Was Richard Stockton a Hero?

Critical Thinking

July 18, 2016
by Christian McBurney Also by this Author


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With helpful research from two stalwart Journal of the American Revolution authors, Todd Braisted and J. L. Bell, I have concluded that Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence for New Jersey, while not a traitor to the Patriot cause, should not be celebrated as a great Whig hero.  New Jersey treats Stockton not only as one of its greatest Patriots from the American Revolution, but as one of the greatest New Jerseyans in its history.  Each of the fifty U.S. states is entitled to place two statues of its greatest heroes in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.  One of New Jersey’s two statues is of Richard Stockton.  After reading this article, you may agree with me that New Jersey may want to reconsider its selection.

After occupying New York City, the British army rolled through New Jersey and seized all of Long Island, New York, in late November and early December of 1776. Loyalists, able to call on nearby British soldiers, had the chance to even scores by trying to kidnap supporters of the rebellion. It was not a good place and time for signers of the Declaration of Independence.

It is difficult to imagine now, but when delegates to the Continental Congress strode up to affix their names on the Declaration, it was with some trepidation. While waiting to sign, Benjamin Harrison, a Virginia planter and a large man, told the diminutive delegate from Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, “I will have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.”[1] Many years later, Pennsylvania’s Dr. Benjamin Rush remembered the solemnness of the proceedings in a letter he wrote to John Adams of Massachusetts: “Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the president of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many at the time to be our own death warrants?”[2]

Francis Lewis, a member of the Continental Congress representing New York from 1774 to 1779, after accumulating wealth as a New York City merchant, had purchased a country estate at Whitestone on Long Island. Due to the influence of Tories in New York, Lewis was instructed not to vote for independence on July 1 or July 2. But, patriotic as he was, he signed the Declaration of Independence on August 2. Following the Battle of Brooklyn on August 27, 1776, Long Island was held by the British. Shortly thereafter, while still in Philadelphia serving in Congress, Lewis’s Whitestone house was burned and his farm destroyed, amounting to a loss of some £12,000, on orders of Lt. Col. Samuel Birch of the 17th Light Dragoons. In addition, his wife was taken prisoner and held for eight months before being exchanged for the wives of British officials captured by the Americans.[3] Her health reportedly was ruined while in captivity, and she died in 1779. The grief-stricken Lewis immediately left Congress, but continued to serve on the Board of Admiralty until 1781. He died in 1802 and was buried in an unmarked grave in the yard at Trinity Church in New York City.[4]

John Hart of Hunterdon County, New Jersey, about seventy years old in 1776 and the only Baptist to sign the Declaration, was described by Benjamin Rush as a “plain, honest, well-meaning Jersey farmer, with but little education but with good sense enough to discover and pursue the true interests of his country.” Hart had earned the trust of his neighbors and had been elected several times to the New Jersey Assembly and had served as the Speaker of the House before the legislature disbanded on December 2 in the face of Gen. Charles Cornwallis’s invasion. As British and Hessian troops swept through the Hopewell area, Hart fled to the woods, hiding for a short time in caves and in the Sourwood Mountains. While enemy troops plundered his farm, they did not entirely destroy his house.[5]

Richard Stockton of Princeton, New Jersey, was the only signer taken prisoner specifically because of his status as a signatory to the Declaration. The son of a wealthy landowner, he was born in 1730 at Morven, the family estate and his lifelong home in Princeton. He graduated from the College of New Jersey, later named Princeton University, and then practiced law, becoming one of New Jersey’s best attorneys. He was appointed to the Royal Council of New Jersey and as a justice to the New Jersey Supreme Court. With Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, who later would marry Stockton’s daughter Julia, Stockton sailed to Scotland in 1766 and the two men successfully recruited the Rev. John Witherspoon to become the first president of the college. Witherspoon would become a strong Whig and also become a signer of the Declaration.

As the Revolutionary movement grew, Stockton associated with the Whig cause, although he was a moderate and dreaded the prospect of war. After he was elected to the Continental Congress on June 22, 1776, and had his credentials presented to Congress six days later, he voted for independence and signed the Declaration. Its adoption sparked celebrations at Princeton, centered at the college’s main building. “Nassau Hall,” the Philadelphia Evening Post reported, “was grandly illuminated, and independency proclaimed under a triple volley of musketry . . . .”[6] When Stockton lost his bid for the governorship of New Jersey to William Livingston in a close and bitter vote by the state’s legislature, he remained in Congress.

