In 2012, a document containing the signature of Button Gwinnett was estimated to be worth $700,000-$800,000 – and so this is a reasonable question to ask: Who is Button Gwinnett and why is his signature so valuable? Well, the short answer is that he was one of only three men from Georgia who signed the Declaration of Independence. Here’s more a detailed answer.
Gwinnett was born in Gloucestershire, England in April 1735 to the Reverend Samuel Gwinnett and his wife, Anne. Gwinnett married Ann Bourne in 1757, and the couple had three daughters: Amelia, Ann and Elizabeth Ann. He arrived in Savannah in 1765, where he tried being a merchant. That failed. So, he bought St. Catherine’s Island and became a planter. Just four short years later, he was elected to the Commons House of Assembly – but, four more years later, he was in financial trouble. He responded by selling most of what he owned and leaving the world of politics.
That changed when tensions reached a peak with the British royalty. Gwinnett used his passion for Whig politics to unite people from the coast and rural areas into a coalition. His popularity with this group of men caused him to be chosen as the commander of the Continental Battalion of Georgia in the early part of 1776. This was a controversial choice and, rather than that actually happening, he instead became an appointee to the Continental Congress. He traveled to Philadelphia for that purpose, but left behind a bitter enemy in Lachlan McIntosh, who ended up commanding the battalion that originally selected Gwinnett as their leader.
In Philadelphia, Gwinnett advocated for complete separation from England, signing the Declaration of Independence in August, along with George Walton and Lyman Hall, also of Georgia. He was then named the speaker of Georgia’s Provincial Congress and played an important part in the passage of the Constitution of 1777.
Conflict erupted, though, when Gwinnett began to use his influence to remove military officers that he felt weren’t enthusiastic enough about the Whig cause. Lachlan McIntosh didn’t agree and an already poor relationship worsened.
Gwinnett was named as the replacement for the position of Georgia’s president and commander-in-chief in February 1777, and he wanted to secure part of Georgia’s border by taking the military into British East Florida. Who disagreed? McIntosh, along with his brother George, who had been arrested for treason when he disagreed about Gwinnett becoming president of Georgia. Gwinnett nevertheless moved forward – and the military expedition failed.
McIntosh was vocal in his criticism of Gwinnett, and Gwinnett challenged him to a dual. Each man successfully shot his opponent, but McIntosh survived. Gwinnett did not. He died on May 19, 1777 and is buried in Colonial Park Cemetery. You can find more information in our blog about Colonial Park and other historic Savannah cemeteries.
Most Valuable Signature
Fifty-six men signed the Declaration of Independence, so why is Gwinnett’s signature so valuable? In part, it’s become some of the signers were well-known statesmen who regularly signed documents, whereas Gwinnett was not as prolific. Very few of his signatures therefore exist, pre-1776, according to HistoryBuff.com. And, because Gwinnett died in 1777, he “went from relative obscurity to signing the Declaration of Independence to death in about a year.”
Starting in the 1820s, people began wanting to gather together signatures of all Declaration of Independence signers, and that’s when Gwinnett’s began going up in value. Fifty-one known examples of his signatures exist today, with about one fifth of them in private collections.
For context: his signature is considered more valuable than George Washington’s, Ben Franklin’s and Abraham Lincoln’s. In 2014, the last known sale of one of his signatures took place, and the price was $722,500.
Savannah Sightseeing Tours
If this subject intrigues you, here are two sightseeing tours that will be of interest:
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