On his drive from Appling on Friday morning to attend Augusta’s Fourth of July ceremony, state Sen. Bill Jackson noticed something peculiar: Not too many businesses along Broad Street and Washington Road had hung flags in honor of America’s independence.
“We ought to see people showing appreciation for the commitment our forefathers made on every street,” Jackson said to a crowd of more than 100 people who had gathered downtown around the Signers Monument to honor Georgia’s three signers of the Declaration of Independence: Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall and George Walton. “These three patriots signed their names in blood and died for our freedom.”
The senator’s words resonated with Robert Johnson, one of Walton’s distant relatives.
Though the event honored all three signers, Walton was celebrated in particular for having lived in Augusta at a farm house off 13th Street called Meadow Garden.
“Americans need to understand that we did not get here by luck, but by hard work and diligence,” said Johnson, 67, an Augusta surgeon born on July Fourth who is the great-great-great-cousin of Walton. “We must be reverent to that fact.”
Walton was elected to the Continental Congress in 1776 and became one of the youngest signers of the declaration. Wounded in the American Revolution and taken hostage by the British in 1778, he was freed a year later in a prisoner exchange and elected governor when he returned to Georgia.
Dr. Lee Ann Caldwell, the director of the Center for the Study of Georgia at Georgia Regents University, stressed that all of the signers pledged their lives, fortunes and honor to the American cause.
“Think of what would have happened to them if they lost,” she said. “Many of them would have been hung as traitors. They certainly would have had their property confiscated, and how would history have judged them? History tends to be harsher on the losers.”
Johnson’s brother, Walton “Buzzy” Johnson, 61, the senior director of the Masters Tournament, said the words reminded him of why the city honors his ancestor. Their mother, Elizabeth Lamkin Johnson, 95, of Evans, is believed to be the oldest living relative of Walton.
“We tend to lose sight of the importance of this day,” he said. “This event brings renewed focus to the cause.”
During the event, the Savannah River Brass Band played patriotic music, the Evans High School junior ROTC presented the colors and Rep. John Barrow and Augusta Mayor-elect Hardie Davis read
portions of the Declaration of Independence.
James Hanby Sr., who organized downtown Augusta’s first event in honor of Georgia’s signers in 2010, said the ceremony
has grown from nine attendees to more than 100.
The Delaware magistrate judge and 1989 graduate of Hephzibah High School urged people in the community to help the event grow. Hanby said his grandfather retired
from Fort Gordon in 1966, and that the event carries great significance for him and Augusta.
“The vision of that document still lives in the heart of all of us,” said Hanby, who returns home to Augusta each year for his birthday, which is also the Fourth of July. “We should be courageous enough to bring that to the forefront.”