Francis Lightfoot Lee (10/14/1734 1/11/1797)

Signers of the Declaration of Independence

Last week, we considered another Lee, Richard Henry. Francis Lightfoot, or simply Frank to those close to him was another patriot of the Lee clan. John Adams described them as:

“That band of brothers, intrepid and unchangeable,. . .[who] stood in the gap in defense of their country, from the first glimmering of the Revolution on the horizon, through all its rising light, to its perfect day.”

“This man’s life-work was so inconspicuous, that his name would now be wholly forgotten, but for one thing – he signed the Declaration of Independence.” – Mark Twain

Unlike his elder brothers, he did not journey to England for education. Yet his intellectual pursuits seemed not to suffer greatly.

He was placed under the care of a domestic tutor of the name of Craig, a gentleman distinguished for his love of letters, and for his ability to impart useful knowledge to those of whom he had the care. Under such a man, the powers of Francis Lightfoot rapidly unfolded. He acquired an early fondness for reading and mental investigation, and became well acquainted with the various branches of science and literature.

   The fortune bequeathed him by his father rendered the study of a profession unnecessary. He, therefore, devoted himself for several years to reading, and to the enjoyment of his friends. He was a man, however, in whom dwelt the spirit of the patriot, and who could not well be neglected, nor could he well neglect his country, when the political troubles of the colonies began. His father gave him an estate in Loudon county Virginia, and from there he was elected to the House of Burgesses in 1765, embarking upon his public career. He is noted as one of the founders of Leesburg, Virginia.

Frank met and fell in love with one of the belles of Virginia, Rebecca Tayloe, in 1772. Theirs was a definite love match, as their letters during Frank’s frequent absences attest.

Frank performed as expected, though at times felt the burden of public life, as he wrote to his brother Richard in 1778, ” I do not wonder at your disgust at the wickedness and folly of mankind. I have so much of the same feeling; that I am sure, there can be no condition in Life more unhappy, than to be engaged in the management of public affairs, with honest intentions, but hard as the lot is, it must be borne at least till things have got into a tolerable way.”

Frank labored well for his country, tirelessly, though with no great distinction. Again Mark Twain says of him that he was notable mainly as an archetype of the average, wealthy congressman of his day.

“He wrought there industriously during four years, never seeking his own ends, but only the public’s. His course was purity itself, and he retired unblemished when his work was done. He retired gladly, and sought his home and its superior allurements. No one dreamed of such a thing as ” investigating” him. Immediately the people called him again – this time to a seat in the Continental Congress. He accepted this unsought office from a sense of duty only, and during four of the dark est years of the Revolution he labored with all his might for his country’s best behests. He did no brilliant things, he made no brilliant speeches ; but the enduring strength of his patriotism was manifest, his fearlessness in confronting perilous duties and compassing them was patent to all, the purity of his motives was unquestioned, his unpurchasable honor and uprightness were unchallenged. ”

Mark Twain, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1877

He and Rebecca moved to Richmond, though he continued to represent Loudon County. In the Continental Congress, he served on a number of committees, even chaired a few, but made no great mark for leadership or oratory. When his term was concluded, he retired again to his estate. He issued a few statements in support of the adoption of the Constitution, not having his brother Richard’s reservations, but did not wage a public campaign in support. When called upon to serve in the senate of his new state after the war, he dutifully took up the task, but served one term only, and exited public life entirely, spending the rest of his days with Rebecca. The couple had no children. He died at his plantation in 1797 at the age of 62, and Rebecca followed him into eternity one month later.

Menokin, Lee’s mansion, is largely a ruin today, but there is a restoration project in progress.

Menokin Mansion