TRADITION sometimes plays strange pranks with dead men’s reputations. It would make an interesting half hour for the eavesdropper beyond the Styx if he could hear the exchange of amenities between Duns Scotus and “Judge” Lynch: the one a shrewd, clear reasoner, whose name now signifies a fool; the other a simple Quaker gentleman, whose name has come to stand for organized savagery. Charles Lynch was a man whose services to his country as a brave pioneer and righteous judge, as a soldier and a statesman, are by no means deserving of oblivion, still less of obloquy. It seems, indeed, one of the iniquities of fate that his name should now be universally applied to proceedings that no one would condemn more heartily than he. The records of the court of Bedford County, in Virginia, and those of various Quaker meetings, the journals of the Virginia House of Burgesses and of the first Constitutional Convention, taken together with family documents and traditions, show him to have been an upright and useful member of society, and a wise and energetic leader at the most important crisis of American history.
Charles Lynch was born in 1736, at Chestnut Hill, his father’s estate near the ferry across the James, where his older brother afterwards founded the city of Lynchburg. About his ancestry not a great deal is known. There is a tradition that somewhere in the misty past one of his forefathers was mayor of a certain Irish city, where he meted out justice with a hand so stern and swift as to earn the sobriquet of “ Hanging Pat.” His grandfather perhaps inherited, along with large estates in Galway, the same judicial temper, and, not being in a position to exercise it on municipal malefactors, he kept it from rusting by frequent displays in his family life. The father of the future “judge,” much as he may have respected such a temper as an heirloom and token of former distinction, does not seem to have relished its manifestations toward himself, for he fled from home when still a mere lad, and about 1725 made his way as an indented servant, or “redemptioner,” to Virginia. On his arrival in the colony, the captain of the ship that brought him over sold him to a well-to-do planter in Caroline County, named Clark. By his Celtic wit, his industry and pleasant address, the young Irishman soon won the good will not only of his master, but also of his master’s daughter, Sarah, whom he married as soon as he was free from his indentures. Then the assistance of an influential father-in-law being added to that of the good fortune that had hitherto backed his efforts, he became a tobacco planter on a large scale. The records of the Colonial Land Office show that, besides some seven thousand acres of land in the counties of Goochland and Brunswick, he took up large tracts in the fertile valleys of the Rivanna, the Staunton, and the upper James. His career, however, was a short one, for Sarah Lynch was already a widow when she joined the sect of the Quakers at the Cedar Creek meeting on April 16, 1750.
It is in the records of this congregation of Quakers that we find the first mention of the “ judge : ” “ 14 of Dec., 1754. Charles Lynch and Anne Terrill published for the first Time their Intentions of Marriage.” “ 11 Jan., 1755. Above Parties are reported clear ” by the committee appointed, as was then usual with the Quakers, to look into their pevious conduct and reputation. The next day they were married, and soon afterwards set out for the west.
In the division of the Irish immigrant’s property, Chestnut Hill, the home he had founded on the James, fell to his eldest son, John. Charles, therefore, was under the necessity of taking his young wife to the family lands that lay nearer the frontier. It was an unpropitious time for beginning life in the wilderness. Settlers were few and far between in that part of the colony. Wild beasts and wilder red men still struggled for the supremacy under the shadow of the Blue Ridge, and, according to the journal of Dr. Thomas Walker, even the buffalo, so quick to disappear before the approach of man, wandered at large over the slopes leading down to the rivers. Moreover, a state of war against the French and Indians was already existing ; and as Charles, then only nineteen years old, journeyed with his wife toward the “ Green Level ” on the banks of the Staunton, Braddock, farther north, was advancing to his defeat at Fort Duquesne. It required a stout heart and a strong arm to establish civilization in such a country at such a time, but young Lynch was equal to the occasion.
