In 1776, 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence. Though many were teenagers at the time, some of them went on to become president. One of their names is basically synonymous with “signature” today. Others have museums, monuments, and even beers named after them. Button Gwinnett is not one of those men, and yet his signature is the most valuable of the dozens on the Declaration. How is this possible?
In a surprising twist, it’s Gwinnett’s obscurity that makes his signature so much more valuable than the other signers’. Button Gwinnett (yes, Button was his real name) was born in England in 1735. At age 30, he moved to the American colonies. Living in Georgia, he suffered through multiple failed business endeavors, which didn’t exactly make him a celebrity. Eventually, Gwinnett got into politics and became very passionate about the colonies’ independence. And sure enough, there he was in Independence Hall in 1776, signing that Declaration, below and to the left of John Hancock’s now-famous penmanship. And then, in 1777, he was killed in a duel with a political rival (much like another founding father we know).
In the 1820s, very few signers of the Declaration were still alive, and history enthusiasts began searching for, and collecting, signatures of all 56 founding fathers. For the Declaration’s more well-known signers, signatures weren’t hard to find. Many of them were prominent politicians who had signed lots of documents in their day. Ben Franklin, in particular, wrote scores of letters. But that Button guy? Finding his signature wasn’t so easy.
Due to his life of obscurity, and its untimely end about a year after the act that made him famous, his signature was (and still is) the rarest of the 56, by far. According to historybuff.com, there are only 51 known signatures in existence by this forgotten founding father. And the fewer the signatures, the higher the value. According to Radiolab, Gwinnett’s signature surpasses those of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and many other major historical figures in value. His signature’s value is considered to be up there with William Shakespeare’s. Not bad for someone who spent most of his life as a failed businessman!
Most recently, a Gwinnett signature sold for $722,500 in New York City. (If you think that‘s crazy, wait until you see how much people paid for their favorite movie props.) If you want to get a look at this famous John Hancock (so to speak) for free, four copies currently reside at the New York Public Library. Or you can head to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. to see the full Declaration in all its glory.
So there you have it—the Declaration of Independence has been hiding this valuable secret since 1776. Turns out, there’s a lot we don’t know about this important document. In fact, we might be celebrating Independence Day on the wrong day!