George Bryan

George Bryan (1731 – January 27, 1791) was an Irish/American Pennsylvania businessman, and politician of the Revolutionary era. He served as the first vice-president of Pennsylvania (analogous to lieutenant governor) and its second president (governor) following the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. He was an early abolitionist and sponsored the bill which helped bring about abolition in Philadelphia.[1] He also served as a judge of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

George Bryan
2nd President of Pennsylvania
In office
May 23, 1778 – December 1, 1778
Vice PresidentHimself
Preceded byThomas Wharton
Succeeded byJoseph Reed
1st Vice-President of Pennsylvania
In office
March 6, 1777 – October 11, 1779
Succeeded byMatthew Smith
Pennsylvania Supreme Court
In office
April 5, 1780 – January 27, 1791
Pennsylvania General Assembly
In office
Personal details
Born1731 (1731)
Dublin, Kingdom of Ireland
Died (aged 59–60)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Resting placeLaurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
ProfessionBusinessman, politician, judge

Early life and familyEdit

Bryan was born at Old Bridge, Church Street, Dublin in the Kingdom of Ireland on August 11, 1731, to a merchant.[2] He emigrated to Philadelphia in 1752 to join a business partnership arranged by his father. That partnership soon came to an end, but Bryan went on to become a successful businessman, both as a retailer and as an importer and exporter.[3] He married Elizabeth Smith in 1757. Their family would number ten children. His son, Samuel Bryan (1759–1821) was a Pennsylvanian Anti-Federalist author. He was inducted into the original American Philosophical Society around 1758.[4]


Bryan was an active member of the Presbyterian Church, and during the late 1750s and early 1760s tried to mediate a conflict that had arisen between two opposing factions of that denomination during the Great Awakening. That experience led to his involvement in local and provincial politics. After Britain's passage of the Stamp Act in 1765, Bryan took an active role in the American opposition, joining other Philadelphia Merchants in signing the Non-Importation Agreement. This likely led to his bankruptcy in 1771.

Bryan was considered a "radical" regarding the issue of Independence, and as such is listed in the company of such men as Thomas Paine. Bad health limited his political activities during the early 1770s, but after the adoption of the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution he became an advocate of the unicameral legislature and executive council outlined in that document. On March 5, 1777, he was elected the first Vice-President of that Council. Although it would become standard procedure for presidents and Vice-Presidents to take office immediately upon election, Bryan did not take the oath of office until the following day, March 6, and according to the State Constitution could not exercise his office until that time. Thus, his term officially began March 6, 1777. Bryan was reelected to the Vice-Presidency on November 21, 1777.

Bryan, and subsequent Vice-Presidents, may be referred to properly as Vice-Governors and presidents of Pennsylvania; however, the position is analogous to the modern office of Lieutenant Governor, and Vice-Presidents of Council are often listed with those who have held the latter title.

Some of the anti-Federalist letters of Centinel, primarily attributed to Bryan's son Samuel, have been attributed to Bryan himself.[5]

President of PennsylvaniaEdit

Thomas Wharton, the first President of Pennsylvania, died in office on May 23, 1778, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (The State government had evacuated to Lancaster during the British occupation of Philadelphia.) According to the provisions of the 1776 State Constitution Bryan assumed the duties of the late President. Some sources consider Bryan to have been merely the Acting President during the seven months that followed.[6] Others—including the records of the Council itself—deny him even that title and continue to address him as simply Vice-President, as he was never elected or officially elevated to the Presidency.[7][8] Nonetheless, perhaps due to the length of his service at the head of the Council, both the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Governors Association today recognize George Bryan as a full-fledged Governor of Pennsylvania, serving from May 23, 1778, through December 1, 1778.[9][10]

