Born in England in the parish of Down Hatherley in the county of Gloucestershire in 1735, Button Gwinnett came to America in 1762. By then he was married to Ann Bourne, whom he met in Wolverhampton while working as a merchant in that town.
At first, Gwinnett traveled between Newfoundland and Jamaica conduction his business. This didn’t prove very successful, and in 1765 the couple settled in Savanah. They opened a store which soon went bankrupt. Gwinnett raised a credit and bought St. Catherine’s Island, just off the coast of Savanah, planning to start a plantation there. Despite his lack of success in both business and farming, he managed to get elected to the Provincial Assembly. It was during this time that his long-standing rivalry with Lachlan McIntosh started.
In 1775, Gwinnett was elected as Delegate from Georgia to the Continental Congress. In 1776, he was one of 56 delegates which signed the Declaration of independence, which marked the beginning of the American Revolution. He went back to Georgia carrying a proposed state constitution written up by John Adams.
In early 1776, Gwinnett was elected commander of Georgia’s Continental Battalion but was forced to reject the post due to accusation regarding his election. The position went to Lachlan McIntosh, his political rival, something Gwinnett never forgot.
During his tenure at the Continental Congress, Gwinnett sought the position of brigadier general commanding the 1st Regiment in the Continental Army. The position went to McIntosh, which further deepened their rivalry and made Gwinnett extremely bitter.
As a member of Georgia General Assembly, he has drawn the original draft of Georgia’s first State Constitution. Soon afterward, he was elected the Speaker of the Assembly, a position he held until 1777 and the death of Georgia’s Governor Archibald Bulloch. The Assembly’s Executive Council voted Gwinnett to fill the vacancy.
His term as a governor was marked with frequent clashes with McIntosh and his allies, which culminated in April 1777 when the Assembly approved Gwinnett’s plan to attack British Florida. As McIntosh’s superior, he ordered him to carry out the attack. At the same time, he arrested McIntosh’s brother, charging him with treason.
The invasion of Florida failed in a disastrous way, mostly due to poor planning. Gwinnett and McIntosh exchanged accusation, blaming each other for the disaster, with McIntosh calling Gwinnett “a scoundrel and lying rascal.” Gwinnett challenged him to a duel, which was fought on May 16, 1777. Both men shot pistols at 12 paces, and both were wounded. Gwinnett died of his wounds three days later, while McIntosh recovered. Gwinnett was just 42 at the time of his death.