbach reflects on a man of note from Rochester’s history: Tristam Burgess, who had a storied career in court and congress.

As I mentioned previously, the centerpiece of Rochester's 200th anniversary was the "Oration" delivered by Rev. Everett. His speech had many subheadings, including "Honored Sons of Sippican" with Sippican being synonymous with Old Rochester. He mentioned men of note from Wareham and Rochester.

Many pages of his oration are devoted to Tristam Burgess who was born in Rochester on Feb, 26, 1770. Burgess was a descendant of Joseph Burge (the Burge name had the-ess added over time), the builder of Rochester's first gristmill. Tristam Burgess graduated from Brown University in 1796 with first honors in his classes. He studied law in Providence, Rhode Island and was admitted to the Bar there in 1799.

Throughout his career, Burgess was known for his oratory skills which included a mastery of classical and scriptural allusions, an acuteness of logic, brilliant scholarship and finely honed sarcasm. Many examples of his oratory are cited by Rev. Everett. In one of his early appearances pleading a case in a Rhode Island court. his severe and personal remarks were interrupted by the judge who asked if he knew where he was and to whom he was speaking. Burgess's answer was, " I am in an inferior court, addressing an inferior judge in the inferior state of Rhode Island".

His remarks didn't hinder his rise in his profession. By 1815, he was Chief Justice of the state and in 1825, he was elected to Congress. He began his career in the U.S. House of Representatives in December of 1825 and a few days into his term, he offered an anti-slavery petition, setting up an angry debate led by the Representative from Virginia and joined by the Representatives from South Carolina and New York. His speaking skills are given credit for silencing his main pro-slavery opponent, Randolph of Virginia, and earning him the title of " Bald eagle of the North".

At the centennial celebration of Brown University in 1864 where Burgess was a professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, the President of the University, praised "the brilliant Burgess". Everett, in his oration, goes on to say that Burgess stands "peerless for the scorching invective that like lightning burns when it strikes".