In late September of 1776, Stockton and fellow delegate George Clymer left Philadelphia to inspect American troops at Fort Ticonderoga and other parts of the Northern Department in upper New York State. After filing helpful reports and recommendations with Congress on November 27,[7] Stockton hurried home, worried about the ongoing British invasion of New Jersey. He removed his family from his beloved Morven to Federal Hall, the country estate of John Covenhoven at Hopewell in Monmouth County. As this county was known for harboring some strong Tories, Stockton would have done better to flee across the Delaware River to Pennsylvania, as did many of his neighbors.

On December 2, Stockton submitted a claim to Congress for his travel expenses.[8] Perhaps that very night, militant Loyalists who had discovered he was staying at Hopewell, seized him as well as Covenhoven. It appears that Stockton’s captors were not simply local Tory civilians, as most histories of the event suggest, but instead were from the New Jersey Volunteers, a Loyalist brigade in the British army.[9] The man who informed the soldiers of the location of Stockton was a local, Cyrenus Van Mater. According to one letter writer from Philadelphia on December 30, Stockton’s captors “treated him with the greatest barbarity, driving him, on foot, through rivers and creeks, with the greatest precipitation, to Amboy, where we hear he lies dangerously ill.”[10] Even prominent Loyalist William Smith recorded in his journal that Stockton’s captors had “apprehended and forced [him] away naked to Amboy, in a most distressed condition.”[11]

The New Jersey Volunteer captors turned Stockton over to the British, who reportedly imprisoned him under harsh conditions at Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Transferred to New York City, he was imprisoned in the infamous Provost Jail like a common criminal. He reportedly was put in irons, kept without food for twenty-four hours, and then given only the coarsest fare.[12] Dr. Benjamin Rush, a fellow signer, wrote to Richard Henry Lee on December 30, “I have heard from good authority that my much honored father-in-law, who is now a prisoner with General Howe, suffers many indignities and hardships from the enemy, from which not only his rank, but his being a man, ought to exempt him.”[13]

On November 30, General Howe had issued a proclamation offering a “full pardon” to anyone who, within sixty days, swore an oath of loyalty to the king. Within a month of his captivity, Stockton apparently signed a declaration of allegiance to the king, giving his word of honor that he would not oppose the Crown. It is not known if Stockton cracked under the pressure of imprisonment or honestly believed that the country should return to Crown rule.

The following document, discovered only recently by Loyalist historian Todd Braisted, indicates the extent to which Stockton had been pardoned by the two British commanders, Adm. Lord Richard Howe and Gen. William Howe:

Lord and General Howe having granted a full pardon to Richard Stockton, Esq., by which he is entitled to all his property, and he having informed that his horse, bridle and saddle were taken from the ferry by some of the people under your command, you will upon receipt of this restore the same horse and such other of his effects as shall come within your department to the said Mr. Stockton at the house of John Covenhoven in Monmouth. I am sir yours, etc.

James Webster

Lt. Col. 33d Regt.

Perth Amboy

December 29, 1776

To Col. Elisha Lawrence of the New Jersey Volunteers[14]

Lieutenant Colonel James Webster’s use of the term “full pardon” strongly indicates that Stockton had sworn an oath of loyalty to King George III.

Congress finally passed a resolution to file a formal remonstrance with General Howe about the conditions of Stockton’s confinement on January 3, 1777, complaining that the signer had “been ignominiously thrown into a common goal [jail] and there detained.”[15] Three days later John Hancock, President of the Congress, wrote to General Washington that while negotiating with the British over military prisoners he should “make enquiry whether the report which Congress have heard of Mr. Stockton’s being confined in a common jail by the enemy, has any truth in it, or not.”[16] But by then Stockton, after having spent only about one month in captivity, was on his way home or may have arrived there already. It appears General Howe allowed the signer to be released and did not wait for him to be exchanged (most histories incorrectly state that he was exchanged). Lord Richard Howe and Gen. William Howe typically allowed gentlemen civilians who had sought the Crown’s protection to be granted paroles and immediately permitted to return to their homes.[17]

