Revolutions are complex multi-sided economic, political, social, and technological events. They begin as conservative movements. As each side fears losing, all of these different interests radicalize but when the struggle is over, as historian Robert Calhoon points out, each side will adopt constructive compromise to find a way to govern together.
In the American Revolution both the American and the British causes initially sought to return to what they imagined had been their mutual past but, as the conflict continued, each side found change inevitable in a new world. The Declaration of Independence (1776), The Treaty of Paris (1783), and the United States Constitution (1789), and the special relationship between America and Britain that existed by the 1830s, provided all with a way to a future together.
The Georgia signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution well represent these revolutionary changes in America, but in tales of drama equal to the unusual place and radical times in which these men lived. These stories include that of Archibald Bulloch, a delegate to the Continental Congress whose name should appear on the Declaration, according to John Adams, but duty and fate denied him that honor.
Archibald Bulloch, ancestor of President Theodore Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, was a prominent attorney and speaker of Georgia’s colonial House of Commons but he fully joined the Revolution as the leader of its rebel Provincial Congress that met at Tondee’s Tavern in Savannah. Born in South Carolina in 1730, he came to Georgia in 1758 with his father, Presbyterian minister James Bulloch. Archibald played a major role in the military event in Savannah called the battle of the Rice Boats in 1775-1776. That clash of arms finally compelled Georgia to adopt the Continental Association banning trade with the British Empire. Royal Governor Sir James Wright and the last vestiges of the old colonial government left the province with British ships that had seized several shiploads of rice needed to feed the British garrison in Boston. Bulloch personally led an attack on the British camp near Savannah with militia and friendly Creek Indians.
The Provincial Congress elected Bulloch to represent Georgia in the Second Continental Congress where he made a noted appearance in his homespun clothing that represented the need for American economic independence. John Adams believed that Bulloch would have been among the architects and signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Bulloch chose instead to return to Georgia as the province was reaching the tipping point of Revolution. His had to win over the public but also to keep the Patriots themselves from sinking into political partisanship. Bulloch’s efforts to keep the peace in the thirteenth colony ended too soon with his death in 1777 while serving as the first chief executive of the state of Georgia.
Popular misunderstanding has it that the signing of the Declaration was some messy affair that stretched out for months. In fact, the arrangement of the signatures was well organized and highly symbolic. The Georgia signatures come first, as the signers appear by state from south to north, left to right. Had Bulloch stayed in Philadelphia for the signing, his would have been the first name to appear on the document. Three of the other Georgia delegates chosen to the Continental Congress did approve and sign the Declaration, Button Gwinnett, Dr. Lyman Hall, and George Walton.
Button Gwinnett was the stereotype revolutionary similar in many ways to Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine. Born in Gloucester, England, in 1735, he left a long trail of business failures across the Atlantic including in Nova Scotia, Philadelphia, and Jamaica. His business entanglements would follow him even beyond the grave. Gwinnett arrived in Savannah, Georgia, in 1765 where he fared no better in his financial affairs.
A local government official and member of the colonial assembly, Gwinnett became a powerful leader among the Revolutionaries. He not only began local resistance to British policies but as early as 1775 he worked to organize the state’s first political party, a coalition of frontiersmen and malcontents like himself against the Savannah merchants and coastal planters who dominated Georgia’s affairs.
As a delegate to the Continental Congress, Button Gwinnett served on several committees including the one for unifying the colonies into a nation. He voted for independence on July 2 and his signature is first on the document.Gwinnett’s signature is the rarest and most valuable of the signers of the Declaration, and the most often forged, despite several of his personal papers having been uncovered on Gwinnett’s former Cumberland Island estate by pioneer autograph collector Israel Tefft.
Historian Harvey Jackson wrote of Gwinnett, “self-interest cannot be divorced from his motives.” In 1776, Georgia Continental Congress delegate George Walton asked Congress for $20,000 for arms for Georgia. Gwinnett, as member of the secret committee, tried to get the money, falsely claiming to be an arms contractor.
Gwinnett returned to Georgia in order to help shape its first state constitution. If the original of the Georgia state constitution of 1777 survives, it likely is the only document, other than the Declaration, that has the signatures of at least two of the Georgia signers. An unknown number of such historically important records likely remain inaccessible to scholars in private collections because of the financial value of Gwinnett’s signature.
Technically, Archibald Bulloch became the first governor of Georgia and signed commissions as such before his death between February 24 and March 4, 1777. Starting on that date Gwinnett took over as his temporary successor. Despite a humiliating performance as chief executive during the disaster of the state’s invasion of neighboring British East Florida, he presumed that the new one-house state assembly would chose him as governor and had the commission made out only to see his fellow party member John Adam Treutlen chosen instead.
