Lee was born on October 14, 1734, at Stratford Hall plantation in Westmoreland County. He was the fourth surviving son of Thomas Lee and Hannah Harrison Ludwell Lee. After Lee’s parents died in 1750, he was left under the guardianship of his oldest brother, Philip Ludwell Lee. Philip Lee decided that Francis Lee was best suited for the life of a farmer and ended his formal education. Consequently, Lee was not educated in England, as his older brothers had been; his schooling never progressed beyond that acquired under the tutelage of a Reverend Craig, who lived at Stratford Hall in the mid-1740s.
The relationship between Lee and his oldest brother steadily worsened over the next few years. In 1754 Lee and his siblings brought suit against Philip Lee for not immediately dividing Thomas Lee’s estate according to his will. The lawsuit failed—Philip Lee had wanted to settle his father’s debts before dividing up his property—but Francis Lee and his younger siblings did successfully petition the court to have their cousin Henry Lee appointed as their guardian. When the familial discord threatened to undermine the Lees’ social and political position in colonial Virginia, Francis Lee set aside his differences with his oldest brother and focused on restoring the family’s rank in the colony. Although Lee’s relationship with his oldest brother remained strained, he developed a close bond with his other siblings, brothers Thomas Ludwell Lee, Richard Henry Lee, William Lee, and Arthur Lee, and sisters Hannah Lee and Alice Lee. When Philip Lee finally gave Frank Lee the land he had inherited in far-off Loudoun County, he eagerly took up residence there and was soon called to public service.
In July 1758, after Lee had established his residency in Loudoun County, he won election to the House of Burgesses. Lee joined his brothers Thomas Lee and Richard Henry Lee and his cousins Richard “Squire” Lee and Henry Lee to create a powerful voting bloc in the House. Lee himself, however, initiated little or no legislation other than items that specifically concerned his constituents—for example, he helped draft a bill that allowed Loudoun County residents to pay their taxes in money or commodities. He served, along with his brothers, on the Committee of Propositions and Grievances, and in 1766 was appointed to the Committee of Privileges and Elections. The most significant political development during Lee’s service as Loudoun County representative was the Stamp Act crisis of 1765 and 1766, during which he maintained an inconspicuous role other than to join the Westmoreland Association, formed to protest the act, and sign the Westmoreland Resolves, which outlined the association’s major arguments against the Stamp Act. Lee continued to represent Loudoun County until 1768.
In 1769, Lee married Rebecca Tayloe, the sixteen-year-old daughter of John Tayloe, of Mount Airy. He soon began overseeing the construction of a new residence, Menokin, on a tract of land in Richmond County that he had received as a wedding gift from his father-in-law. That same year, residents of Richmond County elected him as their representative in the House of Burgesses; once again, he maintained an inactive role and attended sessions sporadically. He also served the county as a justice of the peace for Richmond County from 1770 until the collapse of Virginia’s colonial government in 1774, and, for a brief time in 1771, was justice of the peace for both Richmond and Loudoun counties.
Lee left Virginia for Philadelphia in 1775, after accepting anin the Second Continental Congress. There, he and Rebecca Tayloe Lee lived for a brief time with his sister Alice Lee Shippen and her husband, Dr. William Shippen, before leasing a house. As a member of Congress, Lee continued to watch with increasing concern the activities of Virginia’s royal governor, . When Lord Dunmore placed the colony under martial law and offered slaves and their freedom in exchange for service to , Lee moved more decisively in favor of declaring independence from Britain. As his first term in Congress came to a close, delegates to the Virginia Convention appointed Lee to a second one-year term in Congress, which he accepted in June 1776.
During his second term in Congress, Lee witnessed the passage of Virginia’s motion to declare independence, introduced by his brother Richard Henry Lee, and signed the Declaration of Independence. He also witnessed a series of attacks on his family by a cabal who wished to lessen the Lees’ influence in Congress. In spite of these controversies, Lee served on the Board of War and participated in the debates culminating in the adoption of the Articles of Confederation on November 15, 1777.
As his third term in Congress drew to a close, Lee could see that he would be appointed to a fourth. Before accepting it, however, he requested and received a five-month leave of absence in 1778. When he returned to Philadelphia, Lee found his family caught up in another congressional controversy: Silas Deane, who had served as an American diplomat in France alongside Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee, led an attack on the Lee family that involved accusations of corruption and treason. The so-called Lee-Deane controversy embroiled Congress for much of 1778 and 1779. Defending his brothers against their political opponents took a heavy toll on Frank Lee, and he and Richard Henry Lee tendered their resignations from Congress effective May 31, 1779. Lee served in the Virginia Senate from 1778 to 1782; after the British surrender at Yorktown and the beginning of peace negotiations with Great Britain, Lee brought his political career to a permanent end.
Although Frank and Rebecca Lee never had children of their own, they did welcome his brother William Lee’s two young daughters into their home at Menokin in 1785. William Lee had returned from diplomatic service overseas in September 1783 with plans to move his family into an older estate in Westmoreland, called Green Spring, which belonged to the Ludwell family. Before this could happen, William Lee’s wife—still residing in Ostend, Belgium—died suddenly. William Lee then enrolled his ten-year-old son, William Ludwell, in a private school in Williamsburg and asked Frank and Rebecca Lee to care for his daughters, Portia (then eight years old) and Cornelia (five). Not long afterward, William Lee’s health began to decline, and, in 1789, William Lee named Rebecca Lee as his daughters’ guardian in his last will and testament.
By the time he retired from politics in 1782 Lee had already survived his two oldest brothers, Philip Lee and Thomas Ludwell Lee, and his oldest sister, Hannah Lee Corbin. As he focused on his life as a farmer, his wife, and his two nieces, he watched his other brothers pass. Arthur Lee died in 1792, Richard Henry Lee died in 1794, and William Lee died in 1795. In the winter of 1796–1797, at the age of sixty-two, Lee suffered a series of illnesses brought on by the severe weather. On January 7, 1797, Rebecca Lee died, and he followed her just ten days later. They were buried side by side in the Tayloe family cemetery at Mount Airy.