Button Gwinnett

The Founding Fathers Series: Georgia

The colony farthest from Philadelphia, least populated, and with a largely loyalist population, Georgia nonetheless possessed some dedicated opponents to the crown. As the patriot cause grew, the leaders of the rebellion prevailed upon businessman Button Gwinnett to throw in his lot with them. Someone saw something in Gwinnett that indicated he might be a useful leader in the nascent independence movement. A knowledge of his personal history might have given them pause.

Gwinnett was English born, son of a Welsh parson. After little business success in England, he received financial backing for an export business to South Carolina, which ultimately failed, his creditors losing their money. He moved to Georgia and borrowed money to buy an island, build a plantation, and acquire enough slaves to run it. Failure again dogged his steps and the creditors took his property, leaving him only the house for him, his wife, and three daughters. Reluctant to back the rebellion at first, Gwinnett changed his mind and with rhetorical flourish argued for the cause of liberty.

The Georgian rebels appointed Gwinnett to the Continental Congress where he became signatory to the Declaration of Independence, and fell under the sway of men like John Adams. Upon his return to Georgia, Gwinnett helped write the constitution for his newly independent state as a member of the legislature, and as providence afforded, accepted the position as interim governor. The Georgia legislature appointed a veteran soldier, General Lachlan McIntosh, commander of the state forces, with whom the quick-tempered Gwinnett quarreled over strategy and position. Fancying himself a man of military acumen, the governor himself led an ill-advised attempt to attack the British in Florida, purged the executive council of McIntosh supporters, and accused the General’s brother of treason. The legislature refused to appoint Gwinnett as Georgia’s official governor, for which he was publically mocked by General McIntosh, calling him a “scoundrel and a lying rascal.”

Given the temper of the times, the paramount value of personal honor, and the acceptability of the code duello, Button Gwinnett made his final mistake, not an economic one this time, by challenging the crack-shot General to a duel with pistols. Outside Savannah, the two met and McIntosh mortally wounded Gwinnett, who lingered in agony for several days before gangrene set in and finished him off, at about the age of 40.

Signing the Declaration of Independence, in a way, immortalized Button Gwinnett—the most successful accomplishment of his short life. One thing that the Georgia signer apparently failed to do very often in his lifetime other than pay his debts, was sign his name to anything other than promissory notes. In the world of philography, the collecting of autographs, Button Gwinnett is one of the rarest and most expensive in the world. It has come up for auction just a few times per century and now fetches hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction. He would likely be pleased to know that counterfeiting his signature has become an art form.

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