Following-up on my passing mention of Rockingham County, Virginia’s delegates to the Virginia Secession Convention in this post the other day, I thought it might be of interest to readers to know a little more about one of those delegates. As the obituary from the New York Times indicates, John Francis Lewis was openly opposed to secession, but was still selected by the people of Rockingham County, the people knowing clearly where he stood on the matter. Not only did he not vote in favor of it, he also refused to sign the Ordinance of Secession.
John F. Lewis, formerly United States Senator from Virginia, died yesterday at his home, at Lynnwood, Rockingham County, Va. He had long been a sufferer from cancerous affection. The disease so affected the sight of one of his eyes that the organ had to be removed about three years ago.
John F. Lewis was one of the most conspicuous figures in Virginia during the reconstruction days. A Whig all his life, and an opponent of secession, the deceased, after the war, became a member of what was known as the True Republican Party. After the close of the war Mr. Lewis advocated a liberal policy on the part of the Federal Government toward the South, and was instrumental in procuring pardons for many Southern men excluded from amnesty by President Johnson’s famous proclamation.
He was twice Lieutenant Governor of Virginia during the most trying and important periods in its history – the first time in 1870, under Gilbert C. Walker, and the second time in 1882, on the readjuster ticker with William C. [E., not C.] Cameron. His election to the Lieutenant Governorship in 1870 was with the understanding that he would be made United States Senator for the long term. This understanding was carried out and Mr. Lewis and John W. Johnston were elected to the United States Senate as the first representatives of Virginia after the reconstruction. Mr. Lewis, who was a member of the State Secession Convention of 1861, was the only member of that body within the present limits of Virginia who refused to sign the ordinance of secession adopted by it. He was elected from his county with the distinct and avowed understanding that he would under no circumstances vote for the secession of the State. He took the ground that secession was as impolitic as it was unconstitutional and from that position he could never be swerved.
Mr. Lewis was born in Rockingham County, Va., on the 1st of March, 1818. He was a lineal descendant of John Lewis, father of Gen. Andrew Lewis and of Thomas Lewis, and the first settler of what is now Augusta County, Va. He was also descended on the maternal side from Col. Charles Lewis, who was killed at the battle of Point Pleasant. He had all his life been a farmer, and belonged to that class of Virginia gentlemen who took a special pride in fine stock, and particularly in thoroughbred race horses.
Mr. Lewis was never a candidate for any public office until 1861, when he was prevailed upon to run as a delegate to the convention which declared in favor of his State seceding from the Union. After President Johnson’s famous proclamation, Mr. Lewis, with others, appealed to Gen. Grant, when President of the United States, to recommend the passage by Congress of a law submitting to a separate vote of the people of Virginia the odious disfranchising clauses of the Underwood Constitution, which was done, and at the election at which the expurgated Constitution was adopted he was elected to the second place on the True Republican candidates, headed by Wells.
Mr. Lewis almost ever since the war antagonized Gen. Mahone and the character of politics represented by him. Although he ran on the readjuster ticket in 1881, and was elected to the Lieutenant Governorship, Lewis was not in full accord with Mahone. Their views on finances at that time probably accorded, but there was no community of sympathy or interest between the two men to any further extent. After 1883, when the Democrats elected the Legislature, and subsequently acquired control of the State Government, Mr. Lewis vigorously opposed Mahone. When the latter was the Republican candidate for Governor in 1889 Mr. Lewis threw his influence against him.
After his retirement from the office of Lieutenant Governor, in 1886, Mr. Lewis took little active interest in public affairs. For the last four or five years he had been in very bad health, and during the last two years was confined to the limits of his farm.
He was of a warm and generous nature, brave, magnanimous, and outspoken, and intensely loyal to his friends. He was a half-brother to Lunsford L. Lewis* of Richmond, the former President of the Supreme Court of Virginia, and father of Sheppard W. Lewis, for many years United States District Attorney for the Western District of Virginia.
*Lunsford Lomax Lewis (1846-1920) was a half-brother to John Francis Lewis. He married Rosalie Summers Botts, daughter of Virginia Unionist John Minor Botts.