When he returned to Morven, Stockton was in poor health. He found that his home had been occupied by some dragoons under Lt. Col. William Harcourt, the captor of Maj. Gen. Charles Lee at Basking Ridge, New Jersey, and that they had plundered some of his furniture and other possessions. Stockton’s son-in-law, Dr. Benjamin Rush, wrote that “The whole of Mr. Stockton’s furniture, apparel, and even valuable writings have been burnt. All his cattle, horses, hogs, sheep, grain, and forage have been carried away by them. His losses cannot amount to less than £5,000.”[18] Elias Boudinot, an important New Jersey Patriot and a brother-in-law to Stockton, later reported that Harcourt’s dragoons had taken away bonds, notes and other personal property worth about £4,000 to £5,000 pounds.[19]

Back in Congress, a rumor began to circulate that Stockton had claimed the King’s protection. On December 23, 1776, Congressional delegate Elbridge Gerry wrote to James Warren in Massachusetts, “Judge Stockton of the Jerseys who was also a member of Congress has sued for pardon. I wish every timid Whig or pretended Whig in America would pursue the same plan, as their weak & ineffectual system of politics has been the cause of every misfortune that we have suffered.”[20] On February 8, Congressional delegate Abraham Clark wrote to signer John Hart that New Jersey was seeking a replacement for Stockton in Congress because “Mr. Stockton by his late procedure cannot act” (meaning he could not serve in Congress and oppose the Crown without violating his recent oath).[21] The next day, Hancock informed Robert Treat Paine, “Stockton it is said, & truly, has received General Howe’s protection.”[22] On February 15, the New Jersey legislature received the judge’s formal resignation as delegate to the Continental Congress.

Writing about the period just after Stockton’s return to Princeton, the Rev. John Witherspoon  on March 17 wrote, “Judge Stockton is not very well in health & much spoken against for his conduct. He signed Howe’s declaration & also gave his word of honor that he would not meddle in the least in American affairs during the war.”[23]

Because he had spent time behind enemy lines, or perhaps due to the rumors of his taking the Crown’s protection, on December 22, 1777, Stockton was called before the New Jersey Council of Safety, then meeting at nearby Princeton, and requested to sign an oath of allegiance to the Continental Congress, “which he took and subscribed the same, and was thereupon dismissed.”[24] Stockton did not turn in any papers related to his oath of allegiance to the Crown, as was required.

Loyalist Judge William Smith of New York kept tabs on Stockton and his journal entries suggest that Stockton harbored some Loyalist views. In July of 1779, Stockton asked Miss E. Livingston to inform Judge Smith that “he dare no longer appear as counsel for the persecuted Loyalists, that they [the Whigs] threaten to mob him, and he finds a tyranny in the Country instead of liberty and law.”[25] This reference likely refers to Stockton’s representing Loyalists whose property was ordered to be confiscated by the state. His son-in-law, Benjamin Rush, alluded to this episode when he remembered Stockton as a man who was “sincerely devoted to the liberties of his country” but who “loved law and order, and once offended his constituents by opposing the seizure of private property in an illegal manner by an officer of the army.”[26]

According to Dr. Rush, it took almost two years after his release from his captivity for Stockton to regain his health, but he did recover.[27] As indicated in the above paragraph, he had recovered enough by 1779 to begin practicing law again. Two years later he died at his beloved Morven estate in Princeton at the age of fifty on February 28, 1781, of a cancer in his neck, after suffering from cancer for more than a year.[28]

Stockton was the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to sign an oath of allegiance to the Crown. It appears that that Stockton was neither a Loyalist nor a fully committed Patriot, and that after his capture, he decided to remain neutral and not to actively favor either side of the war.

Stockton had voluntarily signed the Declaration and prior to his capture had worked diligently for the Patriot cause in Congress. Had he not been captured, he would have likely never had his patriotism questioned. But once captured, it appears that he was not so strongly attached to the Whig cause that he was willing to suffer discomfort in jail and risk death from a disease caught in confinement. In this limited sense, Stockton sacrificed for the American cause; but he was no great hero either.  He may, however, have faced harsher treatment than other gentlemen captives since he was a signer.

