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Button Gwinnett

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The rarest of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence: Button Gwinnett

Signer of the Declaration of Independence from Georgia (1735–1777). Gwinnett was born in Gloucester, England, the son of a minister. He emigrated to Georgia in 1765 where he first operated a dry goods store in Savannah before purchasing St. Catherine's Island where he established a planation. He soon became heavily indebted and was forced to sell the plantation in 1773. At the same time, he entered Georgia politics, emerging as the leader of the Popular Party, the more radical of the two Whig factions that dominated Georgia politics. In 1776 the provincial congress chose Gwinnett to command the state's Continental Army troops. The move was opposed by the conservative Whigs who refused to approve the appointment. The opposing factions compromised and Lachlan McIntosh was installed as commander of the military forces, while Gwinnett was given a seat in the Continental Congress as consolation. During his short tenure in Congress, Gwinnett voted for and signed the Declaration of Independence. When he returned to Georgia, he helped draft the state constitution and was soon elected president of the state. Now at the height of his political power, Gwinnett began to harass his political rivals headed by Lachlan McIntosh. The conflict culminated in a duel between the two in May 1777 in which both were wounded. Gwinnett however, died three days later from his wounds.

Extremely rare Manuscript DS, signed "Button Gwinnett," one page both sides, 14 x 5, February 5, 1773, no place [likely Savannah, Georgia]. The document concerns an account relative to his financial difficulties, being a settlement between Gwinnett and his creditors in which he agreed to give up his entire plantation. On one side of the sheet, headed "Button Gwinnett Esq: in Acc" Curr" with Messrs Rose & Porteau", the bankers give account of the amounts owed by Gwinnett to various named creditors and the Provost Marshall, as well as "Judgements in the hands of Wm Horntown." To settle his obligations, Gwinnett agrees to sell "the Island of St. Catherines & Stock of Honey Cattle Hogs &c Lumber & Plantation Boat" for £5,750. On the verso is a continuation of the account, with the same heading; the column totals £400. Beneath the total, following the words "agreed to by" is Gwinnett"s full signature. Related Gwinnett documents concerned with the sale of St. Catherine's from the same period are in the set of Signers at the Library of Congress (gift of Pierpont Morgan Library); and in the Fogg Collection of Signers at the Maine Historical Society.

According to the most recent census of known examples of Gwinnett's autograph, there are only 51 known extant. Of those, only eleven are in private hands, the balance being held in institutional collections. Ryan Speer's, "Button Gwinnett Signatures: A Census," (Manuscripts, Vol. 60, No. 4, 2008), lists the present example as number twenty-two. While most Gwinnett documents concern routine business and legal matters, this piece relates to an important event in his life: the loss of his entire plantation to pay off his debts. This event spurred Gwinnett to begin his political career in earnest, subsequently propelling him into conflict with McIntosh—a struggle that would result in his death in 1777. The circumstances behind this particular document make it very desirable and among one of the best Gwinnett documents a collector can hope to obtain.

While Gwinnett's early death (he was one of the first Signers to die after 1776) is cited as primary reason for the scarcity of his autograph, yet it should be noted he was 42 years old at the time, giving him plenty of opportunity to sign documents and write letters. Joseph Fields, in his 1950 census, noted that the destruction of Savannah, first in the Revolutionary and again in the Civil War contributed greatly to the scarcity of his papers. Increasing his rarity is the fact that the Gwinnett family line died out before 1800 – and the collecting of Signers, especially the obscure ones, did not come into fashion for many decades afterward.

Gwinnett's signature in any form seldom appears at auction. American Book Prices Current identifies only six examples of his signature appearing at auction since 1974. This is a rare opportunity to acquire the "Holy Grail" of American autographs.