Friday, May 16, 2014

MAY 16 = Button Gwinnett Goes Down

“Both pistols were discharged at nearly the same time. Gwinnett was shot in the leg immediately above the knee, the bone being broken, and he fell to the ground. He exclaimed ‘My thigh is broken!’ McIntosh was shot through the thick of the leg and not thinking his antagonist was worse wounded than himself, asked if his opponent had had enough or was for another shot, to which Gwinnett replied, Yes, if they would help him up. To this the seconds objected, declaring that both had behaved like gentlemen and men of honor. The General was lead up to his fallen antagonist, and both shook hands.”

This is an account of the duel which took place on today’s date, May 16 in 1777 between Button Gwinnett (above) and Lachlan McIntosh, the “General” referred to by historian D.J. Drewien. The name of McIntosh may be familiar to you, largely because of its coincidental relationship to the famous fruit, and by extension the computer company, on one of whose products I wrote this account. The name of Button Gwinnett is likely less familiar to you unless like me, your mind is cursed with the consistency of fly paper (for those of you too young to recall what THAT is… look it up!),  and stuck to it is a staggering amount of miscellaneous data, mostly useless. I recall reading about Button Gwinnett in the Guiness Book of World Records years ago. It referred to his signature as being highly valuable. My next encounter with Mr. Gwinnett’s signature came in the superb 1958 film “The Last Hurrah” in which Gwinnett is described as:
“…a colonial gentleman who is known to have signed only one document in his life…. The Declaration of Independence .”   To which the character of Mayor Frank Skeffington, played by Spencer Tracy chimes in “And as they say in show business: ‘what do you do for an encore’?”

Button Gwinnett - America's (Almost) Forgotten Founding Father

Well it is time to give Button Gwinnett his due recognition as one of our country’s founding fathers. He was born in Down Hatherly, Gloucestershire, England, and was baptized in Gloucester in 1735. While still living in England, Gwinnett was married and began a career in trading commodities. In the 1760s, he moved to South Carolina, first to Charleston , before moving on to Savannah, Georgia, wherein he established himself as a trader by 1765. He entered politics in 1769, being elected to the Commons House of Assembly. Gwinnett established a residence on St. Catherine's Island, Georgia, in 1770, leaving commerce for farming. It was in this field that he developed a strong contempt for the wealthy and powerful "city Whigs" of Savannah, and this had a strong influence on his political thinking. Those "country Whigs", who made up most of Gwinnett’s political constituency were primarily less prosperous coastal dwellers like himself and back-country farmers. When first made commander of Georgia s Patriot forces, Gwinnett was forced to resign by the outcry of "city Whigs." Nevertheless, Gwinnett was elected to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia wherein he affixed his famous and rare signature to the Declaration of Independence. Gwinnett returned to Georgia immediately after signing the declaration, and determined to take control of Georgia politics, he became speaker of the legislature, guided the Georgia Constitution of 1777 into existence and took over as governor when Archibald Bulloch died suddenly in office.

Governor Gwinnett Gets Into Trouble With General McIntosh

As the new head of governmental affairs in Georgia, including the state military. Gov. Gwinnett began to use his position to thwart the efforts of Brigadier General Lachlan McIntosh (below),  one of those “city Whigs”whom he had come to so detest from his farming experiences.
McIntosh had been appointed by the Continental Congress over Georgia's Continental Battalion, but as the governor of the state, Gwinnett thought he should be in command of it himself. Gwinnett therefore took an active role over the continental army in Georgia which caused dissension in the ranks. Governor Gwinnett took over the planning of an expedition to Florida and would have led the troops himself, but was kept from going by state business. Instead, he appointed one of McIntosh's subordinates as the commander of the expedition. This blew up in Gwinnett’s face when the expedition failed, and his bid for election to the governorship failed. Gwinnett was charged with malfeasance in the debacle, but was cleared. But McIntosh publicly denounced the Button man, and this lead the duel described above by Mr. Drewien, They met at the small town of Thunderbolt, near Savannah, and fought on May 16, 1777, at a distance of only 12 feet. Both were severely wounded, Gwinnett mortally. He died three days later from gangrene which he contracted from the shattered bone in his leg. Lachlan McIntosh survived and continued to serve his country. Mr. Gwinnett died on May 19, 1777 at the age of 45.

Button Gwinnett's Signature Winds Up Being Bigger than John Hancock's

As to the man’s signature, well it was not quite accurate to say that he only signed the Declaration. Nevertheless, Button Gwinnett's signature is considered among the most valuable of historical autographs in the world, valued only behind those of Julius Caesar and William Shakespeare. And Gwinnett's signature is by far the most valuable American autograph, selling for as much as $150,000. This is because collectors attempting to obtain a complete set of the autographs of all 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence have more than a bit of a challenge with Mr. Gwinnett as less than 30 examples of his signature are known to exist, since he was not well known before signing the Declaration and died shortly after.  So in spite of the fact that John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress signed his name so large (in his words: "So that fat {King}George can read it without his glasses!"), Button Gwinnett still wins the prize for the most valuable signature of the 56 signers, in spite of being such an obscure figure.  Funny, how history works out sometimes, ISN'T IT???

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"Button Gwinnett: A Historiography of the Georgia Signer of the Declaration of Independence" 
by D.J. Drewien, Rose Dog Books, Pittsburg, PA., 2007

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