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Drawn portrait of Button Gwinnett

Button Gwinnett

A recent English immigrant, Button Gwinnett risked his life by signing his name to the Declaration of Independence.

British born and raised

Button Gwinnett left his home in Staffordshire, England to begin a new life with his family in the North American colonies. Twenty years later, he risked his life by signing his name to the Declaration of Independence. Button was born in 1735 in Gloucester, England to Reverend Samuel and Anne Gwinnett. In April 1757 he married his wife Ann in Staffordshire, and the couple welcomed Amelia, their first of three daughters, in 1758.

Moving to America

Button worked as a merchant and had a shipping business, frequently exporting goods to the North American colonies. By 1765 Button decided to make the move himself, and left England for Georgia. Anne followed later.

Map showing Button Gwinnett arriving in Savannah

Button hoped to transfer his successful mercantile business to Savannah. He placed notices in the Georgia Gazette for items "just imported, sold on the most reasonable terms" at his new store. Button hoped to supply his community with necessities and luxury goods alike, imported from England.

Map showing the locations of St. Catherine Island

He sold his business in favor of a new venture, attempting to establish a small plantation on St. Catherine Island just south of the city. But this venture was also short-lived. His poor business acumen and previous debts proved a detriment to his operation, and creditors ultimately seized his property.

Despite his financial failure, Gwinnett remained a well-respected member of the community and was appointed a justice of the peace. The appointment served as a springboard for his next venture—a political career. Colonists elected him to the Georgia General Assembly where Gwinnett served from 1769-1771.

A choice and a signature

As relations between Great Britain and the thirteen colonies deteriorated through the middle of the 1770s, Gwinnett had to decide where he stood on the question of independence. Born in England to the son of a Reverend of the Church of England with a background as a merchant importing British goods, Button had a difficult choice to make. Political tensions escalated, and by 1776, Button had his mind made up.

Map showing Button Gwinnett traveling from Savannah to Philadelphia

On January 20, 1776 Gwinnett left Georgia for Philadelphia to represent the colony in the Second Continental Congress.

Image of an engraving of the Declaration of Independence with Button Gwinnett's signature highlighted.

Later that year, he signed his name to the Declaration of Independence.

Image: Engraving of the Declaration of Independence; National Archives

Image of an engraving of the Declaration of Independence the names of foreign-born signers highlighted.

Out of the 56 delegates who signed the Declaration, Button was one of only 8 who were born abroad in Britain rather than in the colonies.

Image: Engraving of the Declaration of Independence; National Archives

Desire to serve

Gwinnett attempted to utilize his political experience to receive an appointment to command a Georgia battalion. Ultimately it was Lachlan McIntosh, not Gwinnett, who received the command—igniting a bitter rivalry between the two men.

In March 1777 Gwinnett again tried his hand at politics and public service, having temporarily assumed the role of governor of Georgia. He failed to win reelection.

Around this time Gwinnett reignited the previous feud with McIntosh, when he accused his brother of treason and ordered his arrest. The Georgia Assembly compounded the situation after investigating a failed patriot offensive into British-held East Florida, but laying the blame for the expedition on McIntosh.

Infuriated, McIntosh publicly, in front of the Assembly, proclaimed Gwinnett "a scoundrel and a lying rascal." Gwinnett answered the insult by challenging McIntosh to a duel. On May 16, 1777 Gwinnett met McIntosh outside of Savannah, pistols loaded.

A fatal duel

Facing each other, the two men fired their rounds. Both found a target—McIntosh sustained a wound in the leg, while Gwinnett was struck just above the knee. McIntosh survived, but days later Gwinnett succumbed to infection and died on May 19.

Upon learning of his untimely death Lyman Hall wrote to fellow signer Roger Sherman:

"…the Man was valuable, so attached to the Liberty of this State and Continent that his whole attention, influence, and interest circled in it and seemed riveted to it…the Friends of Liberty on a whole Continent deplore his fall."

Button Gwinnett was buried in Savannah's Colonial Park Cemetery. He did not see the end of the American Revolution. In 1818 The Georgia General Assembly named Gwinnett County near Atlanta in his honor. In 1964 a marker was placed at his gravesite by Georgia Societies of the DAR and SAR, along with the Society of Colonial Wars and Colonial Dames of America, the State of Georgia, and the city of Savannah.

On July 20, 2021, the Daughters of the American Revolution released an episode of their Our Patriots Podcast entitled: "The Curious Case of Button Gwinnett: The quest to make political and military history drove one passionate Patriot—whose story doesn't end at his death".

10 min 10 sec
Themes of the period
Modern-day Legacy

Namesake county: Gwinnett County, GA

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