Already in the previous year it had been attempted to meet the necessity of a proper government for the scattered settlers by the organization of Bedford County. The twelve “ Gents ” of the county, to whom the Commission of the Peace and Dedimus Potestatem had been directed, met in May at the “ ordinary ” of Mathew Talbot, one of their number, to begin their new duties. But only seven of them were ready to take the usual oaths to his Majesty’s person and government, and to “ subscribe the Test ” which was then required of all holders of public office. The other five, not being members of the Church of England, refused the Test, and therefore were not eligible to act as justices. As there were, however, in the whole county only two other “ Gents ” available for the office, these five were once more recommended to Governor Dinwiddie as proper persons to be added to the Commission, and in due time they were sworn in. The executive positions were even more difficult to fill than those of the justices. To serve a summons in those wild regions, to arrest and guard prisoners, and to discharge the other orders of the court were duties that no one was fain to assume. The man that had been appointed sheriff by the governor “hath made Oath that he can’t get Securitie for his Office, and no one that is already named in the Commission will accept of the Office.” So the governor was requested to make an appointment from among those already recommended as proper persons to be added to the Commission, and at the next meeting of the court one of them, Joseph Ray, was prevailed on to give the required security and permit himself to be sworn in. It was then “ Ordered, that the Sheriff of this County impress a sufficient Number of Persons to guard such Persons as from Time to Time shall be arrested and taken into Custody in the County.” His duties began immediately, for the next entry is, “ Ordered, that the Sheriff summon those Persons that have this Daye behaved in a ryotous Manner in the Court to appear to Morrow to answer the Same.” The men engaged in the “ Ryot” were next day excused, but their detention had served to show that the equipment for the proper discharge of justice was not yet complete. Therefore, “ Mathew Talbot’s Store House is appointed for a Prison for the County; ” whereupon the sheriff “ Protests against the Insufficiency of the said House for all Escaips that may be made by Reason thereof; ” but his protest resulted only in an order “ to summon a Guard to guard such Persons as may be committed to said Prison.” The organization was now complete ; and lest justice should miscarry before this august tribunal, the sheriff was ordered “ to wait on a Printer for 14 compleat Bodys of the Law for the use of the Justices.” It was then “ Ordered, that the Rates of Liquor for this County for the Ensueing Year be established as followeth
Rum by the Gallon 10s if good Barbardoes
Punch by the Quart 1s 3d when made with loaf Sugar
New England Rum per Gal. 4s
Whiskie “ “ 5s
Bristol Strong Beer “ Bottle Is 6d
Peach Brandie “ Gal. 6s
Madeira Wine “ “ 10s
Virginia Cyder “ “ 2s, &e ”
After this important measure the court adjourned.
Such were the conditions for maintaining law and executing justice in the county where Lynch attained to manhood. A sparsely settled frontier region, the beginning of a long and mortal struggle with the French and the savages, the mere form of a court of justice meeting in a place of public entertainment, interrupted by “ ryotous behavyour,” and presided over by men whose ignorance of “compleat Bodys of the Law” was equaled only by the impotence of the sheriff to prevent “ Escaips ” of malefactors. Truly, at such a time every log house must be a castle, every man must be his own protector, and justice had no other local habitation than the hearts of the hard-fisted settlers in buckskin breeches who were planting in the wilderness the seeds of civilization.
“ Tantæ molis erat Romanam condere gentem ! ” So far in the history of mankind it is only the Anglo-Saxons that have proved able to overcome such obstacles in the course of one generation. Beyond a doubt, one of the main causes of their success has been the practical nature of the religion, not unaccompanied by genuine piety, which they maintained during the period of their “ expansion.” If, then, some degree of justice and order prevailed in the early days of Bedford County, it was the character of the settlers, and not the county court, that preserved it. It was in forming this character and training those qualities that make for peace that Charles Lynch rendered his first service to his country.
As soon as he had finished his new house at Green Level, Lynch assisted in organizing a Quaker meeting in the county, and contributed money and men to construct for it a building which was the first house of public worship in that part of Virginia. When the meeting was broken up by the Indians during the war, he invited the worshipers, for greater security, to come to his house, where he and his armed negroes would be prepared to ward off hostile attacks. For a number of years he served as clerk of the meeting, as trustee of the new meeting house, and as representative to the Quarterly Assembly in one of the eastern counties. It would be difficult to overestimate the influence of these Quaker pioneers in establishing better relations with the Indians, and fostering a spirit of peace and justice amongst their neighbors. As a leading Quaker, Lynch found his services in great demand to arbitrate disputes over land, cattle, and other things. There is even a tradition to the effect that he was once called upon to settle a quarrel between the owners of two captive bears, who had bet on a fight between the animals, and disagreed about the result. On that occasion his decision was so unsatisfactory that the disputants turned their wrath from each other upon the umpire. In the struggle that ensued Celtic blood proved too much for Quaker principles, and the brawny man of peace forced the quarrelers to swallow his decision. It was seldom, however, that his judgments met with such ill success, and as the years passed he grew in reputation as a man of integrity, energy, and sober good sense.
