GWINNETT, BUTTON. (1735–1777). Signer. Born at Down Hatherley in Gloucestershire, England, in 1735. He arrived in Savannah in 1765. After failing as a merchant and planter he experienced financial diffulties the rest of his life. He held several minor public offices, and in 1775 he led the radical faction of the local Patriots. As a member of the Georgia council of safety, he was sent on 20 January 1776 to the Continental Congress. He arrived in May, signed the Declaration of Independence, and returned to Georgia in August. While in Congress, he was proposed as a brigadier general, but the Continental brigade in question was given to Lachlan McIntosh, instead.
Gwinnett was elected speaker of the radically controlled Assembly in October 1776 and led the opposition to union with South Carolina and the committee that drafted Georgia's first state constitution, which effectively silenced the conservative faction. In March 1777, after the death of the governor, Archibald Bulloch, Gwinnett was appointed to serve out the term of office and to act as commander in chief of Georgia's military forces. In his short term as governor, he followed extreme radical views and thereby antagonized the conservative faction in the state, including Lachlan McIntosh. Gwinnett had arrested McIntosh's brother on suspicion of treason, and the two men had often clashed over the limits of military and civil authority and state control of Continental troops. Unable to cooperate during the Georgia expedition against British posts in Florida in the spring of 1777, they were both recalled to Savannah by the state assembly, which launched an investigation into their conduct. Although absolved of any blame, Gwinnett failed to win re-election to the governorship. On 19 May he died from wounds suffered in a duel with McIntosh. He is believed to have died insolvent, and there is no record of his grave. The dearth of materials associated with his name has made the few known items quite valuable to collectors. In 1979, his signature (of which only thirty-six are known to exist) brought $100,000 at auction.
Abbot, William W. "Lowcountry, Backcountry: A View of Georgia in the American Revolution." In An Uncivil War: The Southern Backcountry During the American Revolution. Edited by Ronald Hoffman, Thad W. Tate, and Peter J. Albert. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1985, 321-331.
Searcy, Martha Condray. The Georgia-Florida Contest in the American Revolution, 1776–1778. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1985.
revised by Leslie Hall