Burton was born 22 August 1809 in Aberdeen, the son of an army officer, and died 10 August 1881 in Edinburgh. He was educated at Aberdeen grammar school and at Marischal College, Aberdeen. His training as an advocate at the Scottish bar was only possible because his widowed mother sold her home and moved with him into Edinburgh lodgings. With few briefs to sustain him he turned to journalism, writing on history, philosophy and law. His first book, a manual on law, brought his name to a wide audience. His work on David hume in 1846 established his reputation for careful research based on original sources. He commented that Hume knew in his writing on political economy when he was getting out of his depth. Burton was appointed secretary to the Prison Board at £700 per annum, with the result that there was less need for him to write for a living. In 1867 he was appointed Historiographer Royal with an annual salary of £190. He married first Isabel Lauder (1844), who died in 1849 leaving three daughters; he subsequently married Katherine Innes (1855), who complained that her husband lacked imagination.
From The Biographical Dictionary of British Economists in Oxford Reference.