The colony farthest from Philadelphia, least populated, and with a largely loyalist population, Georgia nonetheless possessed some dedicated opponents to the crown. As the patriot cause grew, the leaders of the rebellion prevailed upon businessman Button Gwinnett to throw in his lot with them. Someone saw something in Gwinnett that indicated he might be a useful leader in the nascent independence movement. Like the other founders, Gwinnett possessed character flaws and had a sometimes chequered past, but his commitment to liberty won him the trip to Philadelphia to represent Georgia in the building of a new nation.
Gwinnett was English born, son of a Welsh parson. After little business success in England, he received financial backing for an export business to South Carolina, which ultimately failed. Seeking a fresh start in Georgia he overreached financially by purchasing an island upon which he constructed a plantation. Crop failure dogged his steps and the creditors took his property, leaving him only the house for him and his family. Like other conservatives of his social status, he at first proved reluctant to back the rebellion. Gwinnett changed his mind as friends argued for independence and with rhetorical flourish argued for the cause of liberty.
The Georgian rebels appointed Gwinnett to the Continental Congress where he became signatory to the Declaration of Independence, falling under the sway of men like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Upon his return to Georgia, Gwinnett helped write the constitution for his newly independent state as a member of the legislature, and as providence afforded, accepted the position of interim governor. The Georgia legislature appointed a veteran soldier, General Lachlan McIntosh, commander of the state forces, with whom the quick-tempered Gwinnett quarreled over strategy and position. A man of action, the governor himself led an attempt to attack the British in Florida, outmaneuvered the Executive Council of McIntosh supporters, and accused the General’s brother of treason. The legislature refused to appoint Gwinnett as Georgia’s official governor, for which he was publically mocked by General McIntosh, calling him a “scoundrel and a lying rascal.”
Given the temper of the times, the paramount value of personal honor, and the acceptability of the code duello, Button Gwinnett challenged the crack-shot General to a duel with pistols. They and their seconds met outside Savannah in early morning. Although they both fired low to wound in the leg, Gwinnett’s wound proved mortal as he lingered in agony for several days before gangrene set in and finished him off, at about the age of 40.
Signing the Declaration of Independence, in a way, immortalized Button Gwinnett—the most successful accomplishment of his short life. One thing that the Georgia signer apparently failed to do very often in his lifetime was sign his name to anything other than promissory notes. In the world of philography, the collecting of autographs, Button Gwinnett is one of the rarest and most expensive in the world. It has come up for auction just a few times per century and now fetches hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction. He would likely be pleased to know that counterfeiting his signature has become an art form.