Button Gwinnett is famously known as the Declaration of Independence signer with the rarest signature, but he was, by all accounts, a failure at almost everything he tried.
Gwinnett’s name found itself in the spotlight earlier this month after late night talk show host Stephen Colbert performed a rap song about the founding father. The song quickly spread on the Internet and was a brief topic of conversation at the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners’ Dec. 15 meeting.
“I think it is a pretty neat little rendition,” Gwinnett County commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said. “I think we need to let the guy know who Button Gwinnett actually was.”
Commissioner John Heard added, “They did have a surprising amount of information in there though.”
Colbert’s seemingly out-of-nowhere tribute to Button Gwinnett capped a year marked what would have been the 280th birthday for Gwinnett County’s namesake.
What is known about Gwinnett’s birth is that he was born in 1735 in Gloucestershire, England, according to the state’s official biography of him in the New Georgia Encyclopedia. He was the son of Rev. Samuel Gwinnett and Gwinnett’s wife, Anne.
He married Anne Bourne in 1757 and they had at least one daughter, according to a biography drawn up by the Georgia Society of Sons of the American Revolution. The family moved from England to Charleston in the early 1760s, and shortly thereafter moved again to Savannah.
It’s also known that he tried his hand, mostly unsuccessfully, at being a merchant, a planter, a politician and planning a military expedition into Florida during the American Revolution despite having no military experience. In virtually all of his biographies, the expedition is described as a disaster.
The one arena where he found a degree of success was in the political ring.
Anyone who has read his historical marker outside the Historic Gwinnett Courthouse may be familiar with the basic details: Becoming a justice of the peace in 1767, a commissioner of pilotage a year later and a member of the General Assembly the year after that.
After he served a two-year term in the Continental Congress and co-signed the Declaration of Independence, he returned to Georgia and helped write the state’s first constitution. Several accounts indicate he used a pamphlet he received from John Adams as a blue print.
Gwinnett became the state’s chief executive — which was effectively the governor — for a few months in early 1777 after his predecessor, Archibald Bulloch, died in office. It was during this time that he tried to use his position to unsuccessfully invade Florida.
He didn’t get re-elected.
“Brief but brilliant was the career of Button Gwinnett, revolutionary patriot,” is the epitaph engraved in pedestal holding his bust statue in the state Capitol building.
But even his political career was tempered somewhat by his rivalries with other leading Georgians. One of those rivalries ultimately led to his death in a duel with Brig. Gen. Lachlan McIntosh — a trained army officer.
An unflattering view of a patriot
Most signers of the Declaration of Independence are treated with a degree of reverence and celebrityhood. That fact isn’t much of a surprise when the pantheon of signers includes Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, two future American presidents and the namesake of Samuel Adams beer.
Biographers throughout the centuries have not been as kind to Button Gwinnett, though. When not pointing out his failures, the biographies paint a picture of a man whose ambitions of being a top power in early Georgia politics stretched beyond his abilities.
Denise Kurnan compared Gwinnett’s financing of his life’s many endeavors to a modern day person living off their credit card in her book, “Signing Their Lives Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence.”
The Georgia Society of the Sons of the American Revolution called Gwinnett a “chronic debtor” in its biography of his life.
Mortgage records held at the Georgia Archives show that Gwinnett took out a mortgage in October 1765 on about 6,250 acres of land on St. Catherine’s Island, which is off the cost of Georgia.
The mortgage was supposed to last 500 years.
He had to give up the land less than a decade later, purportedly because of his debt. The records show the island was transferred to new owners between February and March 1773.
Rev. Charles Goodrich was even less kind in the assessment he wrote of Gwinnett in 1856 for his series of biographies on the Declaration’s signers entitled, “Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence.” The biographies have been transcribed on www.colonialhall.com.
Writing about Gwinnett’s death in 1777 during the duel with McIntosh, Goodrich wrote, “Thus fell one of the patriots of the revolution; and though entitled to the gratitude of his country, for the services which he rendered her, her citizens will ever lament that he fell a victim to a false ambition, and to a false sense of honor.
“No circumstances could justify an action so criminal, none can ever palliate one so dishonorable.”
The duel that went down in history
A June 1777 affidavit provides an account of the duel between Gwinnett and McIntosh. The details provided in the affidavit was written state Judge John Wereat as they given to him by Richmond County resident George Wells. The Georgia Archives has a transcription of the affidavit.
