George Bryan came to America in 1752, settling in Philadelphia and entering a partnership with one James Wallace in the importing business. In 1755 the partnership was dissolved and Bryan continued in business alone. He was fined five pounds, in 1758, for refusing to serve as constable but in 1762 he accepted office as member of a commission to apply receipts from tonnage dues to the improvement of Philadelphia harbor.
In 1764, Bryan and Thomas Willing were elected by the conservative party to represent Philadelphia in the Assembly. They defeated Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Galloway, the leaders of the party desirous of substituting Royal for Proprietary government, although the Anti-Proprietary forces carried the rest of the provinces.
In the same year Governor John Penn reorganized the judiciary, appointing new judges from among the conservatives, and Bryan was made judge of the orphans' court and the court of common pleas.
He continued at the same time to serve in the Assembly, and in 1765 was a member of the committee which drafted instructions for Pennsylvania's delegates to the Stamp Act Congress to meet in New York on October 1 of that year.
On September 11, Bryan, Dickinson, and John Morton were chosen as delegates to the congress. During their absence in New York the Philadelphia elections took place, Franklin's party won, and Bryan was defeated. He returned from the congress, signed the non-importation agreements, and resumed his judicial service. He was recommissioned judge in 1770 and again in 1772, by which time he had retired from a failing business. He was appointed naval officer of the port of Philadelphia in 1776.
After the adoption in that year of the new Pennsylvania constitution, with a share in the framing of which--though not a member of the convention--he had been credited, he was elected to the Supreme Executive Council and by it chosen vice-president. In this capacity he served from March 5, 1777 until October 11, 1779, acting as president between the death of Wharton and the election of Joseph Reed (May 23-December 1, 1778).
In 1779 he was a member of a commission to settle the boundary dispute with Virginia. Elected to the Assembly on October 12, 1779, he was given the chairmanship of several committees on special bills, notably those which framed the "Divesting Act, " transferring title in the proprietary estates to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the act revoking the charter of the College of Philadelphia and vesting its property in a new institution, the University of the State of Pennsylvania, and the act for the gradual abolition of slavery.
The authorship of the last-named law is usually attributed to Bryan as his major claim to remembrance.
When the Federal Constitution was submitted to the states in 1787 he fought it earnestly, and after its ratification by Pennsylvania was a member of the Harrisburg convention of irreconcilables which met September 3, 1788 to urge a revision of the Constitution by a new federal convention. But resistance, however stubborn, was of no avail against the inevitable; the old order passed, and Bryan outlived it only a little time, dying in 1791, two years after the inauguration of the federal government and five months after the adoption of a new state constitution by Pennsylvania.
As a Presbyterian he early became associated with the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians of Philadelphia, who were a distinct political faction, and gradually rose to prominence in their ranks.
He was an Anti-Federalist throughout his days.
A staunch abolitionist, he believed slavery was a great moral evil, and a sin on a nation that was fighting for their rights and freedom. In his new role of state assemblyman, he authored legislation that would enact gradual emancipation of African-Americans in Pennsylvania and outlaw slavery in the state. The laws he wrote would become the model for other states' emancipation efforts.
He strongly opposed the bi-cameral legislature and single executive in the Federal Constitution, and ardently advocated a smaller government that was directly responsible to the people.
On April 21, 1757, Bryan married Elizabeth, daughter of Samuel Smith.