Portrait by Nathaniel Hone
|2nd Governor of Georgia|
March 4, 1767 – May 8, 1777
|Preceded by||John A. Treutlen|
|Succeeded by||Archibald Bulloch|
Gloucestershire, Great Britain
|Died||May 19, 1777
near Savannah, Georgia, U.S.
Button Gwinnett (1735 – May 19, 1777) was a British-born American political leader who, as a representative of Georgia to the Continental Congress, was one of the signatories (first signature on the left) on the United States Declaration of Independence. He was also, briefly, the provisional president of Georgia in 1777, and Gwinnett County (now a major suburb of metropolitan Atlanta) was named for him. Gwinnett was killed in a duel by a rival, Lachlan McIntosh, following a dispute after a failed invasion of East Florida.
Early life and education
Gwinnett was born in 1735 in the parish of Down Hatherley in the county of Gloucestershire, Great Britain, to an English father, the Reverend Samuel Gwinnett and his wife, Anne. He was the third of his parents' seven children, born after his older sister, Anna Maria and his older brother, Samuel. There are conflicting reports as to his exact birth date, but he was baptized in St. Catherine's Church in Gloucester on April 10, 1735. It is believed that he attended the College School, held in Gloucester Cathedral (now called The King's School) as did his older brother but there is no surviving evidence to substantiate this. He started his career as a merchant in England. He moved to Wolverhampton in 1754 and married a local, Ann Bourne, in 1757, at St. Peter's Church at the age of 22. In 1762 the couple left Wolverhampton and emigrated to America.
Arriving first in Charleston, South Carolina, by 1765 Gwinnett and his wife had traveled to Georgia. Gwinnett abandoned his mercantile pursuits, selling off all his merchandise to buy a tract of land where he started a plantation. He prospered as a planter, and by 1769 had gained such local prominence that he was elected to the Provincial Assembly. During his tenure in the Assembly, Gwinnett's chief political rival was Lachlan McIntosh, and Lyman Hall was his closest ally. Gwinnett did not become a strong advocate of colonial rights until 1775, when St. John's Parish, which encompassed his lands, threatened to secede from Georgia due to the colony's rather conservative response to the events of the times.
American Revolutionary War
Gwinnett voted in favor of the Declaration of Independence, adopted by Congress on July 2, 1776, two days before the "fair copy," dated July 4, 1776, was presented to the Congress. He signed the famous parchment copy on August 2, 1776. After signing the Declaration, he was accompanied as far as Virginia by Carter Braxton, another of the signers, carrying a proposed state constitution drawn up by John Adams. During his service in the Continental Congress, Gwinnett was a candidate for a brigadier general position to lead the 1st Regiment in the Continental Army, but lost out to Lachlan McIntosh. The loss of the position to his rival embittered Gwinnett greatly.
Gwinnett served in the Georgia state legislature, and in 1777 he wrote the original draft of Georgia's first State Constitution. He soon became Speaker of the Georgia Assembly, a position he held until the death of the President (Governor) of Georgia, Archibald Bulloch. Gwinnett was elevated to the vacated position by the Assembly’s Executive Council. In this position, he sought to undermine the leadership of McIntosh.
In early 1777, Gwinnett and his allies gained control of the Georgia Provisional Congress, and he became acting President of the Congress and commander-in-chief of Georgia's militia. As such, he was now the superior of his rival Lachlan McIntosh. Gwinnett had McIntosh's brother arrested and charged with treason. He also ordered McIntosh to lead an invasion of British-controlled East Florida, which failed. Gwinnett and McIntosh blamed each other for the defeat, and McIntosh publicly called Gwinnett "a scoundrel and lying rascal".
Gwinnett then challenged McIntosh to a duel, which they fought on 16 May 1777. The two men exchanged pistol shots at twelve paces, and both were wounded. Gwinnett died of his wounds on 19 May 1777.
Button's autograph is highly sought by collectors as a result of a combination of the desire by many top collectors to acquire a complete set of autographs by all 56 signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and the extreme rarity of the Gwinnett signature; there are 51 known examples, since Gwinnett was fairly obscure prior to signing the Declaration and died shortly afterward. Only ten of those are in private hands.
In popular culture
- The 1932 film Washington Merry-Go-Round stars actor Lee Tracy as Button Gwinnett Brown, a (fictitious) modern-day Congressman and descendant of Button Gwinnett. He owns a letter written and signed by his ancestor Button Gwinnett, which is worth $50,000 because (according to this movie's dialogue) only three of the original Gwinnett's letters still survive, and this is one of them. This fictitious document is destroyed during the film's action; the film also includes a close-up of the real Gwinnett's signature on the Declaration of Independence.
- Isaac Asimov wrote a science-fiction short-story named "Button! Button!", featuring a Time travel plot in which a collector may take possession of Gwinnett's signature on the Declaration of Independence.
- The plot of the television series Mannix "A Button for General D" (season 5 episode 10) deals with locating a hidden fortune – a Button Gwinnett signature.
- In the 2008 role-playing game Fallout 3, a Protectron robot wearing a powdered wig as part of a pre-war animatronic show has been left online in the National Archives and due to a memory malfunction believes itself to be the real Gwinnett, and appears to believe Great Britain is still attempting to invade, as his casual use of the word Redcoats indicates. It will challenge the player to a duel or otherwise resist him if the player attempts to seize the copy of the Declaration of Independence that it is guarding. If the player manages to convince the robot that they are Thomas Jefferson, it will submit.
- In Season 1 of Mr. Show, Button Gwinnett was played by Jack Plotnick in a skit surrounding the origin of the American flag's design. Gwinnett was portrayed as a pitiable stooge.
- Stephen Colbert has referenced Gwinnett in both airings of the segment "Better Know A Founder" featuring impersonators of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, joking that Gwinnett would be interviewed in a future segment.
- In the movie The Last Hurrah (1958), the character Mayor Frank Skeffington (portrayed by Spencer Tracy) indicates that his signature will never be as valuable as Button Gwinnett's.
- Gwinnett and his signature were featured on an episode of the public radio program Radiolab.
- Professor Russell Gwinnett is a character descended from Button Gwinnett who first appears in the penultimate volume of Anthony Powell's 12-volume series on the 20th century, A Dance to the Music of Time. Button Gwinnett's signature is described by another character as "one of the rarest."
- Lanman, Charles (1887). Biographical Annals of the Civil Government of the United States. New York: J. M. Morrison. p. 177.
- "Buttons Not Buttons". Radiolab. WNYC. Retrieved December 12, 2014.
- Gannett, Henry (1905). The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. Govt. Print. Off. p. 146.
- Bissell, Tom (2004). Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. Vintage. p. 13. ISBN 0307474313.
- Powell, Anthony (1973). Temporary Kings. Heinemann, London. p. 96. ISBN 0434599204.
- Button Gwinnett at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
- Biography of Button Gwinnett
- Georgia Signers of the Declaration of Independence
- New Georgia Encyclopedia
- Biography by Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, 1856
- Button Gwinnett at Find a Grave
- Incredibly rare autograph of one of the 56 signatories of the U.S. Declaration of Independence is set to fetch £80,000 at auction DailyMail.com, October 9, 2015.
|Governor of Georgia
John A. Treutlen