John Burke was born in Keokuk County, Iowa, on February 25, 1859. He was the son of John and Mary (Ryan) Burke, both Irish immigrants. The younger Burke graduated from the State University of Iowa in Iowa City with a law degree in 1886. He practiced law in Des Moines, Iowa, and Henning, Minnesota, before moving to rural Rolette County, North Dakota, in August 1888. Excellent oratory and legal skills soon led to a law partnership with Henry G. Middaugh in Devils Lake. He married Mary E. Kane of Waukesha, Wisconsin, in 1891. Kane had been a teacher in St. John, North Dakota.
Burke established his reputation as a rising young lawyer with high integrity and clear sympathies for the common man. Active in Democratic Party politics, he ran for a Rolette County seat in the North Dakota House of Representatives. His election to that office in 1890 was followed by a four year term in the North Dakota Senate (1893-1896). Burke received the Democratic Party nominations for Attorney General (1894), U.S. Congress (1896), and a district judgeship (1900) but was defeated by a Republican majority in general elections.
For the next several years, Burke returned to private legal practice. By 1905, the Republican Party was in disarray, torn between railroad and big money interests and an insurgent Progressive wing seeking reform. Seizing the opportunity, the Democrats nominated Burke for Governor in 1906. His highly energetic campaigning and stirring oratory brought about his election despite defeat of the rest of the Democratic ticket.
Reelected twice more, Burke served as Governor from 1907 through 1913, during which time he enacted a full gamut of Progressive legislation, including pure food, seed and sanitation laws; public utilities control laws; child labor laws; and a corrupt practices act. He also vigorously enforced the state's previously lax alcohol prohibition laws, gave the state its first general primary election law, and improved the management of higher education. During his administration, the public health laboratory, state tax commission and state employee compensation commission were created.
At the 1912 Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, Burke enthusiastically supported the candidacy of Woodrow Wilson. Burke swung all of North Dakota's votes to Wilson on the first ballot. William Jennings Bryan, himself a supporter of Wilson and also a good friend of Burke's, wanted Burke to run for Vice-President. Burke demurred, however, due to a promise he had given Indiana delegates for their votes. As a result, Thomas Marshall of Indiana was chosen for Vice-President. Burke was named United States Treasurer following Wilson’s election victory in November 1912. Burke held this office until the end of Wilson's presidency in 1921.
Investing his life savings to become a partner in a New York banking and brokerage firm, Burke found himself impoverished when the firm, Kardos & Co., collapsed in February 1922. Although having been little involved in the management of the firm, Burke made no attempt to shield his remaining personal assets from the firm's creditors in bankruptcy proceedings. Returning to North Dakota, Burke resumed legal practice by establishing a partnership with Usher L. Burdick, once lieutenant governor when Burke was governor. Hard times for both soon ended as their Fargo practice thrived.
With his reputation as "Honest John" buoyed by his selfless conduct during the brokerage bankruptcy, Burke was urged to run for a vacant seat on the North Dakota Supreme Court in 1924. Coming out on top in a four-way race in the primary, Burke also won in the November 1924 general election and began a career on the Court that would continue until his death. He served twice as Chief Justice, 1929-1931 and 1935-1937.
John Burke died May 14, 1937, at St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester, Minnesota. He is buried at St. Mary's Cemetery in Bismarck.
On June 27, 1963, a statue of John Burke was dedicated at the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol of the United States in Washington, D.C. The statue was sculpted by Dr. Avard Fairbanks of the University of Utah.
The John Burke Papers are grouped into three series.
Series One consists of biographical materials, including typescript copy of articles regarding Burke published in various newspapers and magazines as well as a selection from Lewis Crawford's History of North Dakota. Also included are newspaper clippings, mementos and posthumous honors, including the launching of Liberty Ship "John Burke" in 1942 and the unveiling of a statue of Burke in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in 1963.
Series Two consists of Burke's correspondence and writings. Correspondence, both incoming and outgoing, is mostly complete for 1916, but is quite limited in other years. Also included is a file containing 125 letters of congratulation received by Burke upon his first election to the governorship in 1906, and correspondence with Usher Burdick from 1930-1932.
Series Three is comprised of research notes and correspondence by the Catholic Historical Society of St. Paul from a project conducted after Burke's death in May 1937. Correspondence files include numerous detailed personal reminiscences of Burke's life by friends and colleagues.