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Button Gwinnett was a native of England, where he was born about the year 1732. His parents were respectable in life, and gave their son as good an education as their moderate circumstances would allow. On coming of age, Mr. Gwinnett became a merchant in the city of Bristol.
Some time after his marriage in England, he removed to America, and selecting Charleston, South Carolina, as a place of settlement, he continued there for about two years; at the expiration of which, having sold his stock in trade, he purchased a large tract of land in Georgia, where he devoted himself extensively to agricultural pursuits.
Mr. Gwinnett had from his earliest emigration to America taken a deep interest in the welfare of the colonies; but, from the commencement of the controversy with Great Britain, he had few anticipations that the cause of the colonies could succeed. A successful resistance to so mighty a power as that of the United Kingdoms, to him appeared extremely doubtful; and such continued to be his apprehensions, until about the year 1775, when his views experienced no inconsiderable change.
This change in his sentiments, touching the final issue of the controversy, produced a corresponding change in his conduct. He now came forth as the open advocate of strong and decided measures, in favor of obtaining a redress, if possible, of American grievances, and of establishing the rights of the colonies on a firm and enduring basis. In the early part of the year 1776, he was elected by the general assembly, held in Savannah, a representative of the province of Georgia, in congress. Agreeably to his appointment he repaired to Philadelphia, and in the following month of May, for the first time, took his seat in the national council. In October, he was re-elected for the year ensuing to the same responsible station.
In the month of February, 1777, a convention of citizens from Georgia was held in Savannah to frame a constitution for the future government of the state. Of this convention Mr. Gwinnett was a member, and is said to have furnished the outlines of that constitution, which was subsequently adopted.
Shortly after the above convention, occurred the death of Mr. Bullock, the president of the provincial council. To this office Mr. Gwinnett was immediately elevated. Unfortunately, while he represented the colony in congress, he was a competitor with Colonel Lackland M'Intosh, for the office of brigadier general of the continental brigade, about to be levied in Georgia, to which office the latter was appointed. The success of his rival, Mr. Gwinnett bore with little fortitude. His ambition was disappointed, and being naturally hasty in his temper, and in his conclusions, he seems, from this time, to have regarded Colonel M'Intosh as a personal enemy.
On becoming president of the executive council, Mr. Gwinnett adopted several expedients by which to mortify his adversary. Among these, one was the assumption of great power over the continental army in Georgia, in consequence of which General M'Intosh was treated with much disrespect by a part of his officers and soldiers. To humble his adversary still further, Mr. Gwinnett, in an expedition which he had projected against East Florida, designed to command the continental troops and the Militia of Georgia himself, to the exclusion of General M'Intosh from the command even of his own brigade.
Just at this period, it became necessary to convene the legislature for the purpose of organizing the new government. In consequence of the station which Mr. Gwinnett held as president of the council, he was prevented from proceeding at the head of the expedition destined against East Florida. The troops, therefore, were by his orders placed under the command of a subordinate officer of M'Intosh's brigade. The expedition entirely failed, and probably contributed to the failure of Mr. Gwinnett's election to the office of governor, in May, 1777.
This failure blasted the hopes of Mr. Gwinnett, and brought his political career to a close. In the disappointment and mortification of his adversary, General M'Intosh foolishly exulted. The animosity between these two distinguished men, from this time, continued to gather strength, until Mr. Gwinnett, unmindful of the high offices which he had held, of his obligations to society, and of his paramount obligations to the author of his being, presented a challenge to General M'Intosh. They fought at the distance of only twelve feet. Both were severely wounded. The wound of Mr. Gwinnett proved mortal; and on the 27th of May, 1777, in the forty-fifth year of his age, he expired.
Thus fell one of the patriots of the revolution; and though entitled to the gratitude of his country, for the services which he rendered her, her citizens will ever lament that he fell a victim to a false ambition, and to a false sense of honor. No circumstances could justify an action so criminal, none can ever palliate one so dishonorable.
In his person, Mr. Gwinnett was tall, and of noble and commanding appearance. In his temper, he was irritable; yet in his language he was mild, and in his manners polite and graceful. Happy had it been for him, had his ambition been tempered with more prudence ; and probably happy for his country, had his political career not been terminated in the prime of life.
Source: Rev. Charles A. Goodrich Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence. New York: William Reed & Co., 1856. Pages 452-455. (Some minor spelling changes may have been made.)
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Last modified January 2, 2004