Button Gwinnett – April circa 1735 to May 19, 1777 – Politics, rivalry and a duel
Button was one of three Georgia signers of the Declaration of Independence. He served in Georgia’s colonial legislature in the Second Continental Congress and as president of the Revolutionary Council of Safety. His life, though short, followed a varied path than ultimately led to politics.
From The Beginning
Gwinnett was born in Down Hatherly, England in 1735. He married Ann Bourne in 1757 and the couple had three daughters. The couple moved from England to America in 1762.
Prior to his involvement in government service, Button was an unsuccessful merchant. His retail attempts took him from England to Newfoundland and then Jamaica. Experiencing failure, he sold his unsuccessful business, went to America with his wife, Ann, and bought a small island off the coast of Georgia to become a planter. Though his efforts to run a plantation did not go well, his prominence in the area prompted fellow citizens to elect him to the Provincial Assembly.
Change of Heart and Influence
Gwinnett had been a supporter of colonial rights, until the area that encompassed his land threaten to secede from Georgia due to the locals’ upset over recent rulings. It was during his time in the Provincial Assembly that his voice was heard and his influence grew.
It was also during his days in the Provincial Assembly that a rivalry began, a rivalry from an opposing voice and a relationship which would lead to his untimely death. Gwinnett’s chief rival was Lachlan McIntosh, but he also benefited from the support of his closest ally, Lyman Hall. His rivalry with McIntosh began initially with opposing stances, but deepened when McIntosh was appointed as brigadier general of the Georgia Continentals in 1776, instead of Gwinnett. Their opposing viewpoints continued, especially with the Assembly voting to approve Gwinnett’s proposed attack on British Florida in 1777.
The Revolutionary crisis brought Gwinnett’s attentions to more steadfastly to politics. He was instrumental in uniting coastal and rural dissidents, serving as commander of Georgia’s Continental battalion and eventually was also appointed to the Continental Congress.
Gwinnett voted in favor of the Declaration of Independence, adopted by Congress on July 2, 1776, two days before the “fair copy,” dated July 4, 1776, was presented to the Congress. He signed the famous parchment copy on August 2, 1776. After signing the Declaration, he was accompanied as far as Virginia by Carter Braxton, another of the signers, carrying a proposed state constitution drawn up by John Adams.
Georgia and Button and the Duel
Following the signing of the Declaration, Gwinnett served in the Georgia State Legislature, and in 1777 he wrote the original draft of Georgia’s first State Constitution. He soon became Speaker of the Georgia Assembly, a position he held until the death of the President (Governor) of Georgia, Archibald Bulloch. Gwinnett was elevated to the vacated position by the Assembly’s Executive Council.
Button’s rival in Georgia eventually involved both men in a controversy and his rival was ultimately arrested for treason. A duel between the two left both men wounded, but Button died from his wound.
Gwinnett County in Georgia is named for Button and Georgia Gwinnett College, along with other elementary and secondary schools, is named for him and celebrates Button Gwinnett Day.
His Famously Rare Signature
Gwinnett’s autograph is highly sought by collectors as a result of a combination of the desire by many top collectors to acquire a complete set of autographs by all 56 signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and the extreme rarity of the Gwinnett signature.
There are only 51 known documents with his signature, since Gwinnett was fairly obscure prior to signing the Declaration and died shortly afterward. Only ten of those are in private hands.
Because of Button’s short life and role as a signer of the Declaration of Independence, his signature is considered the most valuable and rarest of the signers of the Declaration. One of his letters commanded $100,000 and another document with his signature valued between $700,000 to $800,000.