He was born in Virginia. His parents died when he was young and he was adopted by an uncle and apprenticed as a carpenter. In 1769 he moved to Savannah, Georgia to study law, and was admitted to the bar in 1774. He became an advocate of the patriot cause and was elected Secretary of the Georgia provincial Congress, and became president of the Council of Safety. He was elected to the Continental Congress. He was commissioned a Colonel of the First Regiment of the Georgia Militia. He was injured in battle and taken prisoner. He was freed thorough a prisoner exchange in 1779 and was elected Governor Georgia, but held the office only two months. He was a political ally of General Lachlan McIntosh and a foe of Button Gwinnett, and their political battles resulted in his expulsion from office and indictment for various criminal activities. He returned to Congress in 1780-1781. He was censured for his role in the duel which resulted in Button Gwinnett's death. He became Chief Justice of Georgia, 1783-89, Governor of Georgia in 1789, and U.S. Senator in 1795.
He died in Augusta, Georgia.