By July of 1776 a Continental army had been fielded and had met British Regulars in several bloody engagements. But the boldest move for independence came not on a battlefield but at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia where Richard Henry Lee read his resolution stating that all political connection between the American Colonies and the British Crown is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
If there was a “Let there be light” moment or a “Big Bang” of American democracy that was it – a new political cosmos had exploded into being, changing forever the idea of human liberty and with it a history that is still unfolding today. With that one dramatic statement it became crystal clear to the entire Philadelphia assemblage that this was no longer idle talk for a redress of grievances – but a proclamation of open rebellion by the American colonies against the greatest empire on earth since Rome ruled the world.
In a charged atmosphere, bristling with excitement and energy, a lanky, reticent, Virginia planter, with a near miraculous talent for composition, would supply the rhetorical gunpowder and, with magisterial prose, elevate what could still be considered a nasty political quarrel into a grand, sweeping, universal monument of human liberty.
Thomas Jefferson’s graceful, elegiac lines in the Declaration of Independence erupted over the countryside like thunderclaps from the heavens, their rhythmic cadences illuminating the political skies like flashes of heat lightening: “In the course of human events” – “We hold these truths to be self-evident” – “all men are created equal” – “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” – “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – “to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
When a woman was asked what she thought of Hamlet upon seeing the play for the first time, she opined, “that it seemed to be full of quotes.” Can we say, 233 years after the fact, anything less about the language of the Declaration with its soaring aspirations for the rights of man and the dignity of the person. The ideas of 1776 were seen as revolutionary and radical. But could a patchwork of colonies defy a great kingdom? When the signatories scrawled their names on the parchment declaring independence, it seemed rather than signing the birth certificate for a new nation they had instead signed their own death warrant.
The Crown could not let such an audacious proclamation about colonial independence and the universal rights of mankind go unchallenged. The leaders in Philadelphia would now have a price on their heads and soon, the British authorities hoped, a rope around their insolent necks. Few, however, would feel the wrath of British indignation more than an enterprising merchant from Whitestone, Long Island, named Francis Lewis.
The life of Francis Lewis reads like an adventure novel. Orphaned at a young age, he immigrated to British America where his grit and innate shrewdness made him a small fortune. His business affairs took him around the world, investing him with a cosmopolitan outlook as well as an understanding of the caprice of fate when he was shipwrecked off the coast of Ireland. Back home in America, he found himself right in the very nest of the French and Indian War. He was serving as chief aide to the commander of Fort Oswego, Colonel Mercer, when the French commander, General Montcalm, swept over the outnumbered and outgunned garrison killing Colonel Mercer and capturing Lewis where he was imprisoned in Quebec and then France before he was exchanged for an English prisoner. For his selfless service and conspicuous bravery on behalf of the Crown, Great Britain awarded him 5,000 acres of land.
Moving his family to Whitestone, Long Island, in 1765, he now found himself at odds with the Mother Country and joined the Sons of Liberty in protesting Britain’s Stamp Tax as an attack on Colonial self-rule and taxation without representation. Ten years later, as a member of the Continental Congress, he surrendered any hope of the colonies bridging the great divide with the Crown. Now overwhelmingly for separation from Great Britain, he had affixed his name to the Declaration of Independence.
A bold gesture, since he well knew British Redcoats had seized Long Island where his wife and family resided on a handsome estate. Retribution was at hand – and it would be swift and merciless. The British dragoons made their way quickly and stealthily toward the Lewis’s home and began to randomly pillage and plunder the mansion. Despite the urgings of her servants, Elizabeth Annesley Lewis, as defiant and committed to the cause of independence as her husband, refused to leave until the soldiers finally dragged her off the premises.
Torching the great house, the angry red and yellow flames furiously licking the night sky served as a warning to all those who would have the temerity to oppose the King. In the compass of an hour, the spacious estate, with all its memories and mementos, was left in a smoking, steaming ruin. Elizabeth Lewis, imprisoned in a cold dank cell, was not allowed a change of clothing and was fed only the coarse and scanty food doled out to the other prisoners. By testimony of all, she stoically bore these severe privations uncomplainingly.
Meanwhile, word got back to Philadelphia that the British were making an example of Elizabeth Lewis for the treason of her husband who in recent months had been exhausting his wealth to help finance the fledgling Continental Army. Her plight came to the attention of General Washington, who knew desperate times called for desperate measures. He summarily ordered the arrest of the wives of two British public officials in Pennsylvania with a dire warning that unless an exchange was arranged, they would be subjected to the same treatment as Mrs. Lewis.
The exchange was made but it was obvious that Elizabeth Lewis’s health and constitution had been broken by her long, brutal imprisonment and she died in 1779 as the American Revolution raged on, as much a casualty for the cause of independence as any soldier on the battlefield. Two years later, the revolution was won and the Declaration was again read in every city of the new United States of America.
The triumph, for which Francis Lewis sacrificed so much, touched him deeply. He had lost his wife, his home and suffered financial ruin from which he never recovered – but America was free.
An occasion of public remembrance, as July 4th clearly is, reveals as much about the past as it does the present. No great nation can divorce itself from its past without destroying its future. The celebrations, the fireworks, the patriotic display of American flags are all important when taken in the context of what the human cost for freedom has been. And, if you happen to be driving this July 4th (or, for that matter, any day) on or near Francis Lewis Boulevard, which extends almost the entire north-south length of the Queens borough, perhaps you will pause to remember the sacrifices of Francis Lewis and his family (the Lewis’ had a son who fought in the Revolution and became governor of New York, and a great-grandson who died at Gettysburg to save the Republic his family had helped forge) and utter a little prayer of gratitude for those whose virtues made possible this great nation and all its abundant blessings.