David G. Burnet, speculator, lawyer, and politician, was born on April 14, 1788, in Newark, New Jersey, the fourteenth child of Dr. William Burnet, and the third of his second wife, widow Gertrude Gouverneur Rutgers. David was orphaned at an early age and raised by his older half-brothers. All of his life he strove to achieve the prominence of his father and brothers: Dr. Burnet served in the Continental Congress and as surgeon general. Jacob Burnet (1770–1853), lawyer, ardent federalist, and later a Whig who nominated his friend, William Henry Harrison, for president, served as a member of the territorial council of Ohio, state legislator, Supreme Court judge, and United States senator, and was honored for intellectual achievements including a history of the territory of Ohio. Another brother, Isaac, was mayor of Cincinnati during the 1820s.
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.
Burnet spent 1827 in Texas and then returned to Ohio, where he fruitlessly sought colonists and financial backing from prominent men to develop his grant. In desperation he and refugee Lorenzo de Zavala sold the rights to their colonization contracts in October 1830 to a group of northeastern investors, the Galveston Bay and Texas Land Company. Burnet received an undisclosed sum of money and certificates for four leagues of land from the new company. Unfortunately, he was not allowed to locate the leagues because of the Law of April 6, 1830. He used the money to buy a fifteen-horsepower steam sawmill and move his bride to Texas. They left New York on the seventy-ton schooner Cull on March 4, 1831, and arrived in Galveston Bay on April 4. Burnet bought seventeen acres on the San Jacinto River from Nathaniel Lynch for the mill and an additional 279 acres east of Lynch facing Burnet Bay, where he built a simple four-room home called Oakland. Between 1831 and 1835 Burnet unsuccessfully petitioned the state for eleven leagues of land because of the mill; the mill, however, lost money, and he sold it in June 1835.
The articulate Burnet impressed local residents, and though he took no part in the events at Anahuac in 1832 (see ANAHUAC DISTURBANCES), 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.