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Founding Father Button Gwinnett and His Deadly Rivalry

This little-known figure had a short but fascinating life.

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Perusing the signatures on the Declaration of Independence, many eyes have been drawn to the elegant penmanship and unusual name of Button Gwinnett. The signer, one of three from Georgia, is one of the lesser known Founding Fathers, and for good reason. He was no accomplished statesman or great political philosopher before the Continental Congress; he just happened to be in the right place at the right time to make his mark on history. He rose quickly from a life of frustration to a position of great power, but that life was soon cut short by the rivalry that continues to overshadow his political career.

Button Gwinnett was born in March of 1735, in Down Hatherley, a quaint village in Gloucestershire, England. He was likely of Welsh descent, as his surname derives from the Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd. His first name probably came from his mother’s cousin Barbara Button. Young Button apprenticed with his uncle, a grocer, in Bristol, before marrying Ann Bourne, the daughter of a Wolverhampton grocer, in 1757. He soon became involved in importing British goods to the American colonies and, after a series of failed ventures in Newfoundland and Jamaica, he purchased a storefront property in Savannah, Georgia, in 1765. There he would hawk imported wares ranging from medicine and housewares to jewelry and tobacco. 

Georgia was a popular destination for enterprise: the 1763 Treaty of Paris had established peace with neighboring French and Spanish colonies, the population was booming, and plantation farming had made many wealthy. Just a few months after opening his store, Button Gwinnett, having seen an advertisement in The Georgia Gazette for the lease of St. Catherines Island, took out a £3,000 loan, with which he bought the land and a large contingent of slaves. 

St. Catherines Island was blessed with an ideal climate for planting, along with an abundance of fish, fowl, and cattle. In the hands of a skilled farmer, it would’ve been an enormous success —but that Button Gwinnett was not. He failed to turn a profit, and continued to throw good money after bad, applying for grants to increase his holdings and loans to satiate his creditors. His attempts to salvage the operation grew ever more frantic: he briefly owned a merchant ship, the Nancy, but it appears to have been confiscated before it ever embarked. Gwinnett was forced to sell the island in 1773, but was allowed to keep his home there. 

Despite his business failures, Gwinnett’s ownership of more than 50 acres of land entitled him to public office as a Justice of the Peace. In 1769, the voters of his home parish, St. John, elected him to the Commons House of Assembly, the Georgia provincial government’s lower legislature. In that position, he petitioned governor James Wright to organize an election for representatives of newly incorporated lands. This address to Wright argued that the residents of these new parishes should not be subject to taxation without representation in government, a position with which he would soon become very familiar. 

On July 24, 1774, supporters of American independence held a rally in Savannah. As calls for independence began, Button Gwinnett was nowhere to be found. He had withdrawn from public life, possibly to save himself and his family embarrassment over his debts. But with St. John's Parish, which encompassed his land, threatening to secede from Georgia over the other parishes’ conservative responses and British warships sighted near his home, Gwinnett rose to action. He appeared on the Georgia Council of Safety in January of 1776, and later that month, he and Hall were among five delegates from Georgia to the Continental Congress. 

Many were jealous of his appointment; as far as the revolutionary effort was concerned, Gwinnett had come from nowhere. He was also nominated for colonelcy of a battalion in the Georgia Militia, but amid the controversy, he and another nominee, Samuel Elbert, abdicated the position. Instead, the colonelcy passed to conservative Whig Lachlan McIntosh.

The McIntoshes were a much-beloved Georgia family. Patriarch John Mohr McIntosh had immigrated from Scotland, and had thrived in the colony, becoming highly successful and well connected. John had fought alongside Georgia founder James Oglethorpe against Spain in the War of Jenkins’ Ear, but was captured and held prisoner in Spain for two years. He died shortly after his return, survived by his sons William, Lachlan, and George. Later, as a military cadet, Lachlan had tried to flee to Scotland to join the Jacobite Rebellion, but was stopped by Oglethorpe, who became a father figure to the boy. Lachlan had since become a successful planter and surveyor. 

The Georgia delegation finally arrived in Philadelphia for the Continental Congress in May of 1776. Gwinnett’s role in drafting the articles of the Declaration of Independence is unknown, but he was present throughout the process, including for the signing of the now-lost original paper copy on July 4, and the surviving parchment copy on August 2. He returned to great fanfare, bringing with him John Adams’ directive to establish a staunch state government and a powerful militia. 

Gwinnett also participated in drafting the original Georgia state constitution, which reflected his radical Whig leanings. The constitution uniquely established higher and lower judicial courts, and voting rights for white men who owned no land but worked trades. Gwinnett and the Georgia Assembly elected Georgia state president Archibald Bulloch as its first governor, but Bulloch died suddenly just two days later. Gwinnett succeeded him in the position. 

Neighboring St. Augustine, East Florida had become a safe haven for loyalists, and Gwinnett was determined to change that. He intended to cut off supplies to their encampment, offering defectors amnesty in the United States. For his part, he aided in the recruitment of 109 volunteers, and assembled a small naval unit. But he soon received news of greater personal importance: a message from John Hancock, enclosing an intercepted letter that implicated George McIntosh in a plot to provision the St. Augustine loyalists with rice. 

Gwinnett had George McIntosh arrested, clapped in irons, and thrown in the common jail. He recommended that Lachlan be stripped of his office and exiled, but that never came to fruition. Friends of the McIntosh family were alarmed, especially since Gwinnett had yet to read the charges publicly, and offered to bail George out. Gwinnett refused until the Assembly could be convened and the charges presented; accused of treason, George McIntosh posted bail in the sum of £20,000.

In the wake of McIntosh’s arrest, General Robert Howe of the Continental Army, a friend to the McIntosh family, pulled out of the East Florida expedition. Samuel Elbert, who commanded the naval unit, refused to take orders from Gwinnett. By the time Lachlan McIntosh provided the orders to proceed, spring rains had filled the Georgia swamps such that the ships could only travel seven miles per day. Their supplies were insufficient, their scouting parties were attacked, and enemy guns were heard signaling in the distance. So Elbert dropped anchor and made camp, ending the expedition anticlimactically. 

Before the Georgia Assembly, Gwinnett and Lachlan McIntosh blamed each other for their failure. The Assembly sided with Gwinnett, provoking McIntosh to call him a “scoundrel and a lying rascal.” This sent Gwinnett into a rage, and he demanded satisfaction. Just before sunrise on May 16, 1777, the two men and their seconds met in a tranquil field on the outskirts of Savannah, armed themselves, and walked twelve paces. 

Each man fired just one shot, and each hit the other in the leg. McIntosh’s bullet broke Gwinnett’s thigh, but Gwinnett refused to quit; he was prepared to fire another shot before his second stopped him. Due to hot weather, poor medical care, or both, Gwinnett contracted gangrene, and died just three days later on May 19, 1777. 

Lachlan McIntosh, however, recovered. Gwinnett’s allies in the Assembly attempted to charge him with murder; he was acquitted, but forced to leave the state. He went on to hold the rank of Brigadier General in the Continental Army. After failed attempts to retake settlements captured by the British, he was taken prisoner. Still, McIntosh survived the war, returning to his plantation and living to the age of 79. 

Button Gwinnett was not among the most noble, successful, or ambitious men to sign the Declaration of Independence. In spite of his early business failures, he was able to secure a somewhat successful career in government—perhaps it would have been more successful had it not been cut short by McIntosh. Still, because of the confidence of his peers who sent him to the Continental Congress, and his good sense to remain there until the parchment copy of the Declaration was signed, he has made an indelible mark on history.