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Lynch, Charles

Lynch, Charles

LYNCH, CHARLES. (1736–1796). Militia officer, possible source of the phrase "lynch law." Virginia. Born somewhere in Virginia in 1736, Charles Lynch was elected a justice of the peace in 1767 and expelled from his Quaker meeting for taking the oath of office. Entering the House of Burgesses in 1769, he retained his seat until the Revolution. He signed the Williamsburg protests against taxation in 1769 and 1774, attended the state constitutional convention in 1776, sat in the House of Delegates until 1778, and raised troops. On 24 February 1778 he was made a colonel of militia. In 1780 he led the militia in an extra-legal campaign in southwest Virginia, holding drumhead (informal and extra-legal) courts and punishing Loyalists, slaves, and striking Welch miners with whippings and forced service in the Continental army. Many scholars argue that these actions inspired the phrase "lynch law," though others credit Captain William Lynch (no relation) of Pittsylvania, Virginia, with giving his name to organized extra-legal violence in 1780.

At the end of 1782 the Virginia assembly declared Charles Lynch's actions legitimate. In the spring of 1781 he led a regiment of 200 Virginia riflemen south to reinforce Nathanael Greene. Many of his men were ex-Continentals whose enlistments had expired. With the elite Delaware Continentals of Captain Robert H. Kirkwood, his volunteers formed the infantry of William Washington's new legion. At Guilford Courthouse, on 15 March 1781, Lynch and Kirkwood held the right flank of Greene's first line, performing well in the battle. Lynch's men remained with Greene in the Carolinas until General Charles Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. Lynch returned to his duties as justice of the peace, and later served inconspicuously in the state senate between May 1784 and December 1789. Lynch died at his home in Campbell County, Virginia, on 29 October 1796.

SEE ALSO Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina; Washington, William.


Waldrep, Christopher. The Many Faces of Judge Lynch: Extralegal Violence and Punishment in America. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

                              revised by Michael Bellesiles

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