When peace was made with the French and Indians in 1763, and the number of settlers began rapidly to increase, Lynch’s position as a leading man in the county was already established. Sagacity in the management of his large estate had brought him what his neighbors considered great wealth, chiefly in the form of tobacco, cattle, and slaves. This large “ stake in the country,” his unflagging zeal in promoting good government, his familiarity with the interests of the east, where he was a frequent visitor among his mother’s kinsfolk, and his high personal qualities pointed him out as the logical representative of his county in the colonial Assembly. Already in 1764 it is said that he was asked to become a candidate ; but he refused, on the ground that holding public office was inconsistent with his Quaker principles. But the excitement attending the discussion of the Stamp Act, and the increasing gravity of the disagreement between the counties of the east and those of the west, caused him to see his duty in another light; and in 1767, at the age of thirtyone, he was elected to the House of Burgesses, and held his seat till the colony became an independent state. In thus entering public life he severed his official connection with the Quaker congregation that he had helped to bring into existence. It became necessary for him, as a burgess, to take the usual oath, which was the same as that administered to members of the House of Commons; and in consequence, at the meeting of December, 1767, “ Charles Lynch is disowned for taking Solemn Oaths.” It is interesting to know, however, that his relations with his former brethren in the faith always remained friendly, and that his children were reared in the tenets of the sect.
During the period from the Stamp Act to the Revolution, it was not only the relations to the mother country that came before the Virginia Assembly for grave consideration; there was also a matter of home policy pressing for settlement, and the history of America was to be strongly influenced by the position that members of the House should take upon it.
In the eastern counties of the colony, although there was a slight infusion of Scotch and Huguenot blood, by far the greater number of inhabitants were of English descent. These men had developed the plantation system, and their prosperity depended upon maintaining close commercial relations with the Old World, where they sold their tobacco and purchased their manufactured supplies. Under this system of agriculture and commerce they had grown rich, and by reason of their wealth they were called on to pay nearly all the taxes that the burgesses imposed. In the western counties, on the other hand, the majority of the settlers were German and Scotch-Irish that had made their way down from the north; and amongst them, because of the difficulty of getting agricultural produce to market, the plantation system had not yet grown up. They lived chiefly by cattle-raising, cultivated only enough land to provide their families, and seldom owned slaves or had any other kind of property that was taxed. Between the two sections there were several minor causes of disagreement. The Lutherans and Presbyterians of the west felt oppressed by the Established Church, the main strength of which lay in the east. The cultured and lordly burgesses from the lowlands distrusted the democratic principles of the men in homespun and buckskin that rode down to the Assembly from the mountains. But the main cause of sectional divergence lay in the contrary notions the members held about the most expedient way of raising and spending the colonial revenue. If the western regions were to increase in prosperity, it could only be through developing better means of transporting their produce to the east. But roads and bridges and canals required money to build, and this the western settlers did not have. There was, therefore, a constant struggle in the Assembly between the western members, who were trying to impose heavier taxes on slaves and real estate, and the eastern members, who thought they were being robbed to construct improvements from which they would derive no benefit. It was an early stage of the strife over internal improvements that afterwards arose in the Federal Congress, to be waged bitterly there for more than a generation.
In Virginia, the differences of race and of economic condition during the colonial period brought it about that the two sections developed along entirely different lines. The struggle between them became a struggle for power; and it was western influence in the convention of 1828 that extended the suffrage and changed the representation of the counties. In the secession convention of the next generation it was realized that the divergence had gone too far to be bridged, and the economic and social forces making for disunion were at last strong enough to rend the old commonwealth asunder.
