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Gwinnett, Button

Button Gwinnett

Baptized: Gloucester, England - April 10, 1735
Died: Savannah, Georgia - May 19, 1777

Button Gwinnett came to Georgia in 1765. He had little success as either a merchant or a planter, but became intricately involved and quite adept at Revolutionary politics. His political battles were as much with the Whig factions within Georgia as they were with the British. Gwinnett represented the group trying to wrest power away from the “city” party, dominated by the Christ Church parish centered in Savannah. His success was evidenced by his selection as leader of Georgia’s Continental battalion in early 1776. But many of his political rivals opposed his selection. To avoid excessive controversy, Gwinnett gave up this post, instead accepting election to the Continental Congress.

He arrived in Philadelphia on May 20, 1776. He was heavily involved in committee work, but took no recorded part in the debate over independence. His support for the cause was clear though, as he voted to separate from England on July 2, voted for the Declaration itself on July 4, and signed the actual document on August 2. Soon thereafter he left Philadelphia to return to Georgia.

Gwinnett hoped to again be named leader of the Georgia forces, but that appointment went to Lachlan McIntosh, a longtime political rival. Gwinnett turned his attention to the legislature, where his faction won control. He and his followers set out to purge the military of all those ostensibly not devoted to the Revolutionary cause. But most of those purged were supporters of McIntosh. The legislature adjourned in February, 1777 - leaving the government in the hands of the Council of Safety. The Council’s President - Archibald Bulloch - died within a month and the Council selected Button Gwinnett to take his place. The only negative vote was cast by George McIntosh - Lachlan’s brother.

Gwinnett proposed invading Florida and taking St. Augustine - to guarantee protection of Georgia’s southern boundary. But McIntosh and his followers believed the plan was politically, not militarily, motivated and refused to aid the effort. Gwinnett had George McIntosh arrested for treason, while Lachlan immediately came to his brother’s defense. Meanwhile the expedition to Florida was begun, but soon halted. Gwinnett requested aid from McIntosh, but by now cooperation between the two was impossible. The Council called Gwinnett back to Savannah, where the tensions between the two factions and the two men continued to mount.

In May, 1777 a new assembly convened. Gwinnett was defeated in a bid for the governorship, but was cleared of any wrongdoing in the Florida expedition. An angry Lachlan McIntosh publicly declared that Gwinnett was “a scoundrell and lying rascal.” The very next day Gwinnett challenged McIntosh to a duel. The two met outside Savannah on May 16, 1777. Both were wounded in the ensuing duel; McIntosh recovered, Gwinnett did not. He died three days later. His death so soon after the fact has made Button Gwinnett’s signature a rare and valuable item. He subsequently became the most famous of Georgia’s three signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Gwinnett, Button View large image

Source: Painting by Nathaniel Hone. Public Domain Image