Francis Lewis: Lives, Fortunes, Sacred Honor

Mark Cole

Francis Lewis never had it easy. He was orphaned when he was five, and was raised by aunts and uncles in Wales and England. He studied hard and received an excellent education. As an adult, Lewis set sail for New York City in order to create a living as a businessman, wisely using the inheritance his father had left him.

Lewis turned out to be a very good businessman. But nothing ever came easy for him. He traveled the world in order to facilitate his international trade business, and twice he was shipwrecked off the Irish coast. He married the sister of his business partner, and together they had seven children. But four of those children died in infancy. During the French and Indian War, Lewis was assisting the British in Oswego, and was captured and taken to France as a prisoner of war. He was finally returned to the American colonies through a prisoner exchange.

Yet even with all of these difficulties, when he retired from business when he was 52 years old, Lewis was one of the richest men in New York.

You would think at that stage that he might leave well enough alone, but in his retirement, Lewis decided to give politics a try. After all, nothing ever came easy for Francis Lewis, so why should he take the path of leisure in his retirement?

He quickly became a leading spokesman for the independence movement, and was one of the first men to join the Sons of Liberty. He was, appropriately, elected as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress from New York.

In Philadelphia he pledged his life, fortune and sacred honor to the cause of American independence. It would not be long before Lewis’ resolve would be tested.

Almost immediately after the Declaration was signed, a group of British light horsemen destroyed his entire New York estate, including his home, his library, and all of his business papers.

Lewis’ entire fortune was wrapped up in his estate. After 1776, any thought about Francis Lewis enjoying a prosperous retirement was gone forever.

But it was not enough for the British troops to destroy the independence-minded Lewis’ livelihood. They shamefully took his wife prisoner and held her as a captive for several months; no bed, no change of clothes. She was eventually released, but by all accounts the experience was too much for her and she died a year or two later.

We don’t know how Lewis spent his final years, except that since his fortune had been destroyed, he was relatively poor and he was a widower. He never held another political office, he never gave any major speeches, he never published a memoir or sought publicity or sympathy.

Perhaps his neighbors and the people he ran into at church and the market had no idea who he was, or what he had done for them. He just lived on, quietly, until he was nearly ninety years old, dying on New Year’s Eve, 1802.

There is one other thing we do know about Francis Lewis. We know that he was the father of Morgan Lewis, one of the leading men of the post-Revolutionary era. Morgan Lewis was an extraordinary man of character and an incredibly important early American. He was an officer during the Revolution, a lawyer, Attorney General, Chief Justice and Governor of New York. During the War of 1812, Morgan Lewis was Quartermaster General. He later helped found New York University.

Suffice it to say, Morgan Lewis was a chip off the old block. And I’m certain that if you could have asked Morgan Lewis why he did the things he did, he would say that he was only trying to follow the example that was set by his courageous father, Francis Lewis.


Check out Mark’s book: 

Lives, Fortunes, Sacred Honor: The Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence

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I loved the experience that the Patriot Academy gave me. I definitely want to return to the Academy again.



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