Button Gwinnett is one of many signers of the Declaration of Independence that are not well known so I want to tell his story. One thing we know is that he had an unusual first name. He had little success in his career endeavors, had a huge ego problem, and had a bad temper, which was a direct cause of his early death. Despite the negatives in his life, Button was involved in Georgia politics, and became very committed to American independence. He was one of three delegates the colony of Georgia sent to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. That Congress drafted and adopted the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and Button signed that document, which officially and forever established him as a “founding father”. Button Gwinnett was a true patriot, and an American Hero, although unfortunately a “tragic” hero.
Gwinnett was born in 1735 in Gloucestershire, England, the son of Reverend Samuel Gwinnett and his wife Anne. He was baptized on 10 April 1735 in St. Catherine’s Church in Gloucester. After finishing his education, he became a merchant, and in 1757 married Ann Bourne in Wolverhampton. This union resulted in at least one child, a daughter.
During the early 1760’s Button decided that the New World offered more opportunities for a hard-working merchant and moved his family to America. They first settled in Charleston, South Carolina where he set up his business. I don’t know how this business fared, but about three years later the family moved to Savannah, Georgia. Historians don’t all agree on his conduct and level of business success after this move, but based on his ego and bad temperament, I believe the following narration is the closest to the truth. However, we must remember that history is written by the winners, and often by those with “an axe to grind.” The truth in historical controversies is often somewhere in the middle.
It appears that Gwinnett had little business success in Savannah, so he sold everything and purchased, or leased land on a coastal island (known today as St. Catherine’s Island) where he became a planter. It isn’t clear how successful he was on this plantation, but he sold this property later, supposedly to cover debts. We do know that during his time as a businessman and a planter, he got involved in local and colony politics. Politics was where he was generally respected and had developed a cadre of friends and supporters.
Gwinnett had been interested in colonial politics since his arrival in America and like about half of all colonists he did not initially support independence. Gwinnett did not believe the colonies could defeat the British who had the strongest military in the world. His views changed for some reason about 1775 when he openly and strongly advocated colonial rights and organized coastal and rural anti-British dissidents. Button Gwinnett was known to be extremely, and sometimes overly passionate in his beliefs. He openly spoke out against The Crown, which was an overt act of treason.
Despite having no military experience, Gwinnett coveted appointment to command the Georgia Continental Battalion. Instead he was appointed to be one of three Georgia delegates to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The military appointment went to Lachlan McIntosh, an experienced military officer. In Philadelphia Gwinnett served on various committees and strongly supported independence. He voted for independence on 4 July 1776 and signed the official Declaration of Independence in August, which established him as a “founding father”.
In 1777 Gwinnett returned to Georgia and was immediately involved in local politics. His followers gained control of Georgia’s Provincial Congress and elected him Speaker. While Speaker he played a key role in writing the Georgia Constitution of 1777, reportedly using a pamphlet he had received from John Adams as a guide.
Following adoption of the new constitution, he and his followers began a purge of military officers they considered unreliable. This was primarily a way for Gwinnett to destroy Lachlan McIntosh who he had detested ever since McIntosh had gotten the military appointment that he wanted. During this time, the Governor of Georgia died, and Gwinnett was appointed to that position. Lachlan McIntosh’s brother, George, had been arrested for treason for opposing Gwinnett, which was an unconstitutional act that shows the depth of hatred between them.
Many of Gwinnett’s official actions were designed to further mortify General McIntosh. The Georgia Governor had control of the Continental Army in Georgia, and Gwinnett organized a military expedition into British East Florida. This attack, he claimed would secure the state’s border. Of course, he would personally command, which would further humiliate McIntosh and weaken his ability to command. At this point, the legislature was convened to organize the new Georgia government, so Gwinnett could not lead his expedition. As a further insult, he gave command to one of McIntosh’s subordinates. The Florida operation was a total disaster and contributed to Gwinnett’s failure to be re-elected governor in May 1777.
General McIntosh did not take Gwinnett’s actions without defending himself and spoke before the Georgia Assembly calling Gwinnett a “scoundrel and lying rascal.” This enraged the hot-headed Gwinnett who immediately challenged McIntosh to a duel. The challenge was accepted and on 16 May 1777, Gwinnett, McIntosh, and their seconds met east of Savannah in a small town named Thunderbolt. Witnesses say they saluted each other, stood back-to-back, paced off either four or 12 paces, turned and fired virtually simultaneously. Both were struck. McIntosh was hit in the fleshy part of a thigh and remained standing. Gwinnett was also hit in a thigh, but the femur was apparently shattered, and he sank to the ground. McIntosh did not realize Gwinnett’s wound was serious and asked if he had enough or wanted another shot. All agreed a second shot was not warranted. The duel ended with the two shaking hands before parting.
McIntosh survived but Button Gwinnett died three days later because of gangrene. Despite no charges being brought, Gwinnett’s supporters used his death in another pathetic and unsuccessful attempt to bring McIntosh down. Gwinnett was buried in Savannah’s Old Colonial Cemetery, which is now Colonial Park. A monument to him still stands there.
In 1818, the state of Georgia honored the three Georgia signers of the Declaration of Independence – Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, and George Walton – by creating three new counties named after them. In 1848, the “Signers Monument” in Georgia’s capital of Augusta was built and dedicated to further honor the three men. The bodies of Walton and Hall were re-buried at this monument, but unfortunately Gwinnett’s grave in Savannah could not be found.
Understandably most historians and other commenters have not been kind to Gwinnett, but later judgement has the benefit of hindsight. Gwinnett made many bad choices and his ambitions did not match his talents. He also let hatred color his decisions, which is always a recipe for disaster. However, no character flaws nor mistakes in judgement can change the fact that he was a participant in the establishment of this great nation. We owe all who signed the Declaration of Independence a debt of gratitude for our rights, privileges, and freedom. Button Gwinnett, like most of us, was much less than perfect, but he certainly was an American hero.
A postscript is that Button Gwinnett’s signature is extremely valuable. This is because his time in public service was short and his signature is exceedingly rare. In 2012 his signatures were estimated to be worth between $700,000 and $800,000 to collectors of Declaration signers’ signatures. Pretty nice if you happen to own one!!