Slaveholders among the Founders. Part 3 of 3.

How many signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 owned slaves?

Out of 56 signers, one-third to one-half of them owned slaves. Estimates vary.

My kinsman who signed as “Thomas Lynch Junior” owned slaves and a plantation as well. He did not free his slaves afterwards. Some of the signers did free their slaves after proclaiming that all men are created equal, but many others—like Thomas Jefferson—kept their slaves indefinitely.

I wonder about the mental landscape of those Founders who did not free their slaves.

Lynch, Fraser, Kirven, Declaration of Independence Signers

Signature of Thomas Lynch, Junior (Thomas Lynch III). Names of other South Carolinians are Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward Junior, and Arthur Middleton. Wikipedia

The Declaration of Independence, with its proclaimed self-evident truths, does seem to rule out slavery. Many in those days believed slavery might soon disappear. The Declaration “gave lyrical expression to a widespread belief that a general emancipation of slaves was both imminent and inevitable . . . [T]here was a prevailing consensus that slavery was already on the road to extinction.” The original Declaration even had a section blaming King George for fostering the nefarious and criminal slave trade, but the Continental Congress deleted this part before the document was signed.

In retrospect, though, the Declaration could not fulfill its implied promise of extinguishing slavery in the colonies. The Congressional debate of 1790 reveals that many slaveholders, especially in South Carolina and Georgia, vigorously insisted that they needed to keep their human property. In that conviction, they resembled the Founders who kept their slaves. And they were like many of my ancestors.

In my view, these slaveholders were wrong. They acted inhumanely (to understate the pont). Yet the more we can fathom their minds, the more wisely we might act to prevent future inhumane convictions, like theirs, taking hold in our society.

Let’s focus on my kinsman Thomas Lynch III, the signer. What values, what pressures did he absorb from his ancestors? Here are his great-grandfather, grandfather, and father:

His great-grandfather, Jonas Lynch (1650-1691), came to South Carolina from Ireland. He had apparently been promised a land grant (see previous 1/27/13 post). He labored in hostile frontier surroundings to leave a small bequest.

His grandfather, Thomas Lynch I (1675-1738), parlayed his modest inheritance into seven rice plantations, worked by hundreds of African slaves. He was a pioneer in rice cultivation. He made a fortune, and he built a comfortable home on the Wando River (see previous 2/2/13 post).

His father, Thomas Lynch II (1727-1776), established himself at Hopsewee on the Santee River, in a house built for him by Thomas Lynch I.  Tidal rice was expanding in South Carolina, and more slaves were needed to work the rice fields. Slave numbers at Hopsewee grew from 11 in 1738 to over 180 in the 1850s. The plantation cultivated 475 acres of tidal rice, using barges to ferry the slaves back and forth to the marshes of Lynches Island. It was an immensely profitable business, and Thomas became a leading planter.

Thomas Lynch II also “married up” and pursued a distinguished public service career. His wife was Elizabeth Allston of Brookgreen Plantation, whose family claimed to trace their tree back to King Alfred the Great. Among his many offices, he served as delegate to the Colonial Congress in 1765 and The First and Second Provincial Congresses in 1775 and 1776, He was a member of the Continental Congress in 1774-1776. (2) He was appointed an advisor to George Washington, along with Benjamin Franklin and Colonel Benjamin Harrison.

The plantation house at Hopsewee still stands today, on the National Register of Historic Places as the idyllic site of the birth of Thomas Lynch III, signer of the Declaration of Independence. It is built of black cypress on a brick foundation, and it measures 40 feet by 50 feet. The piazzas are reminiscent of the West Indies.

Lynch, Fraser

Hopsewee Plantation House, with its location on the Santee River in South Carolina. Wikipedia.


For Thomas Lynch III, these three ancestors gave him quite an act to follow. He was born in 1749 into a family of great status. They had begun as exiles from Ireland, but now they had significant wealth, land, slaves, links to elite families, and a national reputation.

Thomas III may well have been taught, from childhood, that his family’s many accomplishments signified their hard work, virtue, persistence, and inherited strength. After all, their surname was Lynch—they were one of the 14 dominant tribes of Galway.  The young man Thomas may have felt honor bound to uphold family standards of estate management, leadership, and courage. The hypothetical of freeing his slaves, under the principle of “all men are created equal,” may have seemed very small beside his duty to preserve the Lynch name. Alas.

Lynch, Fraser

Thomas Lynch III (1749-1779).

His father gave him a superb education. (3) At age 12, he traveled overseas to study at Eton College, Cambridge (he graduated with honors) and the Middle Temple in London. This high-class education took about 20 years, and he returned to the colonies in 1772. Soon he was a company commander in the 1st South Carolina regiment, adding military valor to his resume.

Then chance and fate intervened.

Thomas Lynch II was serving in the Continental Congress in 1776, while they were working toward the Declaration of Independence, when he was struck by a cerebral hemorrhage.

His son Thomas III was at the time marching toward Charleston with the 1st South Carolina regiment, having recently suffered a violent attack of “bilious fever” (severe intestinal sickness). He had recovered only in part.

At the news of his father’s stroke, he Immediately he asked for leave to join his father in Philadelphia, but was denied by his commanding officer, Colonel Gadsen. The official response to this denial was swift: Thomas III himself was selected as a delegate. He rushed to Philadelphia to his father’s side and found him still alive, but too ill to sign the Declaration of Independence. Thomas III, himself still unwell, signed in his father’s stead, the fifty-second signer at 26 years old.

As father and son traveled home to South Carolina in December of 1776, Thomas Lynch II died from a paralytic stroke. He was buried in St. Anne’s Churchyard, Annapolis, Anne Arundel County, Maryland.

Lynch, Fraser

St Anne's Parish Episcopal, Annapolis, MD.

Thomas III, the bereaved son, retired from public life. He remained ill and often feverish. He stayed at Peachtree Plantation with his wife Elizabeth Shubrick. Eventually on the advice of his doctor, he and Elizabeth sailed to France in 1779, by way of the West Indies. The ship disappeared at sea in a storm, with all passengers, and was never found.

The sharpest clue to young Thomas III’s worldview may have been his will, made before he left for the West Indies.  It stipulated that heirs of his female relatives must change their surname to Lynch in order to inherit the family estate. The family name seems to have been first on his mind. If it ever did occur to him to free his slaves, the felt need to preserve his family name from extinction would have loomed much larger.

As he wrote this strange (to me) provision into his will, he may have suspected he would have no children. And he did not. He is my kinsman, not my ancestor. I descend from his father, Thomas Lynch II, and his sister, Sarah Lynch Baxter. He is my 1st cousin six times removed, according to Ancestry.

What about the other Southern Founders and planters who insisted on keeping their slaves? Did they share the priorities of Thomas Lynch III—concerns arising from a family’s sudden success in wealth and land and title? What can happen to a society that over-values wealth and position?


(1) Joseph R. Ellis, Founding Brothers. New York: Random House, 2000. 89.

(2) His life is summarized in the Biographical Directory of the U. S. Congress, 1774-2005.

(3) article written by Karen Holt, June 2, 2012.


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Published on February 08, 2013 11:46
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