In the colonial period of this struggle Lynch’s vote and influence were always cast in favor of the west. Although he was himself a tobacco planter and a slaveowner, he lived far enough beyond the head of navigation to appreciate the disadvantages of the western farmer’s situation. He knew also the possibilities of the country just across the mountains, and was convinced that the benefit of opening means of transportation would accrue, not to any one section, but to the whole colony. As a Quaker, furthermore, he was opposed to the Established Church, and as a sturdy pioneer to the aristocratic organization of eastern society. His influence in the Assembly seems to have been based on the same qualities that had won him distinction in his own county. To shine as an orator before an audience that was accustomed to Patrick Henry, Cary, Page, Pendleton, and Randolph, Lynch was prepared neither by education nor by temperament. There could be no stronger contrast than that between the heated debates of the House of Burgesses and the dignified monotony of the Quaker meetings where he had been wont to give “ admonitions ” against unchristian dealings. Yet he was not without a following. Though he was of quiet manner and not given to much speaking, there was something impressive in the evident sincerity and determination of the tall backwoodsman ; and the consistency of his politics, the conservatism of his principles, the clearness with which he saw and expressed what he believed to be right, enabled him, in time, to command as many votes by a quiet expression of opinion as some of his more brilliant colleagues could do by polished eloquence.
Now it is not to be supposed that in a sectional struggle such as was then in progress the officials sent over by England would assume an attitude of indifference. It might be naturally expected that an impartial governor, representing the interests of the mother country, and therefore desiring the growth and prosperity of the colony as a whole, would be inclined to promote the development of the west and to conciliate the settlers there, even though some heavier burden must be laid upon the east to accomplish it. But such was not the case. An inherent Anglo - Saxon respect for the rights of property, and a constant intercourse with the men of the lowlands among whom he lived, enlisted the governor’s sympathies in behalf of the east, so that the whole weight of English influence was thrown against the cause that Lynch and his party supported. The consequence was a gradual weakening of western loyalty. Even before Lynch’s appearance in the House, Patrick Henry’s resolutions against the Stamp Act had been passed by the western vote ; and at a later date it was the same vote that severed the political connection with England, and saved Virginia for the cause of independence.
In addition to internal improvements, there came up for discussion, during Lynch’s career as a burgess, two measures of importance which excited sectional hostility. In 1769 there was passed an act regulating the suffrage, and determining the qualifications and powers of members of the Assembly. The conservative east stood for a freehold qualification for voters. In the west such a qualification was not satisfactory. The explanation of this is that the land in the latter region had been largely settled by squatters; and though many of these, in the course of years, had become men of substance and position, they could show no legal title to the land they held, and hence would be excluded from voting. In the discussion of this question Lynch and several other western representatives stood with the east, on the ground that the suffrage could not be extended so as to admit the desirable nonfreeholders without at the same time admitting a large class of men to whom the right of voting could not be safely intrusted. The result of this defection was an overwhelming victory for the cause of the east, the fruits of which that section long enjoyed. The main principles of the act as it was finally passed were preserved by the Constitutional Convention of 1776, and remained in force till overthrown by the increasing power of the west in 1828.
The other measure on which sectional lines were sharply drawn was the issue of paper money, and in his advocacy of this Lynch did not display his usual sagacity. By reason of her economic condition, Virginia was among the last of the colonies to have recourse to a debased currency. Under the plantation system there was little demand for money for internal trade, and in foreign trade her great staple, tobacco, was an acceptable return for the manufactured supplies of all kinds that were imported. When the west was settled, however, the same circumstances prevailed there that had already forced fiat money upon the colonies farther north. There was no plantation system there, little tobacco was grown, and some kind of currency was needed, not only for the every-day transactions of life, but especially for the construction of those internal improvements upon which the development of that region depended. In seeking a means to meet this necessity, it is not surprising that Lynch showed no greater wisdom than Franklin and others of his contemporaries whose eminence as statesmen is beyond cavil. In sinning against economic law he was in good company. His sins, however, were visited not so much upon his children as upon himself. Virginia entered the struggle for independence with a currency so defective that it prevented her from profiting by her great natural resources, prolonged the war, and added vastly to the sufferings of all classes. Lynch’s private losses were great, and he lived bitterly to repent the support he gave to the cheap money policy.
