Francis Lewis was born March 21, 1713 in Llandaff, Cardiff, Wales, the only child of Reverend Francis Lewis, an Episcopal clergyman, and Amy Pettingal, the daughter of a clergyman. He was orphaned at about age 5 and went to live with his maiden aunt, an intelligent, compassionate woman of some means. The Pettingal family saw to it that he studied in Scotland, where he learned Gaelic, and later attended the prestigious Westminster School in London.
Upon graduation, Lewis worked as an apprentice at a London mercantile business. When he turned 21 he inherited some properties left by his father. He converted them to merchandise and sailed for New York City, arriving in 1734 or 1735. He left a portion of the merchandise in New York to be sold by his business partner named Edward Annesley, and brought the remainder to Philadelphia, where he lived for two years before returning to New York. There he involved himself in navigation and foreign trade, making several trans-Atlantic trading trips, visiting northern European ports, St. Petersburg, northern Scotland and Africa. Twice he survived shipwreck off the coast of Ireland.
Francis Lewis married the younger sister of his partner, Elizabeth Annesley, on June 15, 1745. She would bear seven children, four of whom would die in infancy. Annesley was an ancient family name in England.
Lewis’ business supplied uniforms to the British during the French and Indian War. Lewis was functioning as a clothing contractor for the British forces at Fort Oswego in August 1756, when the fort was attacked by French forces under the command of General Montcalm and their Indian allies. Lewis was standing next to the fort’s commander, Colonel Mersey, when Mersey was killed in the battle. 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. Lewis re-established himself in business and made a large fortune which enabled him to retire from business in 1761 at the age of 52. It has been estimated by the Encyclopedia of American Wealth that his wealth ranked him fifth among all the signers of the Declaration.
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. From late 1774 on this committee exercised effective control of New York City. 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 county. 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 Indepency, 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 Indepency. We fear it will be difficult to draw the Line; but once possessd of your Instructions we will use our best Endeavours to follow them. 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. A descendant of Francis and Elizabeth, Julia Delafield, wrote a tribute to Elizabeth and her family as follows: In the war of the Revolution Mrs. Lewis had more than one opportunity of showing the steady purpose, the firmness of nerve that would have distinguished her had she been a man………..To Francis Lewis she was Heaven’s best gift. When his adventurous spirit led him to embark on long and perilous voyages, he knew that he left his children to the care of an able as well as a tender mother, who could train their characters as well as protect their interests. The conduct and careers of her children is the best eulogy of Mr. Francis Lewis.
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. 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.
Morgan Lewis, Francis’ son, was an active participant in the Revolutionary War and later in the War of 1812. He married Gertrude Livingston, the daughter of Robert Livingston of Clermont, and took her to Philadelphia to meet his mother a few days before she died. Morgan graduated from Princeton in 1773 and was elected captain of a New York militia regiment, receiving a commission as major when his unit was taken into the Continental Army as the Second New York. In 1776 Major Lewis was aide to General Gates with the rank of colonel and quartermaster-general of the northern army, serving in the campaign that ended with the American victory at Saratoga. After the war Morgan resumed his law practice, was elected a member of the assembly, and became a judge of the court of common pleas in 1791. He was elected Governor of New York from 1804-1807.
In 1812 President Madison offered him the post of Secretary of War, which he declined, but accepted the appointment of quartermaster-general of the armies of the United States. In 1813 Morgan Lewis was promoted to the rank of major-general. He served on the Niagara frontier, captured Fort George and commanded in the campaigns at Sackett’s Harbor and French Creek. Later he helped found New York University. Lewis’ great-grandson, Manny Livingston, died at the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. Lewis has many descendants stretching all the way to Idaho and California. His great-great-great grandson was Hollywood director William A. Wellman. Francis Lewis Park is located on the site of Lewis’ home at Whitestone. The Queens approach of the Bronx Whitestone Bridge crosses over the western side of the property. Winding paths lead to two scenic overlooks equipped with benches which provide spectacular views of the bridge and the East River. A high school in Queens is named for Francis Lewis. Francis Lewis Boulevard, which locals tend to refer to as “Franny Lew”, stretches almost the entire north/south length of the borough. A granite boulder engraved with the name of Francis Lewis is set in a memorial park, along with the other 55 signers, near the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. In the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington is the famous painting by John Trumbull, “The Declaration of Independence.” Francis Lewis is shown in a group of four background figures seated together near the right corner of the room—Francis is the second from the left.
Craig Coley, descendant, 2008
Kathryn Coley, descendant, 2008
- Barthelmas, Della Gray, “The Signers of the Declaration of Independence,” 1997.
- Blatteau, John and Paul Hirshorn, “The Illuminated Declaration of Independence,” 1976
- Collins, Gene, “The Signers of the Declaration of Independence,” 2000
- Coley, Craig, descendant
- Coley, Kathryn, descendant
- Ferris, Robert G. and Richard E. Morris, “The Signers of the Declaration of Independence,” 1982
- Fradin, Dennis B., “The Signers,” 2000 Goodrich, Charles A., “Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence,” 1829 (Internet ref.: ColonialHall.com, link: Biographies of the Founding Fathers.)
- Gragg, Rod, “The Declaration of Independence,” 2005
- Lossing, B.J., ”Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence, 1848
- Malone, Dumas, “The Story of the Declaration of Independence,” 1954
- The Prudential Insurance Company of America, “The Signers of the Declaration of Independence,” date NS ’ signature.