Free enterprise is often treasured for the opportunity it presents: anyone who cares to invest diligence and hard work toward an enterprise may some day reap generous rewards from the business and retire in prosperity.
For America’s Founding Fathers, however, that success formula often worked in the opposite direction. Many of them entered the Revolutionary War as wealthy lawyers and merchants, but sacrificed their financial standing in the fight for freedom.
One who embodied that principle, perhaps more than any other, is relatively unknown today. Yet every free citizen owes much to that rabble-rousing signer of the Declaration of Independence, Francis Lewis.
Orphaned as a boy
His father was an Episcopalian minister, and his mother the daughter of a minister. Both died when Francis was just four or five years old, leaving the boy to be taken care of by his mother’s sister. Later, she sent him to live with relatives in Scotland, where he learned the native dialect and developed a love for business.
An uncle saw to it that he gained an exemplary education at St. Paul’s preparatory school in Westminster, then afterwards was apprenticed to a London merchant. Within a few years he felt ready to go it on his own: Francis Lewis bought merchandise with his savings and inheritance, then sailed to New York to set up a trading business.
After prospering for twenty years, however, the unthinkable happened.
At 43 years of age, he was a primary supplier for British troops in their skirmishes against French and Indian forces. Business took him to Fort Oswego, and he was there when the the fort fell to enemy forces (1756). The invaders, drunk on rum, began executing captives, but Lewis somehow convinced the Indians to spare his life.
How could he do that?
Legend has it that the Indian language was akin to the Gaelic Lewis learned as a child—so he was able to communicate with them and plead his case. Others claim a full-scale miracle occurred, allowing Lewis and the Indians to speak with one another to the amazement of both parties. Whatever happened, it was enough to persuade the Indians to turn Francis Lewis over to the French. They, in turn, transported him to Europe and held him prisoner there until the end of the war.
Captivity couldn’t stop him
At 50 years of age, Lewis returned to America, and resumed his business activities. His many connections (both in the colonies and abroad), his frequent travels to procure merchandise, and a 5000-acre grant of land (in payment for his services to the Crown) soon made Francis Lewis a wealthy man.
As he endeavored to teach his son the way of successful business, however, Lewis became more and more critical of the way the colonies were being treated by the King of England. By 1765, Lewis’ opposition to the Stamp Act led him to join an underground group of protestors—the infamous Sons of Liberty. In 1775, he was elected to the Continental Congress.
Not satisfied with giving his time and voice to the cause, though, Lewis proceeded to use up most of his private wealth supplying the Continental Army with much-needed supplies.
In 1776, the now 63 year-old signer of the Declaration of Independence saw his home demolished and his wife taken captive by British soldiers. As a result of the inhumane treatment and conditions forced upon her, she passed away two years later.
Francis Lewis spent the rest of his days serving the young nation and helping his children establish their own business pursuits.
Like so many of his peers, Francis Lewis helped secure the freedom that would allow many others to prosper. But it came at the expense of immense personal suffering, and it required the unselfish giving of his own well-earned fortune.
Such was the destiny of Francis Lewis, Son of Liberty.