Involved from the Start: Georgia’s Role in America’s Birth

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — these rights were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and secured with the signatures of delegates from each of the 13 colonies. As the United States grew, the founders faced the contradictions and challenges that independence presented, including the limited power of the federal government. Eleven years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, delegates convened once more to draft and ratify the U.S. Constitution.

These two documents continue to shape and inform the country today. The Georgia delegates who signed them were dedicated to the betterment of both the nation and the state. As the United States celebrates 248 years of democracy, let us remember the Georgia signers who resolutely ushered in independence and were instrumental in establishing the political system we have today.

Portrait of Button Gwinnett, undated. Wikimedia Commons.

Button Gwinnett (1735–1777)

Often described as the most notorious of Georgia’s declaration signers, Button Gwinnett was born in Gloucestershire, England. He moved to Savannah in 1765, hoping to escape financial hardship. In Savannah, Gwinnett tried and failed at becoming a merchant before pivoting to planting, purchasing St. Catherine’s Island and enslaved people. When this venture also failed, Gwinnett shifted his focus to politics.

Before signing the Declaration of Independence, Gwinnett played a notable role in organizing and rallying backcountry and coastal Whigs in revolutionary efforts. In 1776, his success in local politics led to his election as a representative of Georgia at the Second Continental Congress. There he joined George Walton and Lyman Hall in signing the Declaration of Independence.

After signing the Declaration of Independence, Gwinnett returned to Georgia, where he held high-ranking military positions and briefly served as governor from March to May 1777. Gwinnett became entangled in ongoing conflicts with his rival, Lachlan McIntosh. Their rivalry reached a head in May 1777 after McIntosh publicly called Gwinnett “a scoundrell [sic] and lying rascal.”

Offended by the public insult, Gwinnett challenged McIntosh to a pistol duel. He was shot during the duel and died from his injuries. Less than a year after signing the Declaration of Independence, Gwinnett became the second signer to die. His signature, considered one of the rarest and most valuable due to his relative anonymity before signing the declaration and his death shortly after, has been valued at more than $500,000.

Portrait Sketch of Lyman Hall, 1871. Wikimedia Commons

Lyman Hall (1724–1790)

Described by his peers as a “friend of human rights,” Lyman Hall was perhaps the most vocal advocate for national liberty in Georgia at the time. Born in Connecticut, Hall graduated from Yale College (now Yale University) before joining a group of New England Puritans who had relocated to the Southeast. Hall and the Puritans settled in St. John’s Parish and founded the town of Sunbury in Georgia’s Midway District (present-day Liberty County). In the parish, Hall served the community as a physician before turning to politics.

Hall and other members of the parish maintained strong family ties to New England, making them more sympathetic than most Georgians to the Patriots’ outrage at British policies such as the Intolerable Acts. . Frustrated with the colony’s decision to abstain from the First Continental Congress in 1774 and eager to show their support for national independence, St. John’s Parish independently elected to send Hall to Philadelphia, where he was admitted to Congress without voting ability. When Georgia formally aligned with the other colonies, they officially elected Hall as one of the delegates, allowing him to vote for, ratify, and sign the Declaration of Independence along with Gwinnett and Walton.

Upon his return to Savannah in 1777, Hall revived his medical practice before being elected governor from 1783 to 1784. As governor, Hall advocated for the establishment of courts and education by calling on the legislature in Augusta to grant plots of land and endow institutions of learning. His proposal paved the way for the establishment of Franklin College, later the University of Georgia.

Portrait of George Walton, 18th century. Wikimedia Commons

George Walton (c. 1749–1804)

Despite his humble beginnings, George Walton went on to hold the most offices of the three signers of the Declaration of Independence. Born in Virginia, Walton was orphaned by the age of 12 and worked as a carpenter’s apprentice until his 1767 move to Savannah, where he successfully studied and practiced law. Like Gwinnett, Walton attended early meetings among fellow revolutionaries and secured election to the Second Continental Congress.

