GWINNETT, Button (1735-1777), Signer (Georgia). Document signed ("Button Gwinnett") as a Subscriber of the Charity School of Wolverhampton, countersigned by several other subscribers and Trustees. [Wolverhampton, England, ca. 3 September 1761]. 2 pages, oblong 8vo (7 1/8 x 9 1/8 in.). Very fine condition.
A FUTURE SIGNER AS PHILANTHROPIST: A DOCUMENT SIGNED BY GEORGIA'S BUTTON GWINNETT, RAREST OF THE SIGNERS OF THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
An exceptionally attractive document--very likely the finest Gwinnett still in private hands--relating to the operation of the Wolverhampton Charity School, bearing a large clear signature of the young Button Gwinnett as one of its supporters. It records financial details, the admission of new pupils, and the fact that one of the school's wards had been bound as apprentice to a buckle-maker. Beneath the signatures of Gwinnett and his colleagues it is recorded that at the said date, the Charity Boys school had 35 students enrolled, the Charity Girls school 26.
It is oddly ironic that Gwinnett, who left few written records on either side of the Atlantic, has attained a high degree of recognition--at least among collectors--based on the extreme rarity of his signature rather than any particularly crucial role in the achievement of American independence. Little is known of his early life. Born in Down Hatherly, Gloucestershire, Gwinnett established himself in Bristol as a merchant, then emigrated to the American colonies, settling first in Charleston, S.C., and later in Savannah, Georgia. In October 1765 he purchased a large tract of land on St. Catherine's Island, which he intended to develop as a plantation. He became friendly with patriot Lyman Hall, a neighbor, and active in the independence movement. In January 1776 he attended a meeting of the Georgia Council of Safety and was selected as one of Georgia's five delegates to the Continental Congress. Taking his seat in May, he was present for the vote for independence on July 2, and with his fellow delegates, signed the Declaration of Independence. His service, in Congress, though, was relatively brief, and after returning to Savannah in August he served as Speaker of the Georgia Assembly, played a part in the drafting of the state Constitution and helped quash a move to make Georgia a part of South Carolina. On the death of Governor Bulloch in March 1777, Gwinnett became President of the state of Georgia and Commander-in-Chief, but failed to win re-election. A long-simmering antipathy between Gwinnett and fellow patriot Lachlan M'Intosh culminated in a fateful duel, fought on May 17, 1777 in which both men were wounded. Gwinnett succumbed to his injuries on May 25 at the age of forty-five, further ensuring the rarity of his documents. His activities in support of the patriot cause resulted in the total destruction of his property during the British occupation of Savannah and surrounding areas.
Gwinnett's signature, perceived as rare since the era of Lyman Draper and the earliest collectors of the Signers, has become increasingly so in the last two decades, as many complete sets of the 56 Signers have passed into permanent institutional collections. (At least one other example, presently in a private collection, is also destined for a noted university rare book collection.) It is highly unlikely that any additional previously unrecorded Gwinnett letters or documents will come to light. Since 1980, only four other examples of Gwinnett's signature have been offered individually at auction:
1. Signature, undated, on a small irregular piece of paper, damaged, with serious lacunae and considerable restoration. The Marshall Coyne Collection (sale, Sotheby's, 5 June 2001, lot 107, $110,000).
2. Partly printed document signed, 9 July 1774. From the former Bamberger set (sale, Superior Galleries, Los Angeles, 6 November 1993, lot 311, $150,000).
3. Document signed, 19 Feb. 1773, a receipt (sale, Sotheby's, 22 May 1990, lot 38, $135,000).
4. Letter signed by Gwinnett and five other members of the Marine Committee of Congress, 12 July 1776. The Carrie Estelle Doheny Collection (sale, Christie's 22 February 1989, lot 2168, $190,000).
The standard census of Gwinnett documents--now considerably out of date--recorded a total of 46 examples, not including the present example, which is similar in nature to three other documents from the Wolverhampton Charity School, also dated 1761 (see Fields' nos.27,37 and 39). Those three examples were discovered in May 1927 by a local historian and subsequently sold by the Trustees of the School to endow scholarships. Joseph E. Fields, "The Known Signatures of Button Gwinnett," in The New Colophon, vol.3 (1950), pp.132-145.
Provenance: Philip D. Sang (sale, Sotheby Parke Bernet, 26 April 1978, lot 262, illustrated, part of a set of Signers' documents).