Gwinnett County, Georgia, where I have lived for the last 13 years, was named for Button Gwinnett, one of three Georgia signers of the Declaration of Independence (nearby counties—Hall and Walton—were named for the other two). I understand that Gwinnett never set foot on the land that would eventually bear his name. On a trip to Savannah last week I learned that when Button came to America in 1765, he lived and died in Savannah, which was at the time the capital of the colony.
Gwinnett represented Georgia at the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration in 1776 and died the next year. At first glance it would seem that Gwinnett died fighting for independence, or was killed because he signed the Declaration (as many were). In fact, his end was not that glorious.
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, and soon afterward returned to Georgia, where he became embroiled in political controversy.
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 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 (actually, he sustained a leg wound but the wound developed gangrene, which killed Gwinnett).
He was buried in what has become Colonial Cemetery in Savannah. He has a handsome monument there.
An interesting side note: Button Gwinnett’s signature is one of the most valuable in the world, because he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and he signed relatively few things in his short life.
A 1776 letter signed by Georgia Gwinnett sold for $722,500 in April 2010 at Sotheby’s in New York.
The item draws value from the fact that Button Gwinnett was one of three Georgians to sign the Declaration of Independence. There are only 51 known documents carrying his signature, said Selby Kiffer, senior specialist with Sotheby’s. Experts at the auction house estimate the letter would bring from $500,000 to $700,000.
A statue of Button Gwinnett stands at the top of the central tower of the Mall of Georgia in Buford (Gwinnett County!)