In my recent book, Abductions in the American Revolution: Attempts to Kidnap George Washington, Benedict Arnold and Other Military and Civilian Leaders, I explain that Patriot leaders who were kidnapped sometimes faced suspicions that they had been turned to the enemy’s side.  Usually, such suspicions were unwarranted.  But in Stockton’s case, the concerns were warranted.

By the 1820s, as explained by historian J. L. Bell, Stockton’s family had created a myth about Stockton’s patriotism, which many Revolutionary War historians have bought into. The myth is that British treatment of the signer was so cruel that he became ill in captivity and after his release died of the illness before the war ended.[29] In 1888 the State of New Jersey even selected Stockton as one of two New Jersey heroes to have their statues placed in The National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The on-line description accompanying Stockton’s statue indicates that those who selected Stockton were not privy to all of the facts: “Shortly after he signed the Declaration of Independence, he was taken prisoner by the British. Although he remained in prison for only a month, his health was broken. He became an invalid and died at Princeton on February 28, 1781.”[30] While this item and several histories claim that Stockton never regained his health after his captivity, this claim is not accurate.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, each of the fifty U.S. states is entitled to place two statues of its greatest heroes in the U.S. Capitol, and one of New Jersey’s two statues is of Richard Stockton.  A state, if approved by its governor and legislature, is permitted to request the Architect of the Capitol to withdraw a state’s statue from the National Statuary Hall Collection and accept a new one.[31]  The State of New Jersey should consider replacing the statue of Richard Stockton.  It appears that the State originally chose a statue of Stockton based on a history of his life that was inaccurate.

To summarize, I believe Richard Stockton showed great courage in signing the Declaration of Independence.  For that reason, and for other work he performed as a Patriot, I believe he is a hero of the American Revolution.  But because strong evidence indicates that he signed an oath of allegiance to the Crown, I do not believe he should be celebrated as one of New Jersey’s greatest heroes. I believe that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and other great heroes of the American Revolution would be surprised that New Jersey, out of all of its great contributors to the American Revolution, chose Richard Stockton as its top Revolutionary hero.


[1] Quoted in Howard W. Smith, Benjamin Harrison and the American Revolution (Williamsburg, VA: Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1978), 42.

[2] B. Rush to J. Adams, July 20, 1811, in L. H. Butterfield, ed., Letters of Benjamin Rush (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951), 2:1089-90.

[3] F. Lewis to S. Sayre, September 4, 1779, in Paul H. Smith, ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789 (Washington, D.C.: 1977-1987), 13:451; Philander D. Chase, et al. (eds.), The Papers of George Washington. Revolutionary War Series (Charlottesville, VA:  University of Virginia Press, 1996), 7:115, n. 1; Mark M. Boatner, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (New York, NY: D. McKay Co., 1974), 2619.

[4] Robert G. Ferris, ed., Signers of the Declaration. Historic Places Commemorating the Signing of the Declaration of Independence (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1973), 95-96.

[5] John Hart Hammond, The Biography of a Signer of the Declaration of Independence (Newfane,                VT: Pioneer

Press, 1977), 61-62; Boatner, Encyclopedia, 493; Norman H. Maring, Baptists in New Jersey (Valley Forge, PA: The Judson Press, 1964), 73; Benjamin Rush Recollections in Benjamin Rush, The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush. His “Travels Through Life” Together with His “Commonplace Books” for 1789-1813 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1948), 148.

[6] Quoted in Alfred Hoyt Bill, A House Called Morven. Its Role in American History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954), 38.

[7] Smith, Letters of Delegates 5:256, n. 4.

[8] Ibid., 465, n. 4.

[9] The December 29, 1776 orders issued by Lt. Col, James Webster, cited in the main text accompanying note 14 below, indicate that Stockton’s captors were from the New Jersey Volunteers.

[10] Extract of a letter from Philadelphia, December 30, 1776, in Massachusetts Spy, January 30, 1777, and Norwich Packet, February 3, 1777.

