What did Francis Lewis do?
Continuing series on the Signers of the Declaration of Independence
Francis Lewis was born in Wales, child of Reverend Francis and Amy Lewis. Both parents died by the time he reached age four, and his care devolved upon his mother’s sister, who was not married. His aunt made sure he learned Welsh and had basic schooling. At about age twelve, he was sent to his father’s relatives in Scotland and there learned Gaelic. Continuing his journey between relatives, he then went to Westminster, where he learned English, Latin, and Greek, becoming a classical scholar. He was also trained in mathematics and business, as his goal was to become a merchant.
Upon reaching the age of majority, he inherited property from his father, and sold it, using the proceeds to emigrate to New York City and enter into business with Edward Annesley in 1735, taking with him trade goods. New York at that time was small and unable to absorb all that Francis brought with him, so he took the remainder to Philadelphia and sold them for a handsome profit. After two years in Philadelphia, he then returned to New York and prospered in trade. Around 1738 he married the sister of his partner, one Elizabeth Annesley, then twenty-three years old.
Elizabeth was reputedly a woman of high character and undaunted spirit, who lived through many privations during the wars to come.
By the beginning of the French and Indian War, Francis had established himself as an able entrepreneur and merchant, supplying the British troops with goods for the war effort. He traveled widely through Europe in these efforts and was twice shipwrecked on the Irish coast. Finally, during one supply run, the French captured his vessel and imprisoned him in France until 1763.
When released, he returned to New York, and a grateful British government gave him a large land grant. He re-entered the merchant business and prospered greatly. Favor with the British did not last long, however. He quickly became outraged at the British interference in commerce, and joined the Stamp Act congress. He likely was a leader in the New York chapter of the Sons of Liberty.
He and Elizabeth had two sons and a daughter. His namesake, Francis Lewis Jr. followed his father into business, while his other son eventually became a colonel in the regular Continental Army. After a short time near Flushing, the family moved to Long Island, where Elizabeth remained for the rest of her life, except for a brief period fleeing British troops.
Due to his standing in business, in 1775 Francis was elected to the Continental Congress. He turned his business affairs over to his son and began political life full time. He served on revolutionary committees and was a strong advocate for independence, in a state largely controlled by Tories. Forbidden to vote for independence, he nonetheless signed the Declaration on August 2.
Declaration of Independence – the cost to the signers
His signature on the document left him open to British reprisal. When the British captured Long Island, they burned both his Long Island and Flushing residences. Elizabeth fled, but was captured and put in prison. Eventually she was released in a trade for the wives of British officials, but her time in prison ruined her health, bringing about her death in 1779. The grief-stricken Lewis immediately left Congress, but remained on the Board of Admiralty until 1781, at which time he abandoned politics altogether. He lived in retirement with his sons, and died in 1802 at the age of 89 in New York City. He was buried there in an unmarked grave in the yard of Trinity Church.