Founding Fathers Friday: Thomas Lynch Jr.

by Derrick G. Jeter

Thomas Lynch Jr. should have never signed the Declaration of Independence.
In fact, it’s a wonder that South Carolina, that most independent of the original thirteen colonies, sent delegates to Philadelphia at all. And the ones they sent were some of the youngest of the bunch, save one. At the signing Arthur Middleton was 34, Thomas Heyward Jr. was 30, and Edward Rutledge and Lynch were both a mere 26.
Why such young men? Well, South Carolina had no more men readily at hand. Their brightest minds stayed at home hammering out a constitution for an independent colony—independent from Britain and any other form of centralized government. “Why exchange one tyrant 3,000 miles alway for 3,000 tyrants one mile away,” was sort of the sentiment—to say nothing of being governed by a bunch of northern Puritans.
So, in the summer of 1774 the fine folks of South Carolina sent Thomas Lynch Sr. to Philadelphia to see what all the hubbub was about. The senior Lynch was descended from sturdy and independent minded Irish stock. Rich in land and cash, the Lynches had long despised the Crown of England, and Lynch Sr. was a radical patriot . . . for South Carolina, that is. He could be trusted to serve as a stumbling block to empowering a new American government.
However, in the early winter of 1776 the elder Lynch suffered a stroke and was consigned to his bed. Looking for a man to replace him, South Carolina decided upon the younger Lynch—a man who had studied law at the famous training ground for lawyers in that day, the guild in London; a man married to a beautiful young wife, Elizabeth; and a man who would rather concern himself with the maintenance of his plantation on the Santee River. In other words, a man very much like this father.
And like a dutiful son, Lynch traveled to Philadelphia, cared for this father, and served in his stead. Accompanying him were three other young delegates.
The Lynches were the only father-son team to serve in Congress at the same time. Though Thomas Sr. took little to no action in Congress after his stroke. Thomas Jr. himself was no picture of health. He had suffered malaria during military service in South Carolina. But his illness didn’t prevent him from attending to government business. Junior patiently listened to the droning debates throughout the hot and sticky summer of ’76, and in the evenings hurried back to their rented rooms and briefed Senior on all doings. Clearly, Thomas Jr. was affected by what he heard—as were all the young men from South Carolina, for on July 2 they voted in the affirmative for Lee’s resolution of independence and on August 2 they signed the engrossed document.
The elder Lynch was too ill to attend either the vote or the signing. But if you look carefully at the signatures of the South Carolinians there is a space between Rutledge and Hayward, just wide enough for Thomas Sr.’s name. But he never got the opportunity to sign. Thomas Sr. died in Annapolis as his son was taking him home to South Carolina.
Young Thomas was an only child. Inheriting his father’s vast land holdings, Lynch didn’t enjoy the fruits of his life for long. His malaria had grown worse. Under advice from doctors, Thomas and Elizabeth was set sail for the south of France, to see if he could nurse himself back to health in a sunnier climate.
Departing South Carolina in 1779, the sickly Lynch sailed down the east coast of America, heading first to the Caribbean. Historians believe he and Elizabeth made it as far as modern-day Statia, in the Antilles. From there, they board another ship which would bear them to Europe. Somewhere east of the Antilles, it is believed, they ran into a violent storm and sunk beneath the waves. Thomas and Elizabeth were never seen again.
Thomas Lynch Jr. was the second-youngest man to sign the Declaration of Independence and the youngest of all the signers to die. He was 30 years old.