Essay 85 – Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger
Nathaniel Hone the Elder (Irish, 1718–1784)Title: Portrait of Button Gwinnett, signer of the Declaration of Independence from GeorgiaMedium: Oil on Canvas Size: 84.5 x 73.7 cm. (33.3 x 29 in.)

Button Gwinnett was one of the three Georgia delegates to the Second Continental Congress who signed the Declaration of Independence. Gwinnett was also was a prominent leader in Georgia’s state government. But despite those prominent achievements, Gwinnett’s life was also full of controversies, scandals, and tragedies. He was the second of the fifty-six signers to die, and his death was caused by internal political and personal feuding within Georgia, not by the new nation’s battles with the British.

Gwinnett was born in Gloucester, England, in 1735, the son of an Anglican vicar. He was named in honor of his godmother, Barbara Button. He married Anne Bourne, and they had three children together. For much of his adult life, he worked as a merchant, but was never consistently successful. In fact, he may have fled England to come to the colonies in order to escape his creditors. After living briefly in Nova Scotia and Jamaica, Gwinnett arrived in Savannah, Georgia, where his business ventures were mostly unsuccessful.[1] Gwinnett did have some success in politics as he quickly became a leader within a faction that favored wresting political control from elites in Christ Church Parish as well as from the British. Georgia was the last of the original thirteen colonies to be organized by the British. The population was concentrated within a few miles of the Atlantic coast, with only sparse settlement in the backcountry. Much of the representation in the colonial assembly was held by landed gentry from Christ Church Parish, while other parishes had little influence.[2] Gwinnett became an outspoken leader of colonists from St. Johns Parish and claimed to represent the common people throughout all of Georgia.

The British presence was led by royal governors, the last of which was a fairly popular and capable administrator, Sir James Wright. Actions by the British government affected all of the American colonies slowly led to opposition in Georgia.[3] The opponents of British rule were known as Whigs, but the group was divided among different factions. The more conservative faction had its base in Christ Church parish, while a more radical faction, which included Button Gwinnett, had more support elsewhere. The radical faction, later known as the Popular Party, gained political strength in Georgia after the Stamp Act was enacted in Britain and after British troops fought with colonists in Lexington and Concord.[4]

Gwinnett rented a store shortly after arriving in Savannah and established himself as a merchant. That venture proved unsuccessful and Gwinnett borrowed money to buy St. Catherine’s Island in St. John’s Parish so that he could become a planter. At that time, he became active in local politics and civic affairs, becoming a justice of the peace and later a representative to the Commons House of Assembly. During his first term in legislative office, he made a name for himself as an advocate for parishes that had taxes imposed upon them without legislative representation. He also became known as an opponent of the royal governor.[5]

Gwinnet left the Assembly after one session to try to return to his plantation and stave off bankruptcy. Soon both his personal property and his land were put up for forced sale to satisfy his creditors in 1773.   Gwinnett returned to politics, claiming that his troubles and those of other Georgians were the doing of the elites from Christ Church Parish and the royal governor. Georgia did not send a delegation to the First Continental Congress, because of divisions between the different Whig coalitions. The St. Johns Parish representatives also boycotted the First Provincial Congress, but later held a Second Provincial Congress in July of 1775 which was attended by all factions, but not by Gwinnett.   Forging an alliance between his supporters in St. John’s Parish and new recruits from the western, rural areas of Georgia, Gwinnett built up a personal following. When the Continental Congress declared that Georgia should raise a continental battalion, the colonial legislature chose Gwinnett as the commander, despite his complete lack of military qualifications. However, Gwinnett never served as commander because the different factions later chose him as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, joining his friend and political ally, Lyman Hall.   The man then chosen to serve as the battalion commander was Lachlan McIntosh, an officer in George Washington’s continental army, who at the time, at least, was considered to be unaffiliated with any particular faction.[6]

Gwinnett presented his credentials in Philadelphia on May 20, 1776.    He served on some committees, but little is known about his participation in any debates on independence. Gwinnett did vote for the motion in support of independence, and he did sign the Declaration of Independence on August 2. Gwinnet returned to Georgia, probably hoping to re-gain the appointment to the battalion commander, but McIntosh was selected to remain in that position. Gwinnet was soon chosen to participate in a state constitutional convention that would draft the first of Georgia’s constitution. Once he arrived at the convention, Gwinnett was chosen as speaker. Most records of the debates at the convention have not survived to this day, but it appears that the final product was to Gwinnett’s liking. The new state constitution established relatively low property ownership requirements for voting, created a unicameral state legislature, and established a weak chief executive, elected by the legislature, who could not veto legislative actions. The new constitution also abolished the parish system of representation and created counties that would serve as administrative units of the state as well as a basis for representation in the legislature. The new document was approved in February of 1777. By that time, Gwinnett served on the Council of Safety, which assumed governmental power after the Provincial Congress adjourned. The president of the Council of Safety, Archibald Bulloch was the de facto chief executive. Bulloch died suddenly, late in that month. The Council of Safety selected Gwinnett to serve as temporary president. The only dissenting vote was cast by George McIntosh, the brother of Lachlan McIntosh.[7]

