What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
It’s Founders Chic day at the Adverts 250 Project! Today’s advertisement was inserted in the Georgia Gazette a decade before Button Gwinnett became one of the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence, one of only three signers from Georgia.
Over time Gwinnett has become famous (sort of) for not being famous. He certainly did not become a household name like other signers of the Declaration, especially John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. This was in large part due to his late entry in politics (he did not become an outspoken advocate of American rights until 1775, the year that fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord) and he died in 1777 (in a duel with a political rival over a failed invasion of East Florida, controlled by the British).
Gwinnett was not a man of letters, unlike so many other founders who left behind extensive correspondence. As a result, only fifty-one copies of his signature (including the one on the Declaration of Independence) are known to exist, making Gwinnett’s signature much more rare, valuable, and sought after than those of his much more famous and influential counterparts who signed the Declaration. (Learn more about the scarcity of Gwinnett’s signature at “Radiolab,” 7:50-14:40.) Gwinnett has remained so unknown compared to other signers that “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” even broadcast a spoof “musical” featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer and star of “Hamilton: An American Musical.”
In today’s advertisement Button Gwinnett issued a cranky warning against others trespassing on his land and stealing his hogs and cattle. He threatened to prosecute offenders and offered a reward to anyone who provided evidence that contributed to a conviction.
This advertisement certainly did not have the historical magnitude of the Declaration of Independence. However, it provides a glimpse of the daily life and concerns of one of the (minor) founders. In 1766 Gwinnett had no way of knowing that he would someday sign the document that officially severed America’s political ties to Great Britain. It’s easy to put the founders on pedestals, but it might be more helpful to remember that they were also men sometimes consumed with ordinary concerns (like “disorderly people” who trespassed on their land). Asserting that only the most exceptional political philosophers have shaped the American experience and that they were inherently more intelligent and more virtuous than subsequent generations implicitly suggests that everyday people, the common folk who comprise the vast majority of the population, cannot even hope to live up to the examples set by the most famous founders. Button Gwinnett, on the other hand, demonstrates that we are all capable of practicing thoughtful citizenship, whether we have penned influential works of political philosophy or not.