The time was at hand, however, when these matters of money, of suffrage, of representation, and even of internal improvements were to be banished from men’s minds by the greater matter of our relations to England. It is not necessary to trace here the course of events that led to the dissolution of the House of Burgesses and the flight of Governor Dunmore. Lynch, as a member of the Assembly, became a member of the Convention that met in 1776 to determine the course Virginia should take in regard to the troubles that had now reached a head. It does not seem that in the early days of these troubles his constituents had shown any special interest in the agitation that was going on ; for in 1775, when all the eastern part of the colony was ablaze with excitement over the discussion of English oppression and the prospect of war, a court had been held in Bedford to present any grievances the people had to complain of. We hear no mention of Stamp Act or Boston Port Bill or unjust taxation, but the court sends in a petition setting forth the “ Inconveniences of Treats and Entertainments at and before the Election of Representatives.” These “ Inconveniences,” it may be remarked, were not confined to the representatives from Bedford and their competitors for office; they formed one of the grave political abuses of the age, and the immaculate Washington himself, when a candidate for the Assembly, found it necessary to spend large sums in “ Treats and Entertainments.” Lynch, however, by reason of his nine years’ experience as a burgess, appreciated better than his constituents the gravity of the crisis that had now arrived, and the position he took on the points at issue was of epoch-making importance.
In view of the consistency and zeal that Virginia afterwards displayed in the cause of independence, the opinion has come to prevail that from the beginning of the troubles the sentiment in the colony was almost unanimously hostile to England. Such, however, was far from being the case. The class of men that controlled the eastern counties still retained the Cavalier principles that had led their forefathers, in earlier days, to offer a refuge to Charles II. when a fugitive before the victorious army of the Parliament. This Cavalier class, “ not inconsiderable in numbers and more potent in influence, partook of the character that marked the English original, imitated English manners in its modes of life, practiced English sports, cherished English prejudices, and were proud of the glory of their English forefathers.” These men, moreover, in the event of war, would be the chief sufferers ; for not only did they sell in England the produce of their plantations, and procure there all the luxuries and many of the necessaries consumed in their families, but the location of their estates near the seaboard and along the great waterways rendered them peculiarly exposed to the ravages of an invading force. There was, therefore, in the Convention a party, strong both in numbers and in influence, that favored using the greatest moderation in all measures directed against the mother country.
And yet it is a part of the knowledge of every American schoolboy that the Declaration of Independence was the result of instructions sent by the Convention of 1776 to the Virginia delegates in the Continental Congress. It is a whimsical and fantastic truth that “Judge” Lynch was prominent among the men who caused these instructions to be sent, and thus determined the severance of this country from England. When the Virginia Convention of 1776 met, no man could tell what the decision of the members would be. The population of the eastern counties were known to be for moderation, and their representatives reflected their views. The masses of the people in the west were indifferent so far as England was concerned, for they were ignorant not only of the merits of the case, but for the most part even of the points at issue between the two countries. So far as a spirit of antagonism to England existed in that region, it had grown out of the support that the English government had given to the Cavalier party in the sectional rivalry described above. It was the burgesses from the west that best appreciated what the nature of this support had been, and these men realized better than their constituents how great an advantage would accrue to their party from the removal of English influence altogether. This explains the statement of the English historian, Lecky, that the “ popular or democratic party in this colony showed more zeal in breaking down precedence than in combating the English.” It was, then, in large measure for the purpose of securing control of colonial affairs that the western members, under the influence of Charles Lynch, gave a solid vote for ending the connection with England. It is true that in the journal of the Convention the vote for the resolution instructing the delegates in the Continental Congress is said to have been unanimous ; but it is known from a letter of George Mason to R. H. Lee, and from other sources, that there was a strong minority against it. This does not mean that the men of the lowlands were unwilling to resist English oppression, — to resist it, if necessary, by force of arms ; but they were opposed to breaking the political connection with the mother country, and they hoped that England could be brought to yield to the American demands without taking this step. There were some among them, however, who allied themselves on all points with the men of the west. The very man, indeed, who offered the resolution was no other than the aristocratic Nelson of York, who was afterwards himself a delegate to Congress, and a signer of the Declaration which he had advocated. So soon as it became obvious that Lynch and his westerners, with these allies from the east, would have a majority in the Convention, the Cavalier party, appreciating the necessity of presenting a united front to the enemy, ceased their opposition, permitted the vote to appear as unanimous, and — to their credit be it said — stood loyally by the decision of the Convention, and offered as much in money, in blood, and in brains to tiie cause of liberty as any other section of the Union.
