Founding Fathers Friday: Richard Stockton

by Derrick G. Jeter

“The public is generally unthankful, and I will never become a Servant of it, till I am convinced that by neglecting my own affairs I am doing more acceptable service to God and Man.”
Such was the sentiments of the aristocratic Richard Stockton. But he must have thought that his service to this unthankful public was more acceptable than simply keeping up with his vast “affairs” for he was a man who suffered for serving the public (the only signer, in fact, to suffer as a result of his signature on the Declaration and not simply as a result of warfare).
Like others, Stockton had little to gain from independence but much to lose. He was from a prestigious New Jersey family—his father was a wealthy judge and landowner and the man who donated the parcels on which the College of New Jersey (Princeton) was built. Stockton was a partner in a prestigious law firm, having studied under some of the best law professors in England. He lived in the prestigious mansion in Princeton, Morven. He was married to the prestigious poet Annis Boudinot. And he engaged in the prestigious hobbies of horse raising and art collection. Who would want to risk all that on the phantom hope of breaking with the most power nation in the world?
Well, Stockton would. Initially, he favored a situation where Americans could govern themselves while remaining loyal to the king. But as an accomplished lawyer and lover of persuasion—Stockton was, in the words of his son-in-law and fellow signer, Benjamin Rush, “an enlightened politician, and correct and graceful speaker”—his opinion about total independence changed when he heard John Adams speak about independence in June 1776.
Stockton, along with the other New Jersey delegates, voted for independence on July 2, 1776, but it’s unknown when he actually signed the Declaration. But sign it he did—and threw himself into the cause. In the fall of 1776, Stockton and fellow signer George Clymer of Pennsylvania, traveled to upstate New York to inspect the troops. What he saw there appalled him. “There is not a single shoe or stocking to be had in this part of the world,” he wrote to New Jersey signer, Abraham Clark, “or I would ride a hundred miles through the woods to purchase them with my own money.”
Stockton could do nothing for the soldiers in New York, but he could outfit troops in the area around his estate. Hearing that the British were moving toward Princeton, he feed, clothed, and supplied them. Waiting until the troops had moved on, he took his family to friends living thirty miles away, in Monmouth County, and deposited them there in safety . . . or so he thought. Someone recognized him as a leader of the rebellion—a signer of the Declaration—and informed a Loyalists militia. One evening, while sleeping, Stockton was rousted out of bed and taken prisoner. Jailed first in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, he was eventually taken to New York City and imprisoned in Provost Prison, where he would languish for some months.
When Congress received word of Stockton’s ill treatment and that he had fallen ill they passed a resolution instructing General Washington to try and gain Stockton’s release, possible through a prisoner exchange. Its at this point in Stockton’s history that some historians have chosen to blur the facts. One retelling centers on Washington’s skill as a negotiator, while the another centers on Congress’s threat to Admiral Lord Howe with retaliation on British prisoners. Neither is true—though both certainly protect Stockton’s patriotic reputation. Early in the war Britain’s Admiral Lord Richard “Black Dick” Howe and his brother, General William Howe offered pardons to any rebel who signed a paper of allegiance to the king and ceased their their rebellion. Some 4,800 Americans took up the brother’s offer, including Richard Stockton. John Witherspoon, Stockton’s friend and fellow New Jersey delegate, stated in a 1777 letter that Stockton “signed Howe’s declaration” and that he was released and at home at Morven, sick and dispirited, and the target of wagging tongues for his dishonorable “action.”
Stockton, to his great credit, however did revoke his allegiance to George III and reaffirmed his allegiance to the United States in December 1777. His true friends and colleagues in Congress overlooked his moment of weakness, understanding the hardship he had suffered and that he only signed the Howe brother’s document in order to gain his freedom, not as a repudiation of his commitment to American independence. George Washington, after Stockton died, wrote to his wife: “Be assured we can never forget our friend at Morven.” And if Washington vouched for his patriotism then the matter, as far as the other signers went, was settled.
Stockton did suffer in prison, even refused food for a twenty-four hour period of time, and emerged a weakened man—though he did recover his strength by 1779. Unfortunately, his renewed health was short-lived. In 1780, he developed a cancerous growth on his lip, which he had painfully removed without anesthesia. But the cancer spread to his throat and killed him in 1781, just a few months before the end of the war.
Richard Stockton must have come to the conclusion that neglecting his own affairs was more acceptable service to God and man, for no signer suffered as his did because of his signature on the Declaration. And who’s to say that any of us wouldn’t have done what he did if thrown into prison and mistreated for our principles? If Stockton could have looked into the future he would have seen that the public isn’t really unthankful. Their gratitude is seen in the statue that graces the United States Capitol, in the naming of Stockton college at Rutgers University, and in the little New Jersey hamlet that bears his name.