Button Gwinnett 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 Georgia’s Revolutionary Council of Safety. Born in April 1735 in Down Hatherly, Gloucestershire, England (baptized in Gloucester in 1735), the son of Anne and the Reverend Samuel Gwinnett, Button Gwinnett came to America, first briefly residing in Charleston, South Carolina, a route frequently traveled by Georgia settlers in the 1760’s, but in 1765, Gwinnett acquired a large tract of land in Savannah, Georgia.While still in England (in 1757), he married and began a career in trading. Ann Bourne presented him three children—Amelia, Ann, and Elizabeth Ann. Unfortunately in his new American venture, he knew little success in farming or business, but found a footing in the revolutionary politics of his adopted colony.
Gwinnett arrived in Savannah in 1765 and became a merchant, but soon became disillusioned while running a store in town. After this venture failed, he purchased St. Catherine’s Island and set himself up as a planter. When Gwinnett purchased the island (actually a thirty-six sq. mile tract of land including St. Catherine’s) he tried to raise cattle and farm with limited success. He became active in local politics, winning election to the Commons House of Assembly in 1769. His politics were deeply influenced by his contempt for the wealthy and powerful city Whigs of Savannah. Gwinnett’s political base of country Whigs consisted of less prosperous coastal dwellers like himself and backcountry farmers. By 1773 Gwinnett was again in financial straits; he sold most of his personal property and possessions and withdrew from the political scene.
His lack of success at farming forced Gwinnett to withdraw from politics and he struggled to pay off his debt. St. Catherine’s was sold to the highest bidder along with other personal property. Still an active member in both the community of Sunbury and St. John’s Parish, Gwinnett came in contact with Lyman Hall, the Midway-based physician who would heavily influence Gwinnett’s Radical mindset. At first Gwinnett was uncommitted to the cause of the Patriots, but by 1774 he became an outspoken Radical. Gwinnett was present at the meeting at Peter Tondee’s Tavern in Savannah on 24 July 1774 that debated the right of England to impose the “Intolerable Acts” on the colonies.
The Revolutionary crisis brought him back into politics. Over the next two years Gwinnett rose quickly and played a pivotal role in Georgia politics, although he was disliked by a number of factions within the state. When Lyman Hall journeyed to the Second Continental Congress, Gwinnett became the de facto leader of the radical faction. Button saw two enemies to battle: England and the so-called “city party,” a more conservative element of the radicals that represented the wealthier merchants and shipping interests in Savannah including Lachlan McIntosh and his brother George. Gwinnett rallied the opponents of the Christ Church Parish–led Whig Party, which until that time had dominated the leadership in the emerging dispute with the British crown.
On 23 January 1777, South Carolina representatives made public a long-whispered rumor — South Carolina wanted to annex the state of Georgia for the common welfare of both states. Gwinnett organized and led the opposition to the proposal, voting it down in the Assembly. It then became apparent that merely voting down the proposal was not enough. Georgia needed a constitution, not the Rules and Regulations it had been governed under for almost a year.
Borrowing heavily from John Adams, Gwinnett and others drew up the state constitution and presented it to the assembly, which adopted it on 5 February 1777. One of the most critical of the new state constitution was Lachlan McIntosh, who complained that it gave “power…to irresponsible and avaricious individuals and groups.” Two weeks later Archibald Bulloch was elected governor and commander-in-chief under this document, but he died under suspicious circumstances on the day he became head of the executive branch. Gwinnett was tapped to finish Bulloch’s term until a new election could be held.
He succeeded in uniting coastal and rural dissidents into a loose coalition that demonstrated its strength by electing Gwinnett commander of Georgia’s Continental battalion when the state’s Provincial Congress met in early 1776. He was engaged in a long-standing political rivalry with Lachlan McIntosh, a soldier and leader who would attain highest rank in the Georgia militia and in state politics. Gwinnett was respected figure, however. When Gwinnett’s election proved controversial (a post that he was forced to decline, owing to political faction), he stepped aside and accepted instead an appointment to the Continental Congress, then meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Lachlan McIntosh commanded the battalion in Gwinnett’s stead, and these two would become bitter enemies.
In Philadelphia, Gwinnett served on a number of committees and supported separation from England. He voted for independence in July, signed the Declaration of Independence in August (along with other Georgians George Walton and Lyman Hall), and soon afterward returned to Georgia, where he became embroiled in political controversy. Quite soon after he signed the Declaration, he returned home, where he hoped to gain appointment, once again, to the leadership of the Georgia militia. The appointment went instead to his rival. Gwinnett served in the Georgia legislature where he was involved in drafting a constitution for the new state, but also in strenuous efforts to destroy the office of McIntosh.
Disappointed in his military ambitions, Gwinnett continued to lead the opposition to the Christ Church Parish coalition, and when his followers gained control of Georgia’s Provincial Congress, they succeeded in electing him Speaker. He played a key role in the passage of the Georgia Constitution of 1777 and began to purge the military of officers whom he and his followers deemed less than zealous in their enthusiasm for the Whig cause. This brought him into conflict with Lachlan McIntosh. After the death of Georgia’s president and commander-in-chief, Archibald Bulloch, in February 1777, the Council of Safety appointed Gwinnett to succeed him.
Gwinnett proposed a military foray into British East Florida, a defensive measure that he argued would secure Georgia’s southern border. McIntosh and his brother George (who had opposed Gwinnett’s election as president ,and subsequently had been arrested for treason, condemned the scheme as politically motivated. The expedition failed, and though he was not elected governor when the new legislature met in the spring of 1777, Gwinnett was exonerated of any misconduct in carrying out the campaign.
McIntosh was furious. He publicly denounced Gwinnett in the harshest terms, and Gwinnett challenged him to a duel. Though each man shot the other, only Gwinnett’s wound proved fatal. He died on May 19, 1777, and was buried in Savannah’s Colonial Park Cemetery, though the exact location of his grave is unknown. Gwinnett County was named for him when it was established in 1818.
Gwinnett’s signature is one of the rarest and most valuable of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. In 1979 a letter signed by Gwinnett brought $100,000 at a New York auction; its value was estimated in 1983 to be up to $250,000.