Having thus determined on the Declaration of Independence, the Convention proceeded to draw up a constitution for the new commonwealth. It was the first written constitution that a state had ever given itself, and the difficulty of the task can hardly be realized at the present day. In this work, also, the influence of Lynch and his western followers was strongly felt, and their votes succeeded in impressing on the new constitution the decidedly democratic character it presented when compared with the government of the colony under a crown charter. In the Convention, as in the House of Burgesses, Lynch did little speaking; he left that to Henry, Madison, and other allies from the east. But he knew what he wanted, and he carried his western colleagues as a solid mass for or against a measure according as he approved or disliked it.
When the work of the Convention was over, Lynch returned to his duties in Bedford. He had been made a justice of the peace under a commission from Dunmore in 1774, and when the county court was reorganized according to the ordinance of the Convention, passed on the 3d of July, 1776, he retained the position. Several of his former associates on the bench, however, were of Tory sentiments, and refused to serve under a republican government. He did not enlist in the army, partly because of his Quaker principles, but chiefly because his presence was imperatively necessary at home. He had to rouse the spirit of his constituents to support the action he had advocated in the Convention. He had to raise and equip troops for the army. He had, as it were, to mobilize the forces of his county, and to attend to all the duties of a commissary department. In addition, he had to make some provision in the event of an attack from hostile Indians. His county, lying as it did near the frontier, was not less exposed to such an inroad than “fair Wyoming,” whose woes, some years later, afforded a theme to a British poet. It was in such work as this, together with that devolving upon him as a member of the legislature of the young state, that he passed the first years of the war. He let it be known, however, that neither Quaker principles nor other duties would prevent his going to the front, if his services became more necessary there than at home. Accordingly, we find, in 1778, that the court of Bedford “ doth recommend to his Excellency, the Governor, Charles Lynch as a suitable Person to exercise the Office of Colonel of Militia in this County.” He accepted the commission, and immediately went to work to organize what able-bodied men still remained in the county into a regiment of cavalry.
For two years after Lynch received his commission as a militia colonel the war was waged outside of Virginia, and he and his regiment were not called to the field. But in 1780 the British determined to shift the war to the South, and the scene changed. Lord Cornwallis was dispatched to roll up the American line from Georgia to the river Dan, and then to cooperate with General Philips and Benedict Arnold, who were sent to Norfolk, in subjugating Virginia. The course of the campaign that followed need not be traced here : it forms an interesting passage in every standard textbook of American history. At first Cornwallis’s success on his march to the north was such as might have been expected from his eminent ability, whilst the devastations of Philips and Arnold in Virginia spread terror and dismay throughout the colony. The prospects of the Southern patriots were dark.
It was under these circumstances that Colonel Lynch found it necessary to take those steps that have given his name a world-wide notoriety.
From the beginning of the movement for independence there had been Tories in Bedford. Numerous records of the county courts, taken together with other sources of information, show that here, as in many other western counties, there was a strong and influential party opposed to the struggle for independence. For the most part they were quiet, thrifty men, far different from the ruffians and desperadoes that prejudice has since represented them to be. So long as the British forces were at a distance, the same means commonly applied in other parts of the country had sufficed to prevent them from giving trouble; they were placed under heavy bonds, were confined to the forks of rivers, or were kept under close supervision by the justices and militia officers. But as Cornwallis approached from the south, these Bedford Tories believed the time had come when they might do something for the cause they had at heart. They therefore entered into a conspiracy to upset the county organization, and to seize for the use of Cornwallis on his arrival the stores that Lynch had collected for Greene’s army in North Carolina. Tradition says that Colonel Lynch was made aware of the conspirators’ plans by one of their own number. He had them all arrested, and found among them some of the leading men of the county; two of them, indeed, Robert Cowan and Thomas Watts, had formerly been his fellow justices on the bench of the county court. It was a very serious situation. Lynch himself was on the point of setting out with his regiment for the east, to oppose the British under Benedict Arnold. To leave these domestic foes at large was to invite disaster ; to be hampered with them as prisoners on the rapid march he was forced to make was out of the question. What was to be done with them ?
