Founding Fathers Friday: Francis Lewis

by Derrick G. Jeter

Francis Lewis had a long life, but it wasn’t an easy life. Born in Wales on March 21, 1713, he hadn’t finished his fifth year when both his father and mother died. Little orphan Francis was taken in by an aunt, who raised him as if she was his mother. When he came of age, Lewis did manage to secure an education in Scotland and then in London. And when he turned twenty-one he received a small inheritance. He invested in goods, booked a ticket for America, and off he sailed in seek of a fortune.
At some point before he arrived on the shores of New York, Lewis became a business partner with Edward Annesley. He and Annesley sold their English wares in New York for some years when Lewis decided to expand the business into the largest city in America at the time—Philadelphia. Leaving Annesley in charge of the New York store, Lewis moved to Philadelphia and did business there for two years. Coming back to New York, Lewis married Annesley’s sister Elizabeth. They had seven children, but only three survived beyond infancy.
It didn’t take too long for Lewis to realize his dream of making a fortune. A fortune he reinvested into the business. With an ever watchful eye on the horizon for an opportunity, Lewis conducted business in Russia—no mean feat in those days, especially given the mode of transportation (ship, horseback, and carriage)—and twice shipwrecked off the coast of Ireland. When the French and Indian War broke out (thanks to George Washington), Lewis was the supplier of British goods for the troops at Fort Oswego on the shores of Lake Ontario, near modern-day Syracuse, New York. Unfortunately for Lewis, he was at the fort when it fell to to French General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm in 1756.
Lewis, along with 1,700 British troops, were captured. They were sent across the boarder into Canada and then shipped to France, where Lewis languished for seven years. At war’s end, Lewis was released and he returned to New York. He was awarded 5,000 acres by the Crown for his troubles.
Lewis was back in business. Yet with the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765 and his attendance at the Stamp Act Congress, Lewis became a Son of Liberty, joining a variety of patriot groups protesting the ever encroaching hand of the British Crown into the pockets of her American citizens. Ten years later, and pretty much retired from the mercantile business, Lewis was called from home in Whitestone, Long Island to attend the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Lewis brought his business sense to congressional committees such as marine affairs, foreign affairs, and the Board of Admiralty. He also applied his mercantile expertise to procuring supplies for Washington’s perpetually under supplied army.
Lewis wasn’t one for gewgawing; he was a man of action. But Lewis took the lead in defending George Washington during the Conway Cabal. The cabal involved several patriot military officers and congressmen who sought to replace Washington as the head of the Continental Army. The anti-Washington faction was defeated in Congress and most of the trouble makers were sent to lick Washington’s boot in apology.
When it came to signing the Declaration of Independence, the delegates of New York knew the danger of scratching their John Hancock on the parchment. A British armada was anchored in New York harbor and off the shores of Long Island. To one American soldier the masts of British ships looked like a floating forest. He said, “I declare that I thought all London was afloat.” Within weeks of the August 2 signing, the British attacked Long Island. A man-o-war fired on his home while Elizabeth and their servants were inside. After one shell struck close to where Mrs. Lewis stood, a servant yelled for her to run. But Mrs. Lewis was plucky, she stood her ground and said, “Another shot is not likely to hit the same spot.” Shortly after the bombardment, British troops ransacked the home. One British soldier, believing Mrs. Lewis’s shoe buckles gold, took them, but was disappointed to discover they were fake. “All that glitters is not gold,” she supposedly said.
Lewis’s home was destroyed. But what happened to Mrs. Lewis destroyed her. Thrown into a New York prison, the sixty year old Elizabeth was denied a bed, a change of clothing, and decent food for weeks. No one knew of her fate until one of the Lewis slaves tracked her down. This faithful servant managed to slip her food, clothing, and letters. Though the American government petitioned her release, the British refused. However, when George Washington heard about Mrs. Lewis’s treatment he ordered two prominent Tory (loyalist) wives placed under house arrest. Only then did the British liberate Mrs. Lewis, though they denied her passage outside of New York City. She died shortly after, in 1779, at the age of sixty-four.
This was a bitter pill for Lewis. But the bitterness of his life was not over. His only daughter to survive into adulthood secretly married a British officer—after he refused to give his consent to the union—and sailed to England.
The grief stricken Lewis continued to serve in Congress until 1781. He didn’t rebuilt his Long Island home. Rather, he moved in with his sons to live out his days. Lewis died on December 31, 1802. He was almost ninety years old.