Francis Lewis, a founder of the Sons of Liberty and a Signer of the Declaration of Independence

francis-lewis-1713-1803-granger (Francis Lewis, 1713-1803, Print by Granger, fineartamerica.com)

Born in Llandaff, Cardiff, Wales on 21 March 1713, Francis Lewis was the only child of the Reverend Morgan Lewis, an Episcopalian minister, and Am Pettingal, the daughter of a clergyman. Unfortunately, he became an orphan at the age of five and was taken in by a maternal maiden aunt. His mother’s family sent Francis to Scotland to school, where he learned Gaelic, and later attended the prestigious Westminster School in London.

Upon graduation, Lewis became an apprentice in a London mercantile business. At age 21, he inherited a bit of property from his father, which he converted to merchandise and saw it to New York City in approximately 1734, where he claimed a new business partner, a man named Edward Annesley. He left half of the merchandise for Annesley to sell and took the other half with him to Philadelphia. Eventually, he made several journeys back across the Atlantic to visit northern Europe, St. Petersburg, northern Scotland, and Africa. According to all tales, Lewis survived two shipwrecks, both off the coast of Ireland. 

Eventually in 1745, he settled down in New York and married Elizabeth Annesley, the younger sister of his business partner. Together, they had seven children, four of whom died in infancy. His wife’s family held strong business connections in England, and Lewis earned a contract as clothing provider for the British soldiers during the French and Indian War. In August 1756, he was at Fort Oswego when the French and their Indian allies attacked. In fact, he was standing beside Colonel Mersey, the fort’s commander, when Mersey was killed. “The fort surrendered to Montcalm under assurance of safety, but he then allowed his Indian allies to select 30 prisoners to do with as they pleased. Lewis was among the 30 chosen, facing either death or captivity. Fortunately, Lewis found the Native Americans’ language similar to the native language of Wales and was able to speak with them. Their chief treated Lewis kindly and returned him to Montreal, requesting that he be returned to his family. Instead, Lewis was sent to France as a prisoner. He eventually returned to the colonies in a prisoner exchange in 1763, and the British government granted him 5,000 acres of land in New York by way of compensation for the seven lost years of his life.” (The Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence)

Lewis used the grant to reestablish himself in business and was extremely successful, retiring at the age of 52 in 1761. According to the Encyclopedia of American Wealth, Lewis was ranked fifth among all signers of the Declaration of Independence. 

“Lewis now became active in public life. The issue of taxation without representation turned his loyalties from the Crown to the Revolutionary movement, and he became known as one of New York City’s leading radicals. He attended the Stamp Act Congress in 1765 and became a founding member of the Sons of Liberty. The Committee of Fifty, which was formed in New York in 1774 to protest the closing of the port of Boston, became the Committee of Fifty-One when Lewis became the 51st member on May 16. He attended the New York provincial convention and helped set up the colony’s new government.

“In 1771 Francis Lewis helped his son, Francis, Jr., set up a dry goods business called Francis Lewis & Son., and turned the management over to him as it became successful. In 1775 Lewis moved his family and their belongings to an estate he acquired in Whitestone, New York.

“Lewis was elected a representative in the First and Second Continental Congresses, and in 1775 he signed the Olive Branch Petition pledging American loyalty and seeking to resolve the colonies’ disputes with the British government. Lewis rarely participated in the general debates in Congress but was very effective in committee work. His financial experience and business talent made him a valued member of the committees on which he served in Congress, and the wealth that he had acquired was freely expended in the service of his country. Letters dating from the winter of 1775 with other merchants (including Jabez Huntington of Norwich, Connecticut, Jonathan Trumbull, Jr., of Philadelphia, Robert Morris of Baltimore, and Robert Treat Paine of New York) reveal the particulars of his involvement in procuring clothing such as felt hats, buckskin breeches and coats for General Schuyler’s continental army.

“His letters exhibit a strong concern for precise detail, accurate accounting and fair cost in procuring these supplies. Francis Lewis, John Alsop of New York City, and Philip Livingston of Albany contracted with the Secret Committee on October 9 to supply arms and ammunition to the colonies. Benjamin Rush called Lewis “a very honest man and very useful in executive business.”

