James Henderson Burns is a leading historian of European political thought, specializing in the Reformation, the Scottish Enlightenment, and the works of Jeremy Bentham, the eighteenth-century British jurist and reformer. Burns is known for his many years of teaching at University College, London, and his long tenure as an editor of History of Political Thought journal and the Collected Works of Bentham. For nearly twenty years, Burns oversaw the Bentham Project, which is editing the Works.
A native of Scotland, Burns was born in 1921 in Linlithgow, West Lothian, where his father was a papermaker and managing director of Avon Paper Mills. He attended George Watson’s College in Edinburgh from 1932 to 1940, and then pursued his master’s and doctorate at Edinburgh University. During the war years, Burns converted to Roman Catholicism. In 1950 he began contributing articles to the Innes Review, a journal that covered the role of the Catholic Church in Scottish history. Burns took a special interest in John Major, a Scottish priest and humanist during the Reformation who espoused human rights for indigenous peoples. Major also led the universities at Glasgow and St Andrews.
Burns’s teaching career took him to University College, London, where in 1961 he was appointed general editor of Bentham’s Collected Works. University College holds tens of thousands of Bentham’s manuscripts and letters. Through 1979 Burns led the new Collected Works project, which anticipates more than seventy volumes. In 1967 he was appointed Professor of the History of Political Thought. Burns was head of the Department of History at University College from 1970 to 1975 and founded the Institute of Historical Research’s “political ideas” seminar. He has lectured at Cambridge University and Johns Hopkins University.
In leading the Bentham Project, Burns was neither a Benthamite nor a utilitarian, but instead a wide-ranging historian interested in the social context of political ideas and systems. His colleagues celebrated his range of work as having covered “from the middle ages of Marsilius of Padua to the Scotland of John Major . . . from Catholic scholasticism and the writings of medieval jurists to the Scottish Reformation; from concepts of monarchy to ideas of anti-monarchomachs . . . from Bentham and J. S. Mill to Scottish committees of the House of Commons in the mid-twentieth century.” Burns’s most widely read works, which he edited, have been The Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought c. 350–c. 1450 (1988), and The Cambridge History of Political Thought 1450–1700 (1991).
Since 1950, he has contributed more than one hundred articles to journals that have included the Scottish Historical Review, Political Studies, Journal of the History of Ideas, History Today, Journal of Modern History, London Review of Books, and Journal of Ecclesiastical History. In addition to contributing several chapters to book anthologies, and his editing of the early volumes for the Bentham Project, Burns’s monographs include The True Law of Kingship: Concepts of Monarchy in Early Modern Scotland (1996), Lordship, Kingship and Empire, The Idea of Monarchy, 1400–1525 (1992), Absolutism: The History of an Idea (1987), The Fabric of Felicity: The Legislator and the Human Condition (1967), Scottish Churchmen and the Council of Basle (1962), and Jeremy Bentham and University College (1962).