Essay 48 - Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath

It is unlikely that many Americans today, even many New Yorkers, have heard of Francis Lewis. Even though he is one of only sixteen to have signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, he seems not to have had much impact on the political direction or the constitutional development of the country. Still, he was reputed by a 19th-century biographer to have been admired by his contemporaries. Today, Francis Lewis High School in Queens, New York, preserves his name. According to its website, the school is one of the most applied-to public high schools in New York City.

Lewis was born on March 21, 1713, in Llandaff, Wales. He was orphaned by age 5 and raised by an aunt. After attending school in Scotland and England, he became an apprentice at a mercantile house in London. At age 21, he inherited property from his father’s estate, sold it, converted the proceeds to merchandise, and sailed for New York in 1734. He left a portion of the merchandise for his business partner, Edward Annesley, and took the rest to Philadelphia to sell. He returned to New York in 1736.

Having become a successful businessman with contacts in several countries, he was entrusted by the British military with a contract to supply uniforms during the French and Indian War. In 1756, the first official year of that war, Lewis was at Fort Oswego in upstate New York. During his stay, the French and their Indian allies attacked in August. Lewis was standing next to the English commander when the latter was killed in the battle. The British surrendered the fort to the French, and Lewis was captured and eventually taken to France. It has been written that he was kept in a box or crate during that voyage. His harrowing captivity ended through a prisoner exchange when peace was achieved in 1763. Lewis returned to New York. The British government awarded him 5,000 acres in New York as compensation for the lost years of his life.

Lewis once more turned his attention to business, and he quickly prospered. With his large fortune firmly established, he retired from running his businesses and became active in politics. When Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765, he changed his pro-Royalist sentiments and joined the Stamp Act Congress organized to protest the tax.

Thereafter, his political activism deepened. That same year, he was a founding member of the local chapter of the Sons of Liberty, one of a loosely-connected collection around the colonies of silk-stockinged rabble-rousers with their lower-class auxiliaries as enforcers. When the crisis between Britain and her colonies began to worsen, Lewis joined the Committee of Fifty-one, organized in New York in 1774 to protest the closing of the port of Boston to commerce. When the Committee was succeeded by the Committee of Sixty in 1775 to enforce the colonies’ trade embargo against British goods, which had been adopted by the First Continental Congress, Lewis joined that, as well. That committee was replaced, in short order, by the Committee of One Hundred, which directed the colonists’ program against Parliament until the first New York Provincial Assembly met and took over that task on May 23, 1775. The Assembly soon elected Lewis to be a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, where he served between 1775 and 1779.

In the Congress, he signed the Olive Branch Petition on July 5, 1775. That missive, written by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, was a last attempt by the moderates in the Congress to avert war. The petition assured King George of the Americans’ loyalty to him. Dickinson pleaded with the king to create a more equitable and permanent political and trade arrangement between Britain and her colonies than existed as a result of Parliament’s various unpopular and, to the Americans, unconstitutional, acts. The petition failed to achieve its purpose. The King refused even to read it. Instead, on August 23, 1775, he declared the American colonies to be in rebellion. The message of peace and compromise of the Olive Branch Petition likely was undermined by the Congress’ adoption the following day of the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. Drafted in parts by Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson, that document castigated Parliament’s tax and trade policies and its punitive acts. It did so in rather incendiary language, in sharp contrast to the tone of the Olive Branch Petition. As well, John Adams’ letter to a friend, intercepted by the British and forwarded to London, which belittled the petition and complained that the Americans should have built up a navy and taken British officials prisoner, could not have helped the effort to persuade the British government of the Americans’ sincerity.

As the final break with Britain loomed, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. The vote on Richard Henry Lee’s resolution to declare independence, on July 2, 1776, was approved by 12 delegations. Lewis and the rest of the New York delegates had to abstain because they had not yet received instructions from the provincial assembly to proceed. After his delegation received the proper authorization from New York, Lewis and the other members signed the Declaration on August 2.

Lewis used his wealth and business acumen to assist the new country. He is estimated to have been the fifth-wealthiest signer of the Declaration. Before and during the war, he was instrumental in procuring uniforms, arms, and supplies for the Continental Army, both on his own account and through his administrative talents. He strongly sided with General George Washington against the latter’s critics in the “Conway Cabal” who sought to replace Washington with the politically popular, but militarily incompetent, General Horatio Gates. Lewis’ service in the Congress also included approving the Articles of Confederation in 1777 and being Chairman of the Continental Board of Admiralty.

Despite his wealth and his involvement in public affairs at an exceptional time, Lewis was no stranger to personal tragedy. Already mentioned was his loss of both parents as a young child, left also without siblings. Only three of his seven children reached adulthood. Perhaps most traumatic was the fate that befell his wife. Lewis had married Elizabeth Annesley, his business partner’s sister, in 1745. While Lewis was away, in 1776, his house in Whitestone, in today’s Queens, New York, was destroyed by the British after the Battle of Brooklyn. Soldiers from a light cavalry troop pillaged the house, and a warship then opened fire. Worse, the British took his wife prisoner and held her for two years. Historical sources aver that the conditions of her captivity were inhumane in that the British denied her a bed, a change of clothing, or adequate food over several weeks.

Eventually, General Washington was apprised of her situation. He thereupon ordered the seizure of the wife of the British Pay-Master General and the wife of the British Attorney General for Pennsylvania. Both were to be held under the same conditions as Elizabeth Lewis. A prisoner exchange was then arranged, and Elizabeth was released in 1778. She returned to be with her husband in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, her captivity had so ravaged her health that she died not long afterwards, in June, 1779. This episode illustrates the suffering that befell families on both sides of what was, in essence, a civil war. It often was a war between neighbors, former friends, and even family members, not one between organized armies of strangers with different lands, cultures, and languages.

Francis Lewis retired from public service in 1781. Thereafter, he lived a life of leisure, with books and plenty of family time with his two sons and their children. A daughter had married an English naval officer and left North America, never to return, a none-too-rare sad consequence of the war, and one that befell Benjamin Franklin’s family, as well. Lewis died on December 31, 1802.

Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty, Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow. Read more from Professor Knipprath at:

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