Tristam Burges (1770-1853), professor of oratory and belles-lettres, was born in Rochester, Massachusetts, on February 26, 1770. His father was a farmer who joined the revolutionary army in 1775, but was forced by illness to return home, where he turned his efforts to raising men and collecting clothing for the army. His three sons, of whom Tristam was the youngest, worked on the farm and were apprenticed as coopers. Tristam was taught to read by an older sister and learned some mathematics and writing from his father. He attended school only twelve weeks between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one. In his spare time he read any books he could lay his hands on and practiced composition by writing many letters. He had early thoughts of going to sea to gain the means to prepare himself for a profession, but he never went. Instead he read every medical book he could borrow from the family doctor, thinking that this knowledge would prepare him to ride with a country doctor and enter the medical profession. However, he was advised by his doctor that he had best learn some Latin and Greek and study medicine first.
In April 1791 at the age of twenty-one he entered the academy run by William Williams 1769 in Wrentham, Massachusetts. He was not there long before illness forced him to return home, losing six months from his pursuit of education. His return to school in October was cut short by the illness and death of his father. He kept school for the winter in Rochester, sold his share of the family farm to his eldest brother, and went back to Rev. Williams’ academy. The next obstacle to be overcome was that Burges, later to become a distinguished orator, stuttered whenever he had to speak publicly at the school, although he spoke easily in conversation. He overcame this problem by going into the woods to a clearing with only a few trees and talking to the trees, while observing the function of his vocal organs. He was so successful that he was selected to pronounce the valedictory address at the academy. In September 1793 Burges arrived in Providence and was admitted “after patient examination” (in the words of his biographer, Henry L. Bowen) to Rhode Island College. His small funds lasted almost until the end of his college career. The expenses of Commencement were traditionally defrayed by the graduating students, who were assessed according to the importance of their parts in the exercises. When Burges signed the subscription paper, he was not expecting an important part. But, when the parts were assigned, he found himself assigned the valedictory oration, which carried with it the price of one hundred dollars. As his hopes of raising this sum dwindled, he decided to seek a dismission from the college and forego his graduation. Only a few days before he was to return to Providence from his home, he encountered a miserly but kind gentlemen who provided the money at six per cent interest.
While he was still in college, he had begun to study law with Judge Barnes of Providence. In 1798 he opened a “morning school” and a “day school” for young ladies in an “elegant and pleasantly situated room adjacent to and directly in front of Hacker’s Hall,” on South Main Street. His school occupied six hours a day, and he spent the same amount of time in reading law. Then he had a stroke of luck, when he was pressed into buying a lottery ticket, giving his note as he did not have five dollars. His ticket won him two thousand dollars and opportunity to read law full time until he was admitted to the bar in Rhode Island in 1799 at the age of twenty-nine. He was successful as a lawyer and much admired. His obituary noted, “When he spoke the courthouse was often thronged, and none listened without a tribute of admiration.” He was an ardent federalist and during the latter part of Jefferson’s administration became active in political discussion and was called upon for speeches. In 1811 he was elected a Representative from Providence to the General Assembly of Rhode Island. He was reelected for the following session, but “the calls of his profession, and the peculiar state of parties at that time compelled him to retire from the Legislature.” In 1817 he was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Rhode Island, but was removed after one year when the democratic party came into power. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1825. He supported John Quincy Adams and opposed Jackson. He lent his eloquence to the questions of pensions for Revolutionary War officers and of protective tariffs. When John Randolph of Virginia attacked both him and New England, Burges’ powerful reply, “Sir, Divine Providence takes care of his own universe. Moral monsters cannot propagate. ... I rejoice that the father of lies can never become the father of liars ...,” drove Randolph from the room.
In 1815 he was named professor of oratory and belles letters at Brown. He began a course of lectures in 1821. In a letter to the Corporation in 1826, he explained and defended his method, “I commenced the instruction, by a course of Lectures on Rhetorick. I still continued to hear their declamations; & to declaim before them. ... a theoretical orator will succeed no better, if as well, in teaching eloquence, as a theoretical anatomist will, in teaching surgery.” When President Francis Wayland’s new policy decreed that all professors must occupy rooms in the college, Burges, along with the professors who lectured in the medical courses, was deprived of his salary. When he offered to continue his services without compensation, he was told that they were not required. He had been a very popular member of the college, and the Providence Journal of September 30, 1830, commented on Wayland’s decision, “the public however entertained a different opinion. ... The vote of the Corporation, together with Dr. Wayland’s answer to Mr. Burges, have deprived the University of the services of one of its best and ablest professors.” Burges was also a prominent member and long-time president of the Federal Adelphi, and on the occasion of the society’s last literary exercises in 1831 delivered an eloquent address. He was an unsuccessful Whig candidate for governor in 1836. He died at Watchemoket Farm (now in East Providence) on October 13, 1853.