Although there is no record of Georgia’s delegates giving speeches in Congress, Walton was deeply moved by John Adams’ speech in support of independence. In a letter to Adams, he wrote, “Since the first day of July 1776, my conduct, in every station in life, has corresponded with the result of that great question which you so ably and faithfully developed on that day. … It was then I felt the strongest attachments and they have never departed from me.” Walton’s sense of devotion to the new nation is evident in the many offices he held upon returning to Georgia in 1778. He immediately resumed his political career at the state level. As colonel of the First Regiment of the Georgia Militia, Walton fought in the Siege of Savannah, was captured, and then, held as a prisoner of war. After being released, Walton was elected governor in 1779 and again in 1789. Between gubernatorial terms, Walton served as chief justice of Georgia from 1783 to 1789 and as a member of the Augusta Board of Commissioners from 1784 to 1785. He also served as a delegate to Georgia’s Constitutional Convention and as a U.S. Senator.

In addition to the many positions Walton held, he stood apart as the only one of Georgia’s signers of the Declaration of Independence who did not enslave people. Walton even spoke out against what he called the “barbarian” attacks by local white citizens on an African American Baptist congregation in Yamacraw, Georgia. Walton finally retired to his Augusta home, Meadow Garden, where he died. Meadow Garden now operates as a museum.

Painting of Abraham Baldwin, undated. Wikimedia Commons

Abraham Baldwin (1754–1807)

Born in Connecticut, Abraham Baldwin graduated from Yale College and served as a chaplain during the Revolutionary War. After the war, Baldwin declined a professorship at Yale, instead choosing to relocate to Georgia.

Aware of the high value Baldwin placed on education, Governor Lyman Hall encouraged him to create a plan for secondary and higher education. Baldwin believed that an educated public was the cornerstone of a successful republic, and to this end, he crafted a plan that would advance not only the educational system in Georgia but also serve as a blueprint for public higher education across the country. Baldwin’s plan eventually led to the establishment in 1785 of Franklin College (later the University of Georgia), the nation’s first state-chartered university. Baldwin served as UGA’s first president from 1786 to 1801.

During this time, Baldwin also served as a delegate at the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. One of the main concerns at the convention was how each state would be represented in the federal government. Larger states advocated for representation based on population, while smaller states, fearing inadequate representation, voted for equal representation.

Although Georgia was considered a larger state, Baldwin empathetically voted with the smaller states, resulting in a tie that led to a compromise. The Great Compromise, also known as the Connecticut Compromise, established the bicameral legislature: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Described as an intentional listener, Baldwin’s efforts helped create the legislative system we have today and paved the way for public higher education across the nation.

Painting of William Few, c. 1787. Wikimedia Commons

William Few Jr. (1748–1828)

William Few Jr. arrived in Georgia in the mid-1770s after abandoning a drought-stricken tobacco farm in his birth state of Maryland and fleeing political trouble in North Carolina. During the Revolutionary War, Few joined the Richmond County regiment and served as a lieutenant colonel. Like other Georgia signers, Few’s military success opened the door to political service.

In 1786, Few was elected to represent Georgia at the 1787 Constitutional Convention where he lobbied his fellow congressmen to vote in favor of the new U.S. Constitution. After signing the Constitution, Few continued to hold office in the newly formed legislature, serving as one of Georgia’s first senators.

When his congressional term ended in 1793, Few returned to Georgia and served as a federal judge for the Georgia circuit. Few was also an advocate for education and a founding trustee of the University of Georgia in 1785. Although Few spent his final years in New York, his remains were reinterred at St. Paul’s Church in Augusta.

Hope and promise characterized the early years of the newly independent United States. Founding fathers wrestled with optimism and frustration as they laid the foundations of the country. Georgia’s signers met this challenge with passion and devotion. Their belief in the value of public service is evident in how they lived their lives. Their contributions to the state are honored through the naming of counties, schools, memorials, and roads throughout Georgia.