Spotlight on Founding Fathers’ Names

Among the signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the most common names were George, John, Thomas and William. There were 6 signers each with these names. The second most common names were Benjamin, Francis, and Samuel. There were 3 signers each with these names.

But among these sturdy, conventional, mostly Biblical names was a Button, a Ceasar, an Elbridge, and a Lyman. Even back in the 18th century there were adventurous baby-namers.

When brainstorming this week’s spotlight name, I had two things in mind:

  1. I hadn’t spotlighted a boy name in a while and
  2. This week’s spotlight name would fall right after the Fourth of July.

Naturally spotlighting a signer of the Declaration of Independence seemed on target for this week. Luckily there is not just one notable name from among the 56 signers, there are four. I simply couldn’t decide which of these names was most worthy, so I’m shining a spotlight on all four.

In order to keep this post timely I decide to switch things up a bit and run this week’s spotlight name today because Thursday, the day we normally run our spotlight name posts, falls after the Fourth of July. Spotlighting Founders names the day after seems rather anticlimactic.

This Thursday instead of running another Spotlight name post, I will launch a new series. Stay tuned for that! In the meantime, learn about some remarkable, yet mostly forgotten, names and the remarkable men behind them.

Signer of the Declaration of Independence: Button

His name is undeniably unusual, but that’s not his biggest legacy. Button Gwinnett was relatively unknown before signing the Declaration, and died shortly afterwards, making his signature one of the most valuable in the world, almost up there with Julius Caesar and William Shakespeare. And a county in Georgia, Gwinnett County, bears his name.

Button Gwinnett was British born and migrated to the U.S. with his wife in his 30’s. He began his career as a merchant, and then became a prosperous planter in Georgia. His prominence in his local community led to becoming elected to the Provincial Assembly beginning his political career. His chief political rival was Lachlan McIntosh. Gwinnett’s life would eventually end by the hand of his nemesis in a duel.

Normally Spotlight names are ones I endorse. Some Spotlight names I would use on a child of my own and others I would love to see on someone else’s baby. Button is not a name I endorse. More specifically, I feel Button would be cute on a cat, but unfortunate on a human. Somehow I felt compelled to get that out-of-the-way in case some of you are thinking I have gone off the deep end.

But I had to spotlight Button. The name is too weird to ignore. Perhaps having one of the downright weirdest names of the signers, Button Gwinnett is an example of how, despite conventional wisdom, having a bizarre moniker doesn’t hold someone back.

This is difficult for me to admit. I was one of the chorus declaring with conviction, that weird names become a burden when a child grows up and sets out to make a living. Maybe I just used that justification to discourage parents from using downright ugly or nonsensical names, because the argument seems so reasonable on its face.

Button is not a name I see taking off any time soon. In 2011 fewer than 5, if any, boys or girls were named Button. Most likely Button originated as a surname. As a surname, Button is most concentrated among certain counties in Britain, primarily East Sussex County where it is the 34th most popular surname.  According to The Internet Surname Database,  Button is of Old French origins and was an occupational surname for those who made or sold buttons.

Signer of the Declaration of Independence: Caesar

Caesar Rodney was named after his father, also Caesar Rodney, probably not the ancient Roman ruler, Julius Caesar. Caesar Rodney came from a wealthy prominent political and farming family in Delaware. He was born in Kent County Delaware and lived there all his life, where he had a distinguished career.

His political career began when he was elected Sheriff of Kent County. He was an officer of the Delaware militia during the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, a Continental Congressman from Delaware, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and President of Delaware during most of the American Revolution. In 1999 he appeared on the Delaware state quarter.

While Ceasar Rodney was a distinguished founder who is hardly remembered anymore, Caesar is a distinguished name with ancient roots that is hardly used anymore. Caesar appeared in and out of the lower rung of the top 1000 from 1880 (the earliest year data is available) until 1922. Except for a brief appearance at #996 in 1953, the name hasn’t been in the top 1000 since. In 2011 there were 59 boys named Caesar.

Signer of the Declaration of Independence: Elbridge

As a statesman, Elbridge Gerry accomplished a lot. He reached the office of Vice President under James Madison, was the 9th Governor of Massachusetts, represented Massachusetts’ 3rd district in the U.S. House of Representatives, and was a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress. He signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and was one of three who rejected the original US Constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights. He was a Harvard graduate.

His name’s legacy continues beyond his political career. His grandson, who was also named Elbridge, and great-grandson were in the U.S. House of Representatives. There are two towns in New York named for him, Elbridge, NY and Gerry, NY.

Perhaps Elbridge Gerry’s biggest legacy is not necessarily positive. A term formed of his surname, “gerrymandering” was originally coined by The Boston Gazette after he supported a bill which would redraw the districts in order to aid his political party.

