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Genealogical and Personal History of Centre and Clinton County, Pennsylvania, 1912

Honorable Thomas Burnside Biography

Honorable Thomas Burnside was born near Newton Stewart, in the county of Tyrone, Ireland, July 28, 1782. He came with his father's (William Burnside) family in 1792 to Montgomery County, his father locating near Fairview, in Lower Providence, in that county.

In November, 1800, he commenced the study of law under Hon. Robert Porter, of Philadelphia, and was admitted to the bar Feb. 13, 1804, and in March removed and settled in Bellefonte.

In 1811 he was elected to the State Senate, and was an active supporter of Governor Simon Snyder in all the war measures of 1812. In 1815 he was elected to Congress, and served during the memorable session of 1816.

In the summer of the same year he was appointed by Governor Snyder president judge of the Luzerne district. He resigned this position in 1818, and resumed practice at Bellefonte.

In 1823 he was again elected to the State Senate, of which body he was chosen Speaker. In 1826, before his senatorial term had expired, he was appointed president judge of the Fourth Judicial District (Centre, etc.), which office he held until 1841, when he was appointed president judge of the Seventh Judicial District (Bucks and Montgomery).

On the 1st of January, 1845, he was commissioned as one of the justices of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, an office which he filled with honor up to the time of his death.

Remarked by Governor Curtin, " Judge Burnside was a man of indomitable will, and had that intensity of purpose: which baffled want, poverty, and ill-fortune. He came to this county when it was comparatively a wilderness, without means or friends, and supplied the want of early educational training by his energy and perseverance. His goodness of heart and open-handed hospitality soon surrounded him with a circle of steadfast personal friends, and his large and liberal views of progress, with his lofty State pride, made him a captain of men and a ruling spirit."

As a judge, he possessed a keen and discriminating sense of justice and extensive knowledge of law and moral courage to carry its mandate into execution.

As remarked by Hon. James Macmanus, one of his students, his great strength of mind, common sense, and quickness of apprehension enabled him to grasp the main points of a case, and with a vigorous step and stately march he would clear away the rubbish of technicality, caring only for the justice of the cause before him.

Mr. Macmanus relates that upon the occasion of some eminent visitor arriving at the judge's house in Bellefonte, Mrs. Burnside sent Mr. Macmanus for the judge, who was holding court at Lewistown. It was late in the week, and a canal case to try, the judge asked the lawyers to continue to oblige him. They replied the case was important, the witnesses from a distance.

"Well, then, go on; I will try it for you," said Judge Burnside. Taking a little time to get the facts accurately he drove the case through, and charged the jury, and was ready by the time he had fixed upon to go home, and, what was remarkable, his opinion was the only one sustained of several which went up from different districts, the canal passed through involving precisely similar questions of law.

Judge Burnside took a deep and lively interest in all the public enterprises of the day, turnpikes, canals, railroads, and there are few public improvements, whether in our own immediate neighborhood or in more remote portions of the State, which do not owe much of their success to his exertion and influence.

If ever he was biased on the bench it was by any delay caused by riots or tumults obstructing their progress even temporarily.

The late Judge A. S. Wilson used to relate an anecdote in point. "I was concerned when at the bar for a poor Irishman, who with others had been convicted of a riot on the canal near Lewistown, to my utter surprise, and was called up with the rest for sentence. " Why," I remonstrated with the court, "the evidence shows clearly my client was on the other side of the river when the riot took place." " It don't matter," said Judge Burnside, if he could have gotten over he would have been in it."

In person the judge was of medium height, prominent nose and eyes, dark complexion, and rather noted for want of comeliness of features. His kindness and blunt honesty made ample amends for his lack of personal beauty.

In the language of Mr. Macmanus, the judicial ermine was as unspotted when he laid it aside for the habiliments of the grave as when he first put it on.

Judge Burnside died at the residence of his son-in-law, Mr. E. Morris, in Germantown, Tuesday evening, March 25, 1857, in the sixty-ninth year of his age.

His first wife, Mary Fleming, died Feb. 28, 1813, at the early age of twenty-eight. Her children were Mrs. Harvey Mann, of Boiling Spring; Mrs. Mary Morris, and late Hon. James Burnside.

By his second wife, Ellen Winters, he also had children, now residing in Bellefonte,-Miss Lucy Burnside, Thomas Burnside, and Mrs. Frances Boal. Mrs. Ellen W. Burnside died in Bellefonte, June 3, 1859, aged seventy-three years, eight months, and seventeen days.

Source: History of Centre and Clinton Counties, Pennsylvania; John Blair Linn; Philadelphia; Louis H. Everts; 1883

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