Founding Fathers Friday: George Walton

by Derrick G. Jeter

Most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence weren’t self-made men. The majority of them came from wealthy families, providing them the leisure to pursue politics. This was not true of the vast majority of Americans, who never escaped the hard scratched existence of toiling with their hands. This makes the story of George Walton all the more inspiring.

Walton was no son of wealth. He was born in Virginia sometime between 1741 and 1753. No one knows for sure the exact date of his birth because he was orphaned early in life.* All we know of his early life are these bare facts: he was poor, he was taken in by an uncle, and when he was old enough to work his uncle apprenticed him to a local carpenter. Two myths surround Walton’s life with the carpenter. One relates the old carpenter as a kindly man who encouraged the boy’s education by giving him time off to attend school. The other, and probably closer to the truth, pictures the old man as a tyrant. An early biography of Walton offered a vivid description of his time as a carpenter’s apprentice.

[Walton] was possessed of an inquiring mind, and an ardent thirst for knowledge, but his master’s authority hung like a mill-stone about the neck of his aspirations. He was an ignorant man, and looked upon a studious boy as an idle one, considering the time spent in reading as wasted. With this feeling, he would allow young Walton no time to read by day, nor lights to study by night; but the ardent youth overcame these difficulties, and by using torch-wood for light, he spent his evenings in study.

Whichever story is actually true, Walton’s poor education and poor economy was never in doubt. But what Walton lacked in formal education, he made up for in a superabundance of determination. When he finished his apprenticeship he left Virginia and traveled to the remote colony of Georgia. There, he decided to study law. Finding a kindly attorney who would tutor the poorly educated Walton, he eventually became a lawyer—beginning his own practice in 1774 in Savannah.

Soon after commencing his practice, Walton became acquainted with Lyman Hall and the radicals of St. John’s Parish. Walton, under the tutelage of Dr. Hall, according to Walton’s biographer, became “an apt pupil in the school of patriotism.” Fully committed to the patriot cause, Walton organized a series of meetings at Tondee’s Tavern in Savannah, in the summer of 1774, to debate what role Georgia should take in the increasing colonial discontent. Walton pushed for action similar to the action taken by Hall and the St. John’s patriots. But the Tories of Savannah—as was true of most of Georgia at the time—saw no grave threat from British taxation and so dithered. This resulted in Georgia’s absence at the First Continental Congress.

However, flying bullets have a way of concentrating the conscience. After the battles of Lexington, Concord, Fort Ticonderoga, and Bunker Hill, Georgia quickly jumped on the congressional bandwagon. In 1775, the colony sent George Walton, Lyman Hall, and three others to Philadelphia. In 1776, Walton and Hall returned to Congress, along with Button Gwinnett. All three voted for independence on July 2, 1776, and signed the Declaration on August 2.

Walton served in Congress until 1778—longer than his two Georgian colleagues, leaving only because he felt compelled to take up more than the pen for the patriot cause. Awarded the rank of colonel in the Georgia militia, Walton took up the musket in defense of Savannah. During the siege, Walton was shot in the thigh and fell from his horse. As his troops ran in retreat, Walton was left bleeding on the ground. He was captured by the British, and though he was a signer of the Declaration, was treated well. In fact, the commanding British officer, Colonel Campbell, paroled Walton to seek private medical attention for his gunshot wound. Once sufficiently healed, Walton was roundup and housed in a Sunbury, Georgia, jail cell.

Given Walton’s militia rank and standing as a signer of the Declaration, he was quite a plum prize. The British demanded the release of a brigadier general in exchange. It was not to be. After a year of negotiating the British had to settle for a naval captain.

For the remainder of his life, Walton walked with a limp from his war wound. After the war, he bounced between Congress, the governor’s mansion, and the chief justice’s seat of Georgia, finally retiring from public life in 1799. Returning to his home, College Hill just outside of Augusta, Walton lived out the few remaining years of his life. He died in 1804 and was buried in Rosney Cemetery in Augusta. In the mid-1800s Walton was rejoined with his patriot brother Hall, interred beneath an honoring monument in Augusta.

* Benjamin Rush said Walton, and not Edward Rutledge, was the youngest signer: “He was the youngest member of Congress, not being quite three and twenty when he signed the declaration of independence.” But since we don’t know when Walton was born, Rutledge retains the honor as youngest signer.