“The year 1776 saw momentum growing for American independence. On July 2, 1776, Lewis Morris and his fellow New York delegates sent an urgent message to the New York Provincial Congress asking for instructions with regard to American independence: ‘The important Question of Independency was agitated yesterday in a Committee of the whole Congress, and this Day will be finally determined in the House. We know the Line of our Conduct on this Occasion; we have your Instructions, and will faithfully pursue them. New Doubts and Difficulties however will arise should Independency be declared…………We wish therefore for your earliest Advice and Instructions whether we are to consider our Colony bound by the Vote of the Majority in Favour of Independency, and vote at large on such Questions as may arise in Consequence thereof, or only concur in such Measures as may be absolutely necessary for the Common safety and defence of America exclusive of the Idea of Independency. We fear it will be difficult to draw the Line; but once possessed of your Instructions we will use our best Endeavours to follow them.’

150px-Francis_Lewis_signature“Without clear instructions Francis Lewis and the other members of the New York delegation were compelled to abstain from the votes for independence on July 2 and the Declaration of Independence on July 4. Both votes were carried by a unanimous vote of the other colonies, 12 to 0. Within a few days the New York delegation received authorization to join with the other 12 colonies, and on August 2, Francis Lewis joined with most of the other delegates of Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence.

“In a 1776 correspondence with Elizabeth Gates, the wife of General Horatio Gates of Philadelphia, Lewis reported that her son, then in New York, was healthy and applying himself to his studies. He also shared his distress for his family in Whitestone.

“This concern was well founded. Elizabeth Lewis was described as a woman of high character with an undaunted spirit. Elizabeth took up residence at Whitestone in 1765 and remained there despite long absences by her husband and sons. After the Battle of Brooklyn in August, 1776, British Captain Birtch was sent with a troop of light horse to destroy the Lewis home. Elizabeth remained calm as the soldiers advanced and a British warship opened fire on the house. A soldier tore the glittering buckles from her shoes that looked to him like gold but were really just pinchbeck. ‘All that glitters is not gold,’ she remarked to the discomfited young man. The soldiers destroyed books from his valuable library, papers, and pictures, and ruthlessly broke up furniture. After thoroughly pillaging the house they took Elizabeth captive and threw her into prison without a bed or a change of clothing, and with scant food. When this was brought to the attention of General Washington, he ordered the arrest of Mrs. Barren, wife of the British Paymaster-General and Mrs. Kempe, wife of the Attorney-General of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He made it known that his captives would receive the same treatment as Mrs. Lewis unless an exchange was made. The exchange was arranged, but Elizabeth’s health was seriously impaired by her captivity and imprisonment. She joined Francis in Philadelphia in broken health and died in June 1779 with Francis at her side.

“During the winter at Valley Forge, Lewis was a strong supporter of George Washington when the Conway Cabal agitated to replace Washington with General Gates. In November 1778, Francis Lewis signed the Articles of Confederation, one of just 16 signers of the Declaration to do so.

220px-0031TIARA_P1000455 (Memorial to Francis Lewis at Trinity Church Cemetery,  New York City, Wikipedia) “Lewis retired from public service in 1781. He served for a time as vestryman of Trinity Church from 1784-1786. The old age of Francis Lewis was happy and cheerful–literature was an unfailing resource, and he enjoyed the society of his children and grandchildren, who provided him with much amusement. Twenty one years after his retirement, Lewis died on December 31, 1802, at the age of 89. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard of Trinity Church, one of New York City’s oldest and most famous Episcopal churches. A granite marker and bronze plaque were installed there in his memory in 1947 by the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence.” (Society of the Descendants of the Declaration of Independence)

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in America, American History, British history, business, Declaration of Independence, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Francis Lewis, a founder of the Sons of Liberty and a Signer of the Declaration of Independence

  1. Gerri Bowen says:

    Interesting that the native American language of that particular tribe was similar enough to his native Welsh that they could understand one another.

    • I used that fact with the Cherokees in the work I have just finished that is set in 1787 in the Alleghenies.

      • Gerri Bowen says:

        What was thought about that at the time? I know Jefferson was worried the Welsh had gotten here first because that would have given England a good claim to this land. So I wonder if information that supported Welsh being spoken by natives would have been suppressed?

      • I am from WV originally. There are strong Welsh and Irish roots in the area, mainly because of the mining industry. As Jefferson was in Virginia (and WV was part of that colony) that makes sense. I wonder if there’s some way to discover the Welsh influence. Now, you have me going. LOL!

  2. The Episcopalian church came into being in 1789 in the new USA so I imagine his dear ol’ dad was a Church of England minister.
    Seems that quite a few lived to a ripe old age, President John Adams was over 90 years when he died on the 4th July 1825

    • The information listed in the post, Brian, comes from Lewis’ descendants (Craig Coley and Kathryn Coley, descendants, and posted in 2008). I did not feel right in correcting them or questioning them. You are correct that the Episcopalian church began in1789.

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