He was born in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, to Alfred Burton and Gertrude Hitz. His father was a Dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was also an explorer. He had accompanied Robert Peary on several expeditions to the North Pole. His mother was a daughter of the first Swiss Consul General to the United States.
Burton served in the Ohio House of Representatives in 1929 and was elected Mayor of Cleveland, Ohio in 1935, running as a Republican. He served until election as United States Senator in 1941. It was in the Senate where he first met fellow senator Harry S. Truman. Burton resigned from the Senate when he was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1945 by later President Truman, to succeed Justice Owen J. Roberts. His nomination was announced to the Senate and confirmed unanimously the same day without hearings or debate. He served until he retired on October 13, 1958. He suffered from Parkinson's disease in his later years. He died from complications arising from this, kidney failure and pulmonary trouble.
Burton married Selma Florence Smith in 1912. They had four children: Barbara (Mrs. Charles Weidner), William (who served in the Ohio House of Representatives), Deborah (Mrs. Wallace Adler), and Robert (a distinguished attorney and counsel to athletes.)
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