Founding Fathers Friday: Francis Lightfoot Lee

by Derrick G. Jeter

It’s difficult living in the long shadow of an older accomplished brother. Just ask Francis Lightfoot Lee.

Like his big brother, Francis Lightfoot was born in Westmorland County, Virginia two years after Richard Henry. But unlike big brother, Francis didn’t have the opportunity to study or travel abroad. He received a thoroughly colonial education. Under the tutelage of a Reverend Craig, Lee was given, according to an early account, an education not only of “his head but his heart” which “laid the foundation of character, upon which the noble superstructure, which his useful life exhibited, was reared.” This same biographer noted that “On the return of Richard Henry Lee from England . . . Francis, who was then just stepping from youth into manhood, was deeply impressed with his various acquirements and polished manners, and adopted him as a model for imitation.”

And well he may have, for Richard—the Cicero of Virginia—always took the lead while Francis followed in the shadows. But this is not to say that Francis was a wall flower. In Congress, Benjamin Rush made this observation of Francis: “He was brother to Richard Henry Lee, but possessed I thought a more acute and correct mind.”

While Richard Henry was haranguing against British tyranny with his sweet and persuasive voice, and offering up resolutions for independence, Francis Lightfoot was doing some heavy lifting of his own—quietly apply that acute and correct mind in the House of Burgesses and then in Congress.

Francis was instrumental in the formation of Virginia’s Committee of Correspondence in 1773, signed the document calling for a Virginia convention, and was elected to Congress in 1775. Once in Philadelphia, Francis, never a polished speaker, yielded the congressional floor to Richard. But what Francis lacked in eloquence he made up for in sound judgment, unwavering dedication, and tireless persistence, toiling on thankless but important committees such as the board of war and the military and the marine committees.

Francis of course supported Richard’s resolution of independence and voted in the affirmative on July 2, 1776. And like the majority, signed the Declaration of Independence on August 2, 1776.

Ever loyal to country and family, Francis resigned his seat in Congress in 1777, after Richard got tangled up in the Silas Dean affair. Richard’s and Francis’s brother Arthur was serving the patriot cause in France as an ambassador at the time, along with Benjamin Franklin and Dean. The French had agreed to provide munitions and supplies to the Americans, to which Arthur accused Dean of personally profiting. During the investigation, Richard took the side of his brother. And when it was discovered that Dean was innocent of profiteering—albeit guilty of sloppy bookkeeping—Richard’s political star began to fall. When Richard wasn’t reelected in 1777, due to the Arthur Lee–Silas Dean debacle, in protest Francis resigned.

Francis’s resignation was never taken seriously. And when Richard was finally reelected to Congress in 1779, Francis returned to Philadelphia and found his seat right where he had left it.

Francis did leave Congress for good at the end of the year. Besides placing his name on the Declaration, his most notable service to America was serving on the committee which drafted the Articles of Confederation. When the Articles were replaced by the Constitution, Francis was a staunch supporter, in opposition to Richard. This was one of the few times when Francis and Richard differed politically. Richard wouldn’t support the Constitution unless it was amended with a Bill of Rights. Francis would take the document as is. Both eventually got what they wanted, but for a time Francis had stood independent of his older brother and came out of the shadows.

When Francis returned home from Philadelphia he was promptly elected to the Virginia state senate, where he served for four years. He left politics altogether afterward and lived out his life with his wife, Rebecca. Though he tended a plantation, one biography stated that Francis “possessed . . . ample wealth [which] he used . . . like a philosopher and a Christian in dispensing its blessings for the benefit of his country and his fellow men.”

Francis died on January 11, 1797, of pleurisy (a severe cold). A few days later, Rebecca passed away of the same malady.

Almost a hundred years later, in 1877, Mark Twain mused on Francis Lightfoot Lee and wrote: “This man’s life-work was so inconspicuous, that his name would be wholly forgotten, but for one thing—he signed the Declaration of Independence. Yet his life was a most useful and worthy one. It was a good and profitable voyage, though it left no phosphorescent splendors in its wake. . . . In short, Francis Lightfoot Lee was a gentleman—a word which meant a great deal in his day, though it means nothing whatever in ours.”

It means very little in our day as well. But perhaps we could “adopt him as a model for imitation” and try to make it mean something great today.