Described by historian William Bacon Stevens as “a soldier of prowess and a civil officer of merit,” George Handley was an Englishman who joined the Continental Army shortly after arriving in Savannah in 1775. He held local judicial appointments in various counties during the post-Revolutionary years, served terms in the Georgia House of Assembly and Executive Council, and was appointed governor in 1788. As governor, Handley presided over the drafting of the pivotal 1789 state constitution to meet the challenges of postcolonial Georgia.
George Handley was born on February 9, 1752, near Sheffield, England. In 1780 he married Sarah Howe, a niece of former Georgia governor Samuel Elbert, and the couple had one son, Thomas.
Handley joined the 1st Continental Georgia Battalion in January 1776 as a lieutenant and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Having served with distinction in the border regions of South Carolina and Georgia during the first four years of the Revolutionary War (1775-83), and having spent most of his last two years as a prisoner of war in Charleston, South Carolina, Handley left the service in July 1782. He became a founding member of the Georgia chapter of the Society of the Cincinnati, which began in Savannah in 1783.
That same year Handley purchased an estate in Augusta and was appointed a justice of the peace there by the Georgia Executive Council. In 1784 the Georgia House of Assembly appointed him to be a justice for Liberty, Glynn, and Camden counties. State records identify Handley as the Executive Council secretary in 1785 and 1786 and its president for a brief time in 1788. The House of Assembly named him inspector general of the militia in November 1787 and chose him to serve as one of Georgia’s commissioners to the state of Franklin (now a part of eastern Tennessee) in 1787.
In December 1787 Handley, a Federalist delegate from Glynn County, joined twenty-five other Georgia delegates in the convention at Augusta to consider the new federal constitution. One way for the weak and nearly bankrupt postwar Georgia, whose political structure still favored local insurgency and resisted central authority, to achieve increased security and control was to strengthen the state’s relationship with the much stronger federal government. Toward this end, Handley and his fellow delegates in Augusta acted quickly and unanimously to ratify the new U.S. Constitution on January 2, 1788.
That same month, after James Jackson declined the governorship, the House of Assembly named Handley, who had just been named president of the Executive Council, to hold a one-year appointment as chief executive. His year as governor (from January 1788 to January 1789) was characterized by increasing pressure on the state government to acquire, apportion, and secure property for a swelling pool of settlers from North Carolina and Virginia who were pouring into the state’s opening frontier.
In a subsequent convention called to session on November 4, 1788, and presided over by Handley, delegates set about revising Georgia’s own constitution with an eye toward making state government more responsive to the pressing demands of the ongoing land rush. Initially Handley, as governor, could do little to real effect regarding escalating hostilities between settlers and the Creek Indians, for he could neither fund a treaty with the Creeks nor unilaterally force the legislature into session to address the issue. But after two conventions, in which Handley participated, (in November 1788 and January 1789) to write the new state constitution and a third (May 1789) that adopted the work, the governor finally acquired powers to act in such crises. Among other changes, the governor was both relieved from the oversight of a restraining Executive Council, which had previously retained the power to approve a governor’s actions regarding the legislature, and enabled to call a special legislative session to address any pressing issue.
Under the new state government, Handley served for one year, in 1789, as a Glynn County representative to the legislature. That same year he was also appointed port collector of Brunswick by U.S. president George Washington. In 1790 records begin to show Handley associated with Richmond County and Augusta, where he had started his political career as a justice of the peace in the immediate postwar years. He was named sheriff there in 1790, a position he held, along with that of port collector, up to the time of his death. On September 17, 1793, George Handley reportedly died at the residence of J. Hammond at Rae’s Hall, Georgia. Having spent much of his life in service to the state during tempestuous times of revolutionary and frontier war, booming population expansion, and political regeneration, he died at the young age of forty-one.