Button Gwinnett died on May 20, 1777 from an infection brought on from wounds he received from a duel fought with political opposition leader Brigadier General Lachlan McIntosh. The political differences between the two men had become personal when McIntosh mocked Gwinnett’s failure to win election as governor. An enraged Gwinnett challenged the general to the duel. Fought at a murderous range of less than twelve feet, McIntosh also received a wound. Gwinnett’s political supporters, having failed him in life, used him in death to make a grab for political power with a campaign of innuendo to paint the leaders of Georgia’s planter class as enemies of the Revolution. Many of those same men who questioned the patriotism of others themselves later returned to the King’s allegiance. Because of the political controversy, McIntosh subsequently had a transfer from Georgia and served at Valley Forge.
Dr. Lyman Hall, as with all five of Georgia’s signers, was not born in the new, sparsely settled frontier province of Georgia but in Wallingford, Connecticut, in 1724. This physician and Congregational minister came to Georgia from Dorchester, South Carolina, in 1767 as part of the New England community of the now dead towns of Midway and Sunbury on the Georgia coast. These Georgians actively joined the Revolution in support of their friends and families in Boston before the rest of the colony. Georgia and South Carolina patriots seized British gunpowder that they shared with the American forces besieging Boston.
Hall was the only Georgian attending the First Continental Congress although he did not vote as he declined consideration as representing the whole colony. He did bring with him barrels of rice for the distressed families of Boston. Hall also sought to resolve the conflict with South Carolina that had cut off trade with Georgia because Georgia’s rebels had not yet agreed to the Continental Association that suspended trade with Great Britain. As a member of the Second Continental Congress, Hall served with Benjamin Franklin on the science committee and on committees involved with the health of the army. With Gwinnett, he worked to obtain military aid for Georgia.
Despite serving as a post-war governor of Georgia, little else remains known of the historical man as Hall left few documents. Unlike too many of Georgia’s Revolutionary War era leaders, Hall avoided being embroiled in controversy and so he seldom was mentioned in the documents of the time. The sole exception in his career came when he expressed his outrage to the Continental Congress at the death of his friend Button Gwinnett.
George Walton completed Georgia’s signers of the Declaration of Independence and could hardly have had a more different background from the rest of the delegation. Born in Goochland County, Virginia, after his father’s death in 1749, he lost his mother a few years later. Walton moved to Georgia with an older brother who settled in Augusta by 1770. George apprenticed himself in law in Savannah and later, as an attorney, George Walton had an extensive practice.
A Georgia delegate in four one-year terms in the Continental Congress, Walton became an associate to John Adams and worked tirelessly on Georgia’s behalf. The state during those years suffered the threat of attack by Native Americans, invasion three times by British forces, conquest by the enemy, and talk of a forced merger with South Carolina. In 1781, George Walton, Nathan Bronson, and William Few Jr. (later a Georgia signer of the United States Constitution) led an effort in the Continental Congress not to trade Georgia to the British for peace.
In Christ Church Parish, what became Chatham County, Georgia, Walton became colonel-commandant of the state militia. He was wounded and captured while defending Georgia’s capital from British attack on December 28, 1778. Walton remained crippled for life. His family, later captured at sea, suffered a long odyssey across the Caribbean that included a battle and a hurricane before all were reunited.
Associated with the McIntosh/coastal aristocracy faction of the new state’s politics, Walton switched sides to the late Button Gwinnett’s populist following. When that faction won election as the state’s reconstructed government, Walton became governor. He requested the removal of his former friend Brig. Gen. Lachlan McIntosh, who had killed Gwinnett in a duel in 1777, for the second time from command in Georgia. Walton then resigned to receive a new appointment to the Continental Congress.
In post-war Georgia, Walton served as governor twice and as chief justice for three terms. He spent his last years in Augusta living on limited means from the failure of his investments in western lands, a common fate of many of the men of his era. To some people who knew him he was a crippled hero of the Revolution, but to others a vile political opportunist. His family remained prominent socially in the South although, like Gwinnett and Hall, he has no living descendants. The Georgia state Daughters of the American Revolution maintains his home, Meadow Garden in Augusta.
Georgia’s two signers of the United States Constitution, Abraham Baldwin and William Few, are the last names on that document as the geographic order by states on the Constitution has signatures reversed (north to south, left to right) from those on the Declaration of Independence. Both of these men served in the American Revolution but both represented not the leadership that began the struggle or created the Declaration of Independence. They came from the generation that followed and they, like Alexander Hamilton, led unlikely careers on a grand scale.
Georgia was the fourth state to ratify the Constitution, not a surprise to George Washington as he noted that the state needed the help of a strong national government. In the years before 1819, Georgia had three wars with neighboring Spanish East Florida and lost over 2,000 lives to Indian attacks. The state became embroiled in the enormous Yazoo and Pine Berrien frauds as well as having financial and judicial problems brought on as a result of almost complete devastation by the war.