Rough as were the lives of these western pioneers, and bloody as were their frequent encounters with the Indians, they were no ruthless destroyers of human life. In moulding the character of the people, in teaching respect for life and property, in enlarging the sphere of the Quakers’ gentle influence, no man had been more active than Colonel Lynch. The records of the county court bear strong testimony to the peaceful and orderly conduct of the inhabitants, to the humanity and Christian principles that governed their conduct. Too little attention has been paid by historians to such records, in studying the civilization borne by the Anglo-Saxons in their western expansion. Most of the business transacted by the Bedford court was of a civil nature ; criminal cases were few. “ John Williams in order to take up fifty Acres of Land made Oath that he was imported from London into this Colony about eight Years ago and that this is the first Time of proving the Same.” “ Ordered that George Thomas be fined twenty-five Shillings for prophaine Swearing and Costs.” “ Ordered that the Church Wardens of Russel Parish bind out the Children of Joseph Richardson, deceased, according to Law.” “ George White’s Ear Mark [to distinguish his cattle, grazing in the forest along with those of his neighbors] a Swallow Fork in the left Ear and a Half Moon under it and a Slit in the right Ear. Ordered to be recorded.” “The Grand Jury returned, and presented James Robinson for prophaine Swearing, and not having any other Presentments to make were discharged.” Such are typical selections from the Bedford records.
The infliction of capital punishment was extremely rare. There were only three instances of it, and these for most heinous offenses, between the organization of the county and the Revolution. The first case was on May 24, 1756, when the court assembled “ to hear and determine all Treasons, Petit Treasons, Murders, and other Offences committed or done by Hampton and Sambo belonging to John Payne of Goochland, Gent.” “ The said Hampton and Sambo were set to the Bar under Custody of Charles Talbot [then sheriff] to whose Custody they were before committed on Suspicion of their being Guilty of the felonious Prepairing and Administering Poysonous Medicines to Ann Payne, and being Arraigned of the Premises pleaded Not Guilty and for their Trial put themselves upon the Court. Whereupon divers Witnesses were charged and they heared in their Defence. On Consideration thereof it is the Opinion of the Court that the said Hampton is guilty in the Manner and Form as in the Indictment. Therefore it is considered that the said Hampton be hanged by the Neck till he be dead, and that he be afterwards cut in Quarters, and his Quarters hung up at the Cross Roads. And it is the Opinion of the Court that the said Sambo is guilty of a Misdemeanor. Therefore it is considered that the said Sambo be burnt in the Hand, and that he also receive thirtyone Lashes on his bare Back at the Whipping Post. Memo : That the said Hampton is adjudged at forty-five Pound which is ordered to be certified to the Assembly [that his owner may be remunerated according to law].” That it was a convincing proof of his guilt, and not race prejudice, that led the court to impose this savage punishment is evident from the fact that in the same year a negro was tried for murder, another for poisoning, and a third for arson, and all were cleared.
It appears, then, that both custom and sentiment were violently opposed to visiting capital punishment upon the detected Tory conspirators. But fines and warnings would evidently be inadequate, for they had already been imposed to little purpose for numerous minor offenses in aiding the enemy, and this was a much more serious case. After careful deliberation, Colonel Lynch, as the presiding justice, sentenced them to terms of imprisonment varying from one to five years. Robert Cowan, who seems to have been the ringleader, was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and a fine of £20,000. The fine was not so heavy as it seems, for in that year the prices fixed by the court were : rum and brandy per gallon £40, corn and oats per gallon £2 8s., dinner at an 舠 ordinary ” £4 10s., etc.
Such was the result of the trial that has made the name of Lynch a byword and a hissing in the tongues of the nations!