[11] W. Smith Diary Entry, January 16, 1777, in William H. W. Sabine, ed., Historical Memoirs of William Smith (New York, NY: W. H. W. Sabine, 1956), 2:66. Most sources state that Stockton was captured on November 29 or 30, and a few state it occurred as late as December 1; but given that Stockton dated a letter December 2, the author has selected December 2 as the date of his capture. The December date is supported by the July 8, 1778 edition of The New Jersey Gazette, which reported that Richard Stockton and John Covenhoven were seized in “the month of December, 1776.” For the most complete discussion of Richard Stockton’s capture, release, and taking General Howe’s protection, see a series of 2008 and 2009 stories by J. L. Bell in his website at boston1775.blogspot.com (search for “Richard Stockton”).

[12] Bill, A House Called Morven, 40.

[13] B. Rush to R. H. Lee, December 30, 1776, in Smith, Letters of Delegates 5:706.

[14] New Jersey State Archives, Dept. of Defense Manuscripts, Loyalist Mss. No. 192-L (found by Todd Braisted and set forth in J. L. Bell, “Richard Stockton’s Release Date,” July 28, 2009, at boston1775.blogspot.com (search for “Richard Stockton”).

[15] Congressional Resolution, January 3, 1777, in Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1907), 7:12-13.

[16] J. Hancock to G. Washington, January 6, 1777, in Smith, Letters of Delegates 6:40.

[17] Bell, “Primary Sources on Richard Stockton,” September 8, 2008, at boston1775.blogspot.com (search “Richard Stockton”).

[18] B. Rush to R. H. Lee, January 7, 1777, in Butterfield, Letters of Benjamin Rush, 1:126.

[19] E. Boudinot to G. Carlton, October 2, 1783, in Smith, Letters of Delegates, 21:10; see also Bill, A House Called Morven, 40.

>[20] E. Gerry to J. Warren, December 23, 1776, in Smith, Letters of Delegates 5:641.

[21] A. Clark to J. Hart, February 8, 1777, in ibid., 6:240.

[22] J. Hancock to R. T. Paine, February 9, 1777, in ibid., 247.

[23] J. Witherspoon to D. Witherspoon, March 17, 1777, in ibid, 6:454-56.

[24] Minutes of the Council of Safety of the State of New Jersey (Jersey City, NJ: John H. Lyon, 1872), 178.

[25] W. Smith Diary Entry, July 10, 1779, in Sabine, Historical Memoirs of William Smith, 2:130.

[26] Benjamin Rush Recollection, in Rush, Autobiography, 147.

[27] B. Rush to G. Morgan, November 8, 1779, in Butterfield, Letters of Benjamin Rush 1:245.

[28] B. Rush to J. Rush, April 21, 1784, in ibid., 327; see also ibid., 245, n. 3.

[29] Bell, “Richard Stockton and the Creation of a Legend,” September 18, 2008, in boston1775.blogspot.com (search “Richard Stockton”).

[30] See online list of statues in The National Statuary Hall Collection at www.aoc.gov/the-national-statuary-hall-collection and search for Richard Stockton.  Accessed March 23, 2016.

[31] See Public Law 106-554, Section 311; see also “Procedure and Guidelines for Replacement of Statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection,” obtained by going to www.aoc.gov.the-national-statuary-hall=collection, clicking on “About the National Statuary Hall Collection,” and clicking on the PDF at the bottom of the webpage where state’s deciding to replace a statue is discussed.  Accessed March 23, 2016.


  • Christian,

    I have to say I don’t recall encountering Stockton, so this was all new to me.

    Legally, he poses an interesting subject when considering the validity of his oath of allegiance. Howe unquestionably had the lawful authority to issue pardons, but the issue I see coming about in Stockton’s case is his mindset he signed it. Clearly, he was being subjected to great physical abuse, so could coercion be raised as a defense on his behalf?

    Or, pursuant to the Law of Nations (and which all military and political leaders of the time were aware of) and the point on which the colonies were arguing to support their claims of independence, could Stockton argue that any allegiance he might have had to them when he signed the Declaration were null and void because he had not received adequate protection in his travels? Under the LON one is not required to submit their allegiance unless the reciprocal obligation of protection by the sovereign is provided. Again, I cannot help thinking that he perhaps rationalized in his own mind that what he was doing was lawful because of this absence of protection. But then, this was a civil war and the colonies had no recognized legal legitimacy on which to insist on his allegiance in the first place. Interesting things to consider in light of the high regard that New Jersey has for him.

