Essay 86 – Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger

Lyman Hall was a multi-talented clergyman, physician, and statesman who served in the Second Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence, and won state office in his adopted state of Georgia.   Repeatedly, Hall faced personal and financial losses as a result of his service to his country and his state, but he emerged as a respected political figure in a politically fractious environment.

Most sources indicate that Hall was born in Connecticut in 1724, although some authorities list a later year of birth. Hall’s family was filled with pious Congregationalists, and his father and uncle served as clergy. To no one’s surprise, Hall studied divinity at nearby Yale University, and then began a career as a parson. He lost his position because of some sort of scandal involving confessed immoral conduct.   The exact nature of the offense is not now known. Whatever the details of the controversy were, Hall’s reputation was not so severely damaged that he was unable to secure some income preaching occasionally at local churches. For a time, he also taught school. Perhaps those careers did not offer much attraction to Hall, since he resolved to learn to practice medicine through an internship with an established physician.[1]   This kind of medical education was not uncommon at that time, even though it would be unthinkable in the United States today.

Hall married Abigail Burr in 1752, but she died a year later. Hall later married Mary Osborne, who bore him a son. Hall and his family moved from Connecticut to Dorchester, South Carolina, in 1756, where he practiced medicine. He later moved to Liberty County, Georgia, where he again set up a medical practice and later acquired a plantation. In both South Carolina and Georgia, Hall settled amongst transplanted New Englanders, descendants of Puritans. Once in Georgia, Hall became active in the push for independence.[2]

In 1775, Hall was elected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress from St. Johns Parish. The colony of Georgia at that time was divided amongst factions that were urging independence and those that wished to become reconciled with the British government. Because he was not chosen state-wide, Hall attended the First Continental Congress as a non-voting member. Hall brought a shipment of rice to Philadelphia to be distributed in Boston which was suffering from the British embargo on foodstuffs from other colonies. Hall served on a scientific committee along with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Patrick Henry.[3]

In 1776, Hall was chosen as one of five delegates to the Second Continental Congress, although only three attended at the time of the debate and to vote on independence. Hall and Button Gwinnet, who were personal friends and members of the same faction in Georgia’s colonial politics, arrived first. George Walton, who represented a different faction and geographic areas of Georgia, arrived only shortly before the vote. Hall served on committees concerned with provision of medical supplies to the continental troops. Hall was regarded as a steady and hardworking committee member.[4] The Georgia delegation was stalwart in its support for the proposal for independence, but according to Thomas Jefferson, the delegations from Georgia and South Carolina led the opposition to his provision “reprobating the enslaving [of] the inhabitants of Africa.”[5]

Hall was steadily re-elected to the Congress through 1780, but he may not have actually served in Philadelphia after February of 1777.   Matters of state and family necessity required him to return to Georgia and later to flee to South Carolina, where he still had friends and supporters. The British issued a bill of attainder directing his arrest and the confiscation of his property. Hall’s plantation house at “Hall’s Knoll” and his home in Sunbury, Georgia, were burned to the ground by British troops.[6] Years later, the United States Constitution would forbid the use of bills of attainder by the federal government (Article I, Section 9, Clause 3) and by the states (Article I, Section 10). In addition to the losses of property, many personal papers and public documents were lost in the flames.

Hall was devastated by the death of Button Gwinnett in a duel in 1777.   Hall made an unsuccessful effort to arrest and prosecute the duelist, Lachlan McIntosh, who killed Gwinnett. Hall briefly returned to his medical practice, but was elected to the Georgia House of Assembly in 1783. One of the first acts of the Assembly was to elect Hall governor.   It was not a position that he had sought. While governor, Hall worked futilely on the state’s finances, which were in a complete shambles. Hall also initiated negotiations with Native American tribes from whom the state wished to gain land concessions.[7] Hall pushed hard for a piety-oriented educational system that would “restrain vice and encourage virtue.” Hall supported the creation of what was originally known as Franklin College, which later became the University of Georgia.[8]

Factional politics in Georgia was fierce, both before and after statehood.   After Hall left office as governor he was taken into custody for contempt because he failed to produce some public documents regarding sequestered estates. He later was cleared of the charge, but the allegations placed great strain on the last years of his life. The estate of a one-time business partner was suing Hall over twenty year old disputes as late as 1786. His loss of property during the revolution and the demands of his public obligations upon his time left him in financial difficulties.[9]

Hall moved to Savannah in 1785, where he once more practiced medicine. He did not leave public service entirely, though, for he supplemented his income as Judge of the Chatham Court. Hall moved to a Burke County plantation shortly before he died in 1790, leaving behind a widow and a son who would both die within three years.[10]

Lyman Hall’s name may be the most well-known of Georgia’s signers of the Declaration of Independence, although much of his fame may be attributed to the stage and movie musical, 1776, in which Hall plays a significant supporting role. Unfortunately, very little about the musical’s portrayal of Hall can be established as factual. Hall’s actual life was certainly dramatic enough to deserve the attention of all Americans, and certainly all Georgians.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. Dr. Clinger teaches courses in state and local government, Kentucky politics, intergovernmental relations, regulatory policy, and public administration. Dr. Clinger is also the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board and a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association. He currently resides in Hazel, Kentucky. 

Podcast by Maureen Quinn.

 

[1] Young, James Harvey.  “Lyman Hall,” in Georgia’s Signers and the Declaration of Independence, by Edwin C. Bridges, Harvey H. Jackson, Kenneth H. Thomas, Jr. and James Harvey Young. Cherokee Publishing Company, 1981.

[2] Krafka, J.. “Lyman Hall-Yale 1747: A Connecticut Doctor Who Mixed Medicine and Politics in Georgia.” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 10 (1938): 531-537.

2 Young, James Harvey.  “Lyman Hall,” in Georgia’s Signers and the Declaration of Independence, by Edwin C. Bridges, Harvey H. Jackson, Kenneth H. Thomas, Jr. and James Harvey Young. Cherokee Publishing Company, 1981.

[4] Young, op cit.

[5] Jefferson, Thomas. “The Declaration of Independence: Thomas Jefferson’s Account.” https://www.ushistory.org/declaration/account/index.html

[6] Young, op cit.

[7] Krafka, op cit.

[8] Whitescarver, Keith. 1993. “Creating Citizens for the Republic: Education in Georgia, 1776-1810.” Journal of the Early Republic 13 (4): 455-479.

[9] Krafka, op cit.

[10] Krafka, op cit.

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