In passing these sentences, comparatively mild though they were, the county court was transcending its powers ; the General Court alone had jurisdiction in cases of treason. After the war, therefore, the Tories that had suffered at his hands threatened to prosecute Colonel Lynch and his friends, and the affair attracted wide attention. To avoid the trouble of a lawsuit. Lynch had the matter brought up before the legislature, of which he was still a member; and after a long and thorough debate, that aroused the interest of the whole country, the following act was passed : —
舠 Whereas divers evil-disposed persons in the year 1780 formed a conspiracy and did actually attempt to levy war against the commonwealth, and it is represented to the present General Assembly . . . that Charles Lynch and other faithful citizens, aided by detachments of volunteers from different parts of the state, did by timely and effectual measures suppress such conspiracy, and whereas the measures taken for that purpose may not be strictly warranted by law although justifiable from the imminence of the danger, Be it therefore enacted that the said Charles Lynch and all other persons whatsoever concerned in suppressing the said conspiracy, or in advising, issueing, or exacting any orders or measures taken for that purpose, stand indemnified and exonerated of and from all pains, penalties, prosecutions, actions, suits, and damages on account thereof,
“ And that if any indictment, prosecution, action or suit shall be laid or brought against them or any of them for any act or thing done therein, the defendant or defendants may plead in bar and give this act in evidence.”
The proceedings in Bedford which the legislature thus pronounced to be illegal, but justifiable, were imitated in other parts of the state, and came to be known by the name of Lynch’s Law. In justice to Colonel Lynch, it should be remembered that his action was taken at a time when the state was in the throes of a hostile invasion. The General Court, before which the conspirators should have been tried, was temporarily dispersed. Thomas Jefferson, then the governor of the state, was proving himself peculiarly incompetent to fill the position. The whole executive department was in a state of partial paralysis. It was, therefore, no spirit of insubordination or disregard of the law that induced Lynch to act as he did. There were few men living more inclined than this simple Quaker farmer to render due respect in word and deed to the established authorities.
But the seed that had been sown sprung up and bore evil fruit. When a legislative body has expressly admitted that circumstances may arise under which breaches of its laws are justifiable, it has enunciated a dangerous principle. It struck deep root in the minds of Lynch’s fellows on the western frontier, and they transmitted it to their descendants, who carried it constantly with them as they rolled that frontier back to the westward and southward. It is the principle on which it is attempted to justify the practice of lynching to the present day : men believe that circumstances may arise under which measures, though not strictly warranted by law, are justifiable from the nature of the offense ; and those circumstances, now as in the days of Colonel Lynch, consist in the weakness of the executive. In districts that are thinly settled and comparatively poor it is impossible to keep up a sufficient police to enforce the laws. Men are obliged to protect themselves against dangers that they believe are threatening, because there is no one else to whom they can look for protection. The gravest social danger arising from such a condition is this : that when the members of a community have once become accustomed to self-help against misdoers, they are slow to lay aside the practice. The feeling comes to prevail that, after all, no injustice is done in lynching a criminal; that such summary punishment, in fact, is more effective, is a stronger deterrent, than that meted out by the slow process of law.
When he had suppressed the Tory conspiracy, Colonel Lynch set out with his regiment for the east. With his Rough Riders of the west, he aided in checking the invasion under Benedict Arnold and in driving him back to the sea. Then, accompanied by his eldest son, a lad of sixteen, he led his men to join Greene in North Carolina, and was in time to take part in the battle of Guilford Court House. His services on the field of battle with his farmer cavalry have been worthily described by General R. E. Lee, in his history of his father’s regiment ; they were such as to call forth special commendation from General Greene, who kept Lynch with him until the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.
After that event Colonel Lynch resumed his duties as justice of the peace and member of the Assembly. Time and again, as before the war, we find him mentioned in the court records as active for the welfare of the community. We find him acting as umpire to settle the little disputes of his neighbors ; as executor of the estates of his friends, as one by one they passed away ; as guardian of the orphan; as overseer of the poor; in nearly every field where a man of honor and firmness was needed. He lived to see his country free and peace declared with England, to renew his friendship with those of his Tory neighbors that had felt his severity in time of war, to see the government of the United States reorganized, and to vote for the new Constitution in 1788. In 1796 he died, at the age of sixty, and was buried at his home on the banks of the Staunton, in a country which he had found a primeval wilderness, where the savage and the beast of prey shared the supremacy, and which he left a prosperous, peaceful, and lawabiding community.
Thomas Walker Page.