Wells was Gwinnett’s “second” during the duel, according to the Sons of the American Revolution. He said a written challenge, signed by Gwinnett, was delivered to McIntosh on the evening of May 15, 1777.
“Mr. Gwinnett charg’d the general with calling him a scoundrel in public convention, and desir’d he wou’d give satisfaction for it as a gentleman, before sunrise next morning in Sir James Wright’s pasture, behind Colo Martin’s house,” the affidavit states.
Wells told Wereat that McIntosh and his attendant were waiting in the pasture when Gwinnett and his own attendant arrived the next morning. Their interaction was limited to “politely saluting each other.”
McIntosh suggested they stand about “eight or ten feet” apart, but his attendant suggested they stand one additional step back.
When the two men did fire their guns, it was “nearly at the same time” and Gwinnett was hit above the knee. He then fell to the ground, Wells told the judge, and claimed his thigh was broken.
“The general, who was also shot thro’ the thick of the thigh, stood still in his place, and not thinking his antagonist was worse wounded than himself — as he immediately afterwards declar’d — asked if he had enough of was for another shot, to which all objected,” according to the affidavit.
The incident ended with Gwinnett and McIntosh shaking hands before they parted company.
Gwinnett died three days later.
“It wasn’t the shot that killed him, it was the gangrene,” Gwinnett County commission Chairwoman Charlotte Nash told her fellow commissioners during a recent meeting to discuss the county’s bicentennial.
The famous signature
There are not too many signers of the Declaration of Independence who could claim to be the subject of an Isaac Asimov short story, but Button Gwinnett is kind of a big deal because of the rarity of his signature.
He didn’t have a long life in public service and few copies of signatures remain, so its goes for a very pretty penny when an authentic copy surfaces at auction. In the 1950’s, Asimov wrote an entire science fiction story, “Button, Button,” about the fact that the signature is rare and valuable.
Just how valuable is the signature?
In 2012, an officials with a auction company that was selling Gwinnett’s signature as part of a collection of signers signatures told the Daily Post his scribbling was worth between $700,000 and $800,000.
“Button Gwinnett is the ultimate American autograph rarity because there is so few of them,” Bobby Livingston, the vice president of RR Auction, told the Daily Post at the time.
Gwinnett’s legacy in death
Gwinnett cast a long shadow that can still be seen to this day in ways and places he has been commemorated.
On Dec. 15, 1818, the state created three new counties to honor the state’s three Declaration of Independence signers. One of them was Gwinnett County. The others were its neighbors, Hall and Walton counties.
A bust of Gwinnett also sits in the state Capitol rotunda and a statue of him stands atop the Mall of Georgia in Buford. There was even a Button Gwinnett Hotel once upon a time in Lawrenceville.
Nash recently said officials in the English town where Gwinnett was born have contacted her about a possible partnership to memorialize him.
But he also cast a shadow over McIntosh after he died.
Although McIntosh was initially held blameless, Gwinnett’s political allies eventually sought to use the duel, and its outcome, to bring down McIntosh.
He wrote to Gen. George Washington’s military secretary, Col. John Laurence, to plead his case and ask for support. A transcription of the letter is held in the Library of Congress’ holdings.
“When the affair first happen’d, it seemd to give a general satisfaction throughout the state to all parties as if an unhappy division was hereby at an end,” McIntosh wrote. “Afterwards, Mr. Gwinnett’s death which was evidently oweing to the unskillfulness of his doctor, appeared to make no alteration in the mind of anyone, except myself, who was partly the unfortunate tho’ innocent and instrument of it.
“No information was lodged, nor prosecution commenc’d against me, all parties visited me and even his wife publicly declar’d me innocent and altogether blameless and often request of my health.”
And even though Gwinnett County was not created until more than 40 years after its namesake’s death, his presence looms large over plans to celebrate the county’s 200th birthday.
Commissioners Lynette Howard and Tommy Hunter recently jokingly offered to reenact his duel with McIntosh for the bicentennial, while Colbert’s rap prompted Nash to jokingly suggested county staff should sing it in 2018.
“I’m thinking a department director rendition of that, or something, What do you think?” She asked department heads at the Dec. 15 meeting. “I’m seeing a lot of sick faces out in the audience now. Maybe not.”