It was under Bryan's leadership that the Council returned to Philadelphia on June 26, 1778, after almost nine months in Lancaster. On December 1, Bryan was soundly defeated in his bid to be formally elected to the Presidency, receiving only one of sixty three votes cast and losing to Joseph Reed. However, he handily defeated Joseph Hart to retain the Vice-Presidency, winning sixty two of the sixty three votes cast for that office. Bryan remained Vice-President for almost a year, resigning the office October 11, 1779. No reason for the resignation is noted in the records of the Council. Matthew Smith was elected to fill the vacancy and took office that same day. Bryan continued to serve on the Council for several days after leaving the Vice-Presidency, and on October 18 was succeeded by William Moore as Counsellor for the City of Philadelphia.[7]

Following his service with the Executive Council, in 1780, Bryan was appointed a judge on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. He also served in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. An early abolitionist, Bryan believed that slavery was a moral disgrace, and he authored the first legislation in history to abolish the practice.[11] This legislation served as a model for the gradual emancipation of slaves throughout the northern colonies.

In the late 1780s, Bryan remained an ardent advocate of the unicameral legislature and executive council still in place in Pennsylvania, and he opposed adoption of the 1787 Federal Constitution largely because it created a bicameral legislature and a single executive.

University of PennsylvaniaEdit

Like most of the presidents and Vice-Presidents of Council who came after him, Bryan may have served as an ex officio member of the Board of Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania. University records are not clear on this issue, but it is certain that, after leaving the Vice-Presidency in 1779, Bryan was appointed a Trustee in his own right, and served that body until his death in 1791. He was Treasurer of the Board from 1779 to 1788.[8]


Bryan died in 1791. He is interred at Laurel Hill Cemetery, Section C, Lot 13, Philadelphia PA.[12]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Mason, Matthew. 2014. "A Missed Opportunity? The Founding, Postcolonial Realities, and the Abolition of Slavery" Slavery & Abolition 35, no. 2: 199–213
  2. ^ Miller, Kerby A. Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan: Letters and Memoirs from Colonial and Revolutionary America, 1675-1815. (Oxford, 2003). p. 476.
  3. ^ Miller, Kerby (1999). "Bryan, George (1731–1791)". In Glazier, Michael (ed.). The Encyclopedia of the Irish in America. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. p. 83. ISBN 978-0268027551. Bryan was the son of Presbyterian merchant Samuel Bryan of Dublin... In 1752 Bryan emigrated to Philadelphia and formed a profitable mercantile partnership with Irish-born James Wallace... until 1755 when the firm was dissolved and Bryan embarked alone on an initially successful career as merchant, ship-owner, army contractor, and land speculator.
  4. ^ Bell, Whitfield J., and Charles Greifenstein, Jr. Patriot-Improvers: Biographical Sketches of Members of the American Philosophical Society. 3 vols. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1997, I:175, 176, 197, 197-203, 387, III:3, 57.
  5. ^ Bryan, George. "Centinel, no. II". Library of Congress.
  6. ^ NNDB list of Governors of Pennsylvania. Retrieved April 17, 2007.
  7. ^ a b Minutes of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, from its organization to the termination of the Revolution. [March 4, 1777 – December 20, 1790]. Harrisburg, Pub. by the State, 1852–53. Entries for December 1, 1778 (v. XI, pp 632–634), March 5, 1777 (v. XI, pp 173–174), October 11, 1779 (v. XII, p 127).
  8. ^ a b University of Pennsylvania Archived November 22, 2008, at the Wayback Machine biography of George Bryan Archived February 4, 2007, at the Wayback Machine Accessed April 17, 2007.
  9. ^ Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission listing of Prior Governors of Pennsylvania Archived May 1, 2007, at the Wayback Machine Accessed April 17, 2007.
  10. ^ National Governors Association biography for George Bryan Archived September 30, 2007, at the Wayback Machine Accessed April 17, 2007.
  11. ^ "An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery – March 1, 1780". Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.
  12. ^ Political Graveyard page for surname Bryan. Retrieved April 29, 2007.

External linksEdit

Political offices
Preceded by
office created
Member, Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, representing the City of Philadelphia
March 4, 1777 – October 18, 1779
Succeeded by
Preceded by
office created
Vice-President of Pennsylvania
March 6, 1777 – October 11, 1779
Succeeded by
Preceded by President of Pennsylvania (acting)
May 23, 1778 – December 1, 1778
Succeeded by