If we were able to go back in time and have a sit down with Button Gwinnett many of us would be surprised to know the true man instead of his persona as one of Georgia’s three signers of the Declaration of Independence. First of all he would answer our questions with a British accent since he was born in England. Many of us would also be surprised that Gwinnett allowed a feud with a fellow Georgian to basically take over all of his thoughts and actions to the point that it hastened an early death.
After marrying he immigrated to the colonies first landing in Charleston and then later moving south to Savannah. Many resources state Gwinnett had a hard time managing his money and was actually fleeing creditors when he left England. In fact, soon after arriving in Savannah he managed to purchase St. Catherines Island totally on credit. He had some mercantile concerns as well as a plantation on the island where he attempted to raise cattle among other things.
Gwinnett did not immediately become involved in the liberty cause, but he did debate the Intolerable Acts at Peter Tondee’s Tavern in 1774. Later when St. John’s Parish (today’s Liberty County) threatened to secede from the colony of Georgia in 1775 he was motivated to action. Following the signing of the Declaration of Independence Gwinnett became a member of Georgia’s government in 1777 and was key in providing much of the foundation for Georgia’s Constitution. His source was a pamphlet written by John Adams.
As Gwinnett became more involved in state government he organized a defensive operation against Florida to secure the border. He used this opportunity to ruin Lachlan McIntosh. The bitter enemies had always clashed. In fact, much of Gwinnett’s public life is dominated by a feud with McIntosh who hailed originally from Scotland. When the invasion failed Gwinnett was charged with malfeasance. Gwinnett ended up blaming McIntosh for his failed run at the governorship of Georgia in 1777 when actually it had been Gwinnett’s burning desire to obstruct McIntosh at all costs that lost him the exectutive postion.
When Gwinnett and McIntosh began to toss blame at each other McIntosh ended up calling Gwinnett “a scoundrel lying rascal”. Gwinnett, wanting to restore his honor challenged McIntosh to a duel.
In 1777, Gwinnett and McIntosh along with their seconds George Wells and Joseph Habersham met at Thunderbolt a few miles outside of Savannah. Apparently word had spread and they drew a crowd. While the crowd waited the four men walked a distance away from the crowd so they could complete the duel in some privacy. The pistols, provided by McIntosh, were inspected, loaded with one bullet each, and given to the participants.
Both men managed to shoot their pistol, and both managed to hit the other. McIntosh was hit in the leg, but it didn’t take long for him to call out to Gwinnett inquiring if he wanted to reload and have another go at it. Gwinnett said yes, but he would need help getting up. It seems McIntosh’s bullet had hit Gwinnett’s thigh and the bone was shattered.
At this point Wells and Habersham stepped in and stated both men had upheld their honor and reputations and it would be best to simply stop. Both men retreated and sought medical care.
McIntosh soon recovered and was off to serve with distinction under George Washington at Valley Forge. Gwinnett, however, did not recover. Gangrene set in and he was dead within three days.
Today Gwinnett’s former property, St. Catherine Island, is owned and maintained by the St. Catherine Island Foundation. While the beach can be visited during daylight hours the interior of the island is closed to visitation to protect the wildlife on the island. Special arrangements must be made to visit the fragile ecosystem. The foundation supposedly uses Gwinnett’s former home, Old House, on the land and some slave dwellings that date from the 1800s for foundation offices. Since Gwinnett died so soon after signing the Declaration of Independence we don’t have many examples of his signature or a reliable image. Therefore he has the reputation of having one of the rarest signatures….some examples have been valued as high as $250,000.
I love to use Button Gwinnett to teach character with. Many accounts paint him as a hothead and in today’s classroom I see children who react violently without thinking of the consequences. While Gwinnett often failed as a businessman and farmer he seemed to hit his stride once he entered politics. It’s simply a shame he allowed his feud with McIntosh to rule his heart.