Founding Fathers - Francis Lewis

Francis Lewis 

Born: March 21, 1713 (Llandaff, Wales)

Died: December 31, 1802 (New York City, NY)

This week, as many kids start counting down the days to Spring Break (and possibly a road trip while school is out) we're going to look at someone from out of town - Francis Lewis.  In addition to being the first signer we've studied that was born outside of the American colonies, he was also someone experienced the cost of independence firsthand.  Born in southern Wales, Francis was the son of a clergyman and his wife, who was herself also the child of a clergyman, named Morgan and Anne.  After losing both parents by the age of five, and with no siblings, the young boy was raised by his wealthy, unmarried aunt.  He received his schooling in Scotland and England before joining a mercantile firm in London.  Once he was 21 years old Francis received his inheritance from his father, which he converted to marketable goods and sailed to America to run his own business.  Alongside his partner, Edward Annesley, Lewis was a successful merchant in New York City and Philadelphia, and after taking part in a number of international trips to Scotland, Africa, and Russia he married Edward's younger sister Elizabeth in 1745 at the age of 32.  The couple would eventually have seven children, but only three would reach adulthood.

Francis Lewis got his first taste of war in 1756 while he was supplying British uniforms during the French and Indian War.  In a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, he happened to be with British Colonel Mersey at Fort Oswego when it came under attack and the commander was killed in battle.  Although the French General Montcalm initially guaranteed the safety of the fort's occupants, he changed his mind after the surrender and gave 30 individuals, including Lewis, to his Indian allies to do with as they pleased.  As a captive, he was able to communicate with the Indians and gain their chief's favor, and they sent him to Montreal with instructions to return him home to his family.  Instead, Lewis remained imprisoned and was sent to France where he was not released until 1763.  The British government gave Lewis a land grant of 5,000 acres as restitution for the many years of life he had lost, so he returned to America and just two years later he retired from business life as a wealthy man and moved to an estate on Long Island.

Now free to focus on public life, Francis Lewis quickly supported the cause of liberty.  The Stamp Act had been passed in 1765 and like many others in the colonies, he resented taxation without representation.  Unlike the hotbed of revolutionaries in Massachusetts, New York was predominantly loyal to the Crown, which caused Lewis to be seen as a radical when he supported groups like the Sons of Liberty.  A provincial government was created to correspond with other colonies, named the Committee of Fifty-one, and Francis Lewis was the 51st and final member to join.  The group voted in 1774 to send delegates to the First Continental Congress and they exercised a significant level of authority and control over New York.  The provincial assembly, however, refused to vote to approve the proceedings of the Continental Congress, becoming the only one of the colonies to not do so.  In 1775 Lewis was named as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and although the New York contingent abstained from the vote for independence due to a lack of clear direction from the assembly, once the remaining 12 unanimously supported independence they eventually joined in signing the Declaration on August 2, 1776.

The Lewis family quickly learned the high price of that decision.  The British immediately attacked New York and although General George Washington was able to orchestrate a miraculous retreat from the Battle of Brooklyn to save his army, the city was taken and remained in enemy hands throughout the remainder of the war.  Francis Lewis learned that his home near the site of the battle had been singled out for attack, and after destroying his house and all of his possessions the British also captured his wife, Elizabeth.  She was denied a bed, changes of clothing, or sufficient food for the duration of her imprisonment, prompting Washington to retaliate by capturing the wives of two British bureaucrats and promising that they would be treated the same until an exchange could be made.  By the time Elizabeth Lewis was returned home, however, her health was badly damaged.  She never fully recovered and, shortly after her husband became one of just 16 signers of the Declaration of Independence to also affix his signature to the Articles of Confederation, she died in 1779 with Francis by her side.  Her husband was devastated and left Congress immediately, and after two years of acting as the Chairman of the Board of Admiralty he retired completely from public life in 1781.  By all accounts his final years were spent enjoyably in the company of his sons and grandchildren, and following in his father's footsteps by serving for three years at New York's Trinity Church as a vestryman.  At the good old age of 89 he died on New Year's Eve, 1802, and was buried in his church's graveyard in a site that remained unmarked for years until a memorial plaque was placed to commemorate him in 1947.

The signature of Francis Lewis can be found as the third name on the fifth column beneath the Declaration of Independence.


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