As a baby name, I am uncertain of Elbridge’s potential. Parents could love it or hate it. The similar Elwood got a lot of attention as one of our forest and tree names and was recently featured by Appellation Mountain and got mostly positive reactions for being daringly stylish. Perhaps the same people who see the funky charm in Elwood would also like Elbridge. Elbridge lacks the smooth sound as Elwood. The B in the middle breaks up the flow, making it clunky. This sound is not in-vogue for boy names, which could work against Elbridge.

Signer of the Declaration of Independence: Lyman

Lyman Hall was a prominent member of the newly formed town of Sunbury Georgia, a center of radical sentiment in a colony that was primarily loyal to the British. Sunbury was formed from the colonial parishes of St. Andrews, St. James and St. John.

Georgia was not represented in the First Continental Congress. Lyman Hall convinced his parish, St. John, to send a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. He would become that delegate.

Lyman Hall was a clergyman, a physician and a statesman born in Wallingford, Connecticut. He migrated to South Carolina and then Georgia, where he became one of the influential citizens of the newly formed town of Sunbury.

Sunbury was part of Liberty County, a County named in honor of two of Georgia’s signers of The Declaration of Independence, Lyman Hall and Button Gwinnett. Lyman Hall was Button Gwinnett’s closest ally. Lyman Hall’s St. John Parish threatened to secede from Georgia. This is what caused Button Gwinnett to become an outspoken advocate of colonial rights.

Lyman Hall would eventually become Governor of Georgia for a year and then would return to practicing medicine. Hall County Georgia was named after him, as well as a high school in his native Wallingford, Connecticut.

Of the Founders names, Lyman may be the one with the most potential in 2012. Names beginning with L have become popular on girls and could follow for boys. There are some L boys names that have a shot at becoming discovered in the U.S. One of them is Lachlan (the name of Button Gwinnett’s nemesis), which shares the L beginning and N ending found in Lyman.

Lachlan is outside the U.S. top 1000, but is huge in Australia ranking at #3 last year. In the U.S. Lachlan was given to 178 boys and 8 girls in 2011, an increase from 147 boys and 5 girls the previous year. Lyman may have some ground to cover before it catches up to Lachlan. There were 6 boys named Lyman in 2011; this was a decrease from 17 boys named Lyman the previous year.

These Men and Their Names

While not household names like Benjamin Franklin, John Adams or Thomas Jefferson, these four signers were no slouches. All four of them are memorialized in some way and helped write the story behind Independence Day.

One common theme behind these names is that Button, Caesar, Elbridge and Lyman all have history as surnames. Even Button seems a little less strange when seen as a surname. The surname trend is not really a trend, but rather a long-standing practice going back to U.S. colonial days.

Readers: Which of these Founding Father names is your favorite?

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  1. A note on Button’s name: He was given his mother’s maiden name as a first. Like you mentioned, the maiden-names-as-first-names trend is centuries old. Surnames first is certainly nothing new. I think the actual “trend” is using random surnames with no family connection as first names.

    I went with my gut and voted for Lyman. Button was tempting though. 😉

  2. The Australian love child of Steven Soderbergh is named Pearl Button Anderson. She was born in 2010, so the name Button seems to be still usable today. There is something rather sweet about the name, as we tend to call small children Button as an endearment. I think it might be middle name only though.

    If Lachlan was a “bad guy”, no wonder you don’t care for the name! Lachlan Macquarie, who all Australian Lachlans are ultimately named after, was your enemy during the American War of Independence. He fought very successfully on the British side – hardly a ringing endorsement for the name in the US.

    • Button as a middle name on a girl is rather cute. Pearl Button is a great combo. Because I think of the object, “button” that is why the name seems odd to me, like naming a child “Zipper” or “Pocket.” Although I have a friend with the nickname “Zippy” and Zipporah sounds very similar to zipper. Maybe Button (and Zipper) aren’t that odd. However, I think a boy saddled with “Button” especially with that saying, “Cute as a button” might have a hard time in our modern era though.

      After all of these years I don’t think many Americans associate Lachlan with Lachlan Macquarie. I don’t anyway. Your comment on Lachlan Macquarie was educational for me, since I wasn’t really familiar with him.

      • It would be a brave parent who named their son Button as a first name! Especially with those first four letters.

        No I didn’t think they did think of Lachlan Macquarie, but they might have in the 18th century, which means you don’t have that history with the name.

        • Based on what you said, it sounds like in Australia Lachlan is a traditional, dare I say, “classic” name that has been popular for decades. This was hard for me to wrap my head around because to my American eyes and ears Lachlan looks and sounds so modern. I do see it hitting the top 1000 and perhaps even the top 200 here eventually.


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