Religious Convictions of America's Founders: Button Gwinnett
"And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
One of three signers of the Declaration of Independence from Georgia, Button Gwinnett's life was cut short on May 27, 1777, after a pistol duel with his nemesis, Lachlan McIntosh, an experienced officer who in 1776 had repulsed the British assault at the Battle of the Rice Boats in the Savannah River. Gwinnett might well have said, as did the lamented Alexander Hamilton when fatally wounded in his duel with Aaron Burr: ”I have lived like a man, but have died like a fool.”
Button Gwinnett was born in 1732 in Gloucestershire, England, one of seven children of a Church of England vicar, the Rev. Samuel Gwinnett, and Anne Eames Gwinnett. In addition to signing the Declaration of Independence, Gwinnett was also a member of the Continental Congress, Speaker of the Assembly, and President of the Executive Council. He also was a member of the Convention that met in Savannah in October, 1776, in which he played a prominent part in drafting the first Constitution of the State of Georgia, and in preventing Georgia from being absorbed into South Carolina. In spite of his participation in these patriotic efforts, his signature is so rare that it has become sought after by collectors.
Gwinnett and his family sailed to Charleston in 1765, and he established himself as a trader there for a few years. Later he sold all his merchandise and moved to Savannah. Then he purchased the island called St. Catherine’s, a tract of land of 36 square miles off the coast of Georgia near the flourishing port of Sunbury, and became a planter. In this endeavor he became acquainted with a group of settlers who had come from New England to Sunbury. One of them was Lyman Hall, a future signer of the Declaration, who had re-settled there from Fairfield, Connecticut.
An Episcopalian Congregationalist, Gwinnett "had from his earliest emigration to America taken a deep interest in the welfare of the colonies; but he had doubts that the cause of the colonies could succeed. To Button, successful resistance to so mighty a power as that of the United Kingdoms appeared extremely doubtful. This continued to be his concern until about the year 1775, when Lyman Hall helped persuade him to change his views. This change in his sentiments produced a corresponding change in his conduct. He now came forth as an open advocate of strong and decided measures in favor of obtaining redress, if possible, of American grievances, and of establishing the rights of the colonies on a firm and enduring basis.
"While he is not known as a major player in the debates, John Adams noted that “Hall and Gwinnett are both intelligent and spirited men, who made a powerful addition to our Phalanx.” Gwinnett voted for independence on July 2, for the declaration on July 4, and signed his name to the parchment of the Declaration of Independence on August 2.
"When the President of the Georgia Assembly, Archibald Bulloch, died on March 4, 1777, Gwinnett was immediately elevated to fill his position, effectively becoming Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Army. This achievement was a great honor for Gwinnett, and demonstrated that he was held in high public esteem for his ability and integrity.
Though entitled to the gratitude of his country for the services which he rendered her, her citizens will ever lament that he fell victim to a false ambition, and to a false sense of honor." See The Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence: Button Gwinnett.