Scholars know so much about William Few Jr. because he left a solid memoir of his life and career. In addition, several hundred letters that he wrote to his wife are now available today at the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Georgia Libraries. These documents cover his time in the Constitutional Convention and as one of the first members of the United States.
Few was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1748 of Quaker heritage. His parents moved their family to the Quaker community in Orange County, North Carolina, in 1758. Despite the family’s non-political religious beliefs, the Fews became active in the colonial North Carolina Regulator Rebellion. The royal governor had William’s older brother hanged for leading that resistance. The colonial coastal militia burned the family farm. The Fews moved on to the Quaker community in Wrightsborough, Georgia, where they were likely “friendlies,” the majority of the community who were non-members of the meeting but who supported Quaker principles.
William Few joined them in 1776 and almost immediately joined the Revolution on the frontier. He served in the fighting in Georgia as a lieutenant colonel in his brother Benjamin’s Richmond County militia regiment. He would especially remember the experience of his first battle, at Burke County Jail, near modern Waynesboro, Georgia, in January 1779. After the war, he studied law and began a successful practice. Few returned to Georgia after four years in Congress to fight the great Georgia land scandal known as the Yazoo Land Fraud. From 1799 to his death in 1828, William Few was active in New York state politics and in many positions of public service. He became a successful banker.
Abraham Baldwin also signed the United States Constitution for Georgia. Born in North Guilford, Connecticut, in 1754, the son of a blacksmith, Baldwin became an orphan. As an eldest child, Baldwin raised his six younger siblings and paid off his father’s debts. He had graduated from Yale, become a Congregationalist minister, and worked as a tutor at Yale. During the American Revolution, Baldwin served as a chaplain and became the acquaintance of George Washington.
Declining the offer of a professorship at Yale, Abraham Baldwin instead moved to Georgia in 1783. He followed his friend Gen. Nathanael Greene there at the beginning of the greatest era of growth and problems in the state’s history. In Savannah, Augusta, and Washington, Georgia, Baldwin had a career as an attorney and politician. He founded the city of Athens and was an original trustee of the University of Georgia, the first chartered state-supported institution of higher learning (founded in 1785). The opening of this university, originally conceived by the famous Rev. George Whitefield in 1755, did not have classes until 1801, however, due to the disruption by conflict with the Indians. Baldwin would serve several terms in Congress as a member of the House of Representatives and from 1799 until his death in 1807 as a Senator, including a term as president of the Senate.
Baldwin played a pivotal role in the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He helped to arrange for the creation of the compromise that led to the method of representation in the proposed Congress. That controversy had threatened to end the Convention. Baldwin also served in the Grand Committee led by Benjamin Franklin that made the Constitution possible.
The story of the Georgia signers is that of America as a whole. Gwinnett was an immigrant and Hall and Baldwin were New Englanders tied to the Revolution’s ideological beginnings. Few and Walton came from the frontier and represented the promise of what this new world could become. Bulloch, Gwinnett, Hall, and Walton were among the first leaders of the American Revolution. Baldwin, Few, and Walton played great roles in creating the United States that followed. All of these Georgians deserve the title of founders.
Robert M. Calhoon, Political Moderation in America’s First two Centuries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). This article comes from a talk given at the American Revolution National Museum, Yorktown, Virginia, March 26, 2017.
For the biographies of Georgia’s signers see Edwin C. Bridges, et al, Georgia’s Signers and the Declaration of the American Revolution (Atlanta: Cherokee Publishing, 1981); Kenneth Coleman and Charles Stephen Gurr, eds., Dictionary of Georgia Biography(Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1983); and Charles C. Jones, Jr., Georgia Delegates to the Continental Congress (Boston, 1891). Gordon Burns Smith, Morningstars of Liberty 2 vols. to date (Milledgeville, GA: Boyd Publishing, 2006-) has additional information.
Harvey H. Jackson, “The Battle of the Rice Boats: Georgia Joins the Revolution” Georgia Historical Quarterly 58 (June 1974): 229-43; Robert S. Davis, “Georgia Joins the American Revolution: British Views of the Battle of the Rice Boats,” Proceedings and Papers of the Georgia Association of Historians 4 (1983): 111-22.
For Few’s life see William Few: Soldier-Statesman of the Constitution (Washington, DC: Center for Military History, 1986); Florence Fleming Corley, “William Few, Jr.: Georgia’s Silent Signer of the U. S. Constitution,” Journal of Southern Legal History 1 (Fall-winter, 1991): 223-28; and Mildred Crow Sargent, William Few: a Founding Father (New York: Authorhouse, 2004).