James Burke was born in Petroleum Center, Pennsylvania in 1867. He studied law at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor where he graduated 1892. While at Michigan he organized the American Republican College League, the predecessor to the College Republicans. Petitioning then president, Republican William McKinley Burke won approval for the organization and hosted an inigural banquet attended by McKinley along with 1,500 college students The organization quickly spread to almost every college in the country. In 1888 at age 21, Burke was made secretary of the committee in charge of the dedication of the then-new Allegheny County Court House, at which President Rutherford B. Hays made the dedicating address.
After graduating from Michigan he was admitted to the Allegheny County bar the same year. Subsequently, he was admitted to the Superior and Supreme courts of Pennsylvania, and later to the United States Supreme Court, and commenced practice in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was the secretary of the Republican National Committee in 1892, resigning during the same year to devote his entire time to his duties as president of the American Republican College League.
Burke ran for congress in 1904 and was elected by a wide majority. He subsequently served five consecutive terms. He was chairman of the congressional committee which inaugurated William Howard Taft as President.
During his time in congress, Burke served on a number of committees, including:Committee on Education – Chairman
Military Affairs Committee
Committee on Banking and Currency
He had a hand in a number of important pieces of legislation, including taking an active role in framing the Federal Reserve Act which created the Federal Reserve Bank, America's central bank.
He was appointed a delegate to the Parliamentary Peace Conference at Brussels in 1905. He was appointed by President Benjamin Harrison to codify the navigation laws of the United States. He was officer of, or a delegate to, the Republican National Conventions from 1892 to 1924, with the exception of the year 1912.
He was not a candidate for renomination in 1914. In December, 1917 he became United States Government Director of War Savings during the First World War.
Following his political career, Burke resumed the practice of law, practicing for 10 years as a criminal lawyer at the Allegheny county bar. Additionally, he was elected General Counsel of the Republican National Committee in December 1927 and served until his death. He was parliamentarian of the Republican National Convention at Kansas City, Missouri, in 1928.
Burke wrote a number of treatises, including "The Powers of the President", investigating the role of the President during wartime, and a history of the World Peace Conference entitled "Perplexing Problems of the World's Peace Conference".
Burke was an avid golfer and belonged to a number of golf and country clubs. He was founder of the Beaumaris Yacht Club, in Beaumaris, Ontario where he had a summer house. At one point the United States Golf Association asked him to prepare a set of rules which was ultimately presented to the international committee at St Andrews in Scotland.
In 1895 Burke married Josephine Birch Scott of Detroit, Michigan, and had two children, James Scott Burke and Josephine Frances Burke. He died in Washington, D.C., and is buried in the Roman Catholic Calvary Cemetery, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.