Burnet lived with his brothers in Cincinnati, studied law in Jacob's office, and followed the same conservative politics. He wrote proudly in 1859 that he had never been a Democrat and deplored the course of the "ignorant popular Sovereignty." His attitude and politics did not make him popular in Texas, and his entire life was a string of disappointments. After a classical education in a Newark academy, young Burnet wanted to join the navy but instead was placed by a brother as a clerk in a New York commission house in 1805, a position he disliked. On February 2, 1806, he sailed with the unsuccessful filibustering expedition to Venezuela led by Xavier Miranda. Lieutenant Burnet returned to New York at the end of 1806.
His movements between 1806 and 1817 are obscure; he probably lived with relatives seeking success. About 1817 he moved to Natchitoches, Louisiana, and for the next two years traded with the Comanches near the headwaters of the Brazos with John Cotton. He suffered some sort of pulmonary illness at this time, and living a simple, natural life was supposed to be a cure. His health improved but not his finances, and he returned to Ohio, where he studied law.
In May 1826 Burnet passed through San Felipe on his way to Saltillo to petition for an empresario grant, which he received on December 22. The grant authorized him to settle 300 families north of the Old Spanish Road and around Nacogdoches, part of the area recently replevined from Haden Edwards, within six years. He was to receive 23,000 acres from the state of Coahuila and Texas for every 100 families settled.
|Site of Oakland, Burnet's 1831 estate|
The articulate Burnet impressed local residents, and though he took no part in the events at Anahuac in 1832, they chose him to represent the Liberty neighborhood at the convention at San Felipe in 1833. He helped draft the plea to sever Texas from Coahuila and made an earnest statement against the African slave trade. He hoped to become chief justice of the newly established Texas Supreme Court in 1834 but was only named to head the Brazos District Court. Instead of his $1,000 per annum allotment, Burnet wanted a handsome stipend in land like that which Chief Justice Thomas J. Chambers received.
Burnet was against independence for Texas in 1835, although he deplored the tendency of the national government toward a dictatorship. Thus his more radical neighbors did not choose him as a delegate to either the Consultation or the Convention of 1836. Nevertheless, he attended the session on March 10, where he successfully gained clemency for a client sentenced to hang. The delegates, who were opposed to electing one of their number president of the new republic, elected Burnet by a majority of seven votes.
His ad interim presidency of the Republic of Texas lasted from March 17 to October 22, 1836, and was very difficult. His actions angered Sam Houston, the army, the vice president, many cabinet members, and the public, and he left office embittered, intending never to return home, where a number of neighbors had turned against him. He lacked legal clients and was forced to turn to subsistence farming. In 1838 he entered the race for vice president and rode Mirabeau B. Lamar's coattails to victory. Forced to serve part of the time as secretary of state and acting president, Burnet became more out of step with public opinion. His bid for the presidency in 1841 against his old enemy, Sam Houston, resulted in defeat after a vitriolic campaign of name-calling.
Burnet was against annexation to the United States in 1845 but nevertheless applied for the position of United States district judge in 1846. Even with the Whig influence of his brothers, however, he lacked enough political influence. He was named secretary of state by Governor James P. Henderson in 1846 and served one term. An application to the Whig administration in 1849 for a position as Galveston customs collector also failed. His only other public office was largely symbolic, a reward for an elder statesman. In 1866 the Texas legislature named Burnet and Oran M. Roberts United States senators, but upon arrival in Washington they were not seated because Texas had failed to meet Republican political demands. Although intellectually opposed to secession, Burnet had embraced the Southern cause when his only son, William, resigned his commission in the United States Army and volunteered for Confederate service. The son was killed in a battle at Spanish Fort, Alabama, in 1865, a crushing blow to Burnet, who had lost his wife in 1858.
Burnet had married Hannah Este in Morristown, New Jersey, on December 8, 1830. She bore four children, but only William survived, and the doting parents sacrificed for his education. After Hannah's death Burnet had to hire out his slaves and rent his farm in order to have income to pay his room and board in Galveston. He and Lamar intended to publish a history of the republic to expose Sam Houston, and though Burnet furnished Lamar with many articles, Lamar was unable to find a publisher. Burnet burned his manuscript shortly before his death. He was a Mason and a Presbyterian. He outlived all of his immediate family, died without money in Galveston on December 5, 1870, and was buried by friends. His remains were moved from the Episcopal Cemetery to the new Magnolia Cemetery and finally to Lakeview Cemetery in Galveston, where the Daughters of the Republic of Texas erected a monument to him and his friend Sidney Sherman in 1894. Burnet County was named for him in 1852, and in 1936 the state erected a statue of him on the grounds of the high school in Clarksville.
NOTEDavid Burnet shares a memorial obelisk with Sidney Sherman. In the photo below, Burnet is on the left.
29° 16.392, -094° 49.566