  • Gary: You make an interesting point. If Stockton had been subjected to “great physical abuse,” I think he would have had a strong argument that his oath of allegiance was signed under duress and therefore that it should not be respected. But he never made the argument. It is not clear what were the conditions of his confinement. Legend has it that he suffered terribly, but I did not find any good evidence on the matter. The fact that Stockton respected his oath is some evidence that he thought it was valid and enforceable. However, he was in a difficult situation residing in the middle of New Jersey, which was a battleground state throughout the war. If he had violated his oath and had been subsequently captured by the British, the British could have ignored his defense of duress and hanged him (as was the case with Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Hayne of South Carolina, which is the subject of another chapter in my Abductions book).

    1. It is so unlikely that Stockton suffered physical abuse given the context of what was happening at the time, and given his connections to Lord Dartmouth, that it is remarkable that this is suggested at all, and let alone without a shred of evidence to support it. The point behind the Howes’ Declaration was to bring back peace to New Jersey at a time when the British believed that they were victorious (they were making every effort to not create martyrs among the Patriots). It made no sense to torture someone who had provided information to Lord Dartmouth, and, if it had made sense, why would they have just sent him back to Princeton inside 30 days? It is interesting that you only provide half the quote from John Witherspoon. The other half of it refers specifically to Mr. Cochran’s claim that when he was arrested Stockton indicated that he was bringing information to the Howes. This, after all, would have explained why he went to Perth Amboy, while John Covenhoven was taken to New York.

      There are claims that he was ill as a result of his imprisonment. I would refer to two works in this regard to correct this impression. One is Lundin’s Cockpit of the Revolution, which makes the claim on p. 161., fn 57. that Benjamin Rush indicated in Nov 1779 that Stockton was “finally recovered” (suggesting imprisonment as the cause of his ailments). However, this is actually a specific reference to Stockton’s physicians coming to this conclusion after he had had his first tumor removed by Dr. Rush in December 1778. This can be found in Larry Gerlach’s Richard Stockton, Rebel With a Cause, p. 11.

      George Washington did not know Richard Stockton. He struck up a strong relationship with Stockton’s widow. That relationship has its own tale to tell about the rewriting of history.

      The connection, mentioned below, with William Patterson, mentioned below by Joseph Wroblewski, is very suggestive indeed.

      Another suggestive point to note, is that the correspondence of British officials was filled with discussion about the capture of General Lee. It is decidedly odd that there is no peep about Richard Stockton, who, as a Signer of the Declaration, might have been considered an even greater catch.

  • The Wikipedia page on Stockton quotes a March 25, 1777 letter from the Howe brothers to Lord Germain regarding Howe’s proclamation offering pardon:

    “My Lord, We have the honor to enclose to your Lordship a state of the Declarations subscribed in consequence of our Proclamation of the 30th of November. ‘Although none of the Leaders, nor principal Instigators and Abettors of the Rebellion, thought fit to avail themselves of the opportunity given them to return to their Duty’, we have some satisfaction in observing that so considerable a number of His Majesty’s deluded Subjects, of inferior Rank, in those Provinces where the Proclamation could be expect to have Effect, were disposed to relinquish the unjust Cause they had been once induced to support.”

    It says Stockton’s name does not appear on the list the Howes sent.

    What do you make of this? It would seem to me that if Stockton did swear loyalty, the Howes would have been excited the report that fact. Could it be more likely that Stockton was granted a special pardon that did not involve a declaration of loyalty to the king?

  • I suspect that Stockton did receive some deference from the Howes because of his high degree of gentility. He was in correspondence with Lord Dartmouth and other British government ministers before the war, and was one of the top jurists in New Jersey.

    As Christian McBurney says, we have very little evidence of Stockton being treated badly during his weeks in captivity, such as the torture, chains, or cold that authors wrote about several decades later. For his colleagues in the Congress, bad treatment for Stockton would have included him being treated as an ordinary man, not a high-ranking gentleman.

    And that deference might also have included an agreement with the Howes that Stockton would quietly bow out of the war and politics altogether, not becoming a champion of the Crown nor returning to the Continental cause.

    1. Thanks Joshua and J.L. for the interesting discussion. I agree with J.L. that Stockton was probably allowed to