Gwinnett urged the Continental Army to form an expedition to attack British troops and sympathizers in what is now St. Augustine, Florida.   But those urgings were ignored or rejected. Gwinnett also urged the Georgia battalion to take action, but was met with resistance from Lachlan McIntosh, who thought the Georgia forces were ill-prepared to mount an operation in that territory far from their sources of supply.   Eventually, an attempt to begin an expedition did occur, but the effort was abandoned before the troops moved more than a few miles from their base of operations.

Gwinnett’s feud with the McIntosh family intensified after he received a packet of documents in March of 1777 that reported that George McIntosh had entered into a business partnership with his brothers-in-law to ship rice first to Dutch Guiana and then to the British West Indies.   The shipment took place before independence was declared, but it was a violation of the Continental Association’s prohibition of trade with British ports. George McIntosh was arrested, but later released on bail, paid for in part by members of the Council of Safety.[8]

By early May, the first assembly under the new constitution met to elect the first governor. Gwinnett expected to be chosen, but the legislature selected another member of the Popular Party, John Adam Treutlen, as governor. The legislature also reported the results of an investigation into the St. Augustine expedition, which upheld Gwinnett’s position and implicitly rejected the stance taken by Lachlan McIntosh. Enraged, McIntosh took to the floor of the Assembly and declared that Gwinnett was “a Scoundrell & Lying Rascal.” Gwinnett was not willing to allow the insult to go unchallenged. On May 15, 1777, he issued a written challenge to McIntosh to a duel on the following day. McIntosh agreed.   The following morning, standing only about a dozen paces apart, Gwinnett and McIntosh fired at one another. Both men hit their target.   McIntosh suffered a flesh wound to his thigh, but his shot shattered bone just above Gwinnet’s knee. McIntosh asked if both parties could re-load and fire again, but the seconds intervened to put an end to the duel. The antagonists shook hands, and their seconds took the wounded men home. McIntosh made a complete recovery, but Gwinnett’s wounds quickly became gangrenous. He died Monday morning, May 19, leaving behind a destitute widow and three orphaned children. He was the second of the signers of the Declaration of Independence to pass away, and the first to die violently.[9]

Gwinnett was an intriguing, controversial figure. He was in many ways politically adroit, but he was an utter failure in business and even in politics his victories were short-lived. He was loved by some of his followers but was hated by his opponents. Lachlan McIntosh was far from the first to accuse him of dishonesty and betrayal. Nonetheless, he is remembered today for his role in crafting, and signing in support of, one of America’s foundational documents, the Declaration of Independence.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. Dr. Clinger teaches courses in state and local government, Kentucky politics, intergovernmental relations, regulatory policy, and public administration. Dr. Clinger is also the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board and a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association. He currently resides in Hazel, Kentucky.  

Podcast by Maureen Quinn.


[1] Davis, Robert Scott.   “The Dark and Heroic Histories of Georgia’s Signers,” Journal of the American Revolution.  February 11, 2019.

[2] Jackson, Harvey H.  “Factional Politics in Revolutionary Georgia,” in Georgia’s Signers and the Declaration of Independence, by Edwin C. Bridges, Harvey H. Jackson, Kenneth H. Thomas, Jr. and James Harvey Young. Cherokee Publishing Company, 1981.

[3] Bridges, Edwin C.  “Prelude to Independence,” in Georgia’s Signers and the Declaration of Independence, by Edwin C. Bridges, Harvey H. Jackson, Kenneth H. Thomas, Jr. and James Harvey Young. Cherokee Publishing Company, 1981.

[4] Jackson, Harvey H.  “Factional Politics in Revolutionary Georgia,” in Georgia’s Signers and the Declaration of Independence, by Edwin C. Bridges, Harvey H. Jackson, Kenneth H. Thomas, Jr. and James Harvey Young. Cherokee Publishing Company, 1981.

[5] Jackson, Harvey H.  “Button Gwinnett,” in Georgia’s Signers and the Declaration of Independence, by Edwin C. Bridges, Harvey H. Jackson, Kenneth H. Thomas, Jr. and James Harvey Young. Cherokee Publishing Company, 1981.

[6] Jackson, ibid.

[7] Jackson, ibid. 

[8] Jackson, ibid.

[9] Fleming, Thomas H. (2011). “When Politics Was Not Only Nasty… But Dangerous”. American Heritage. 61 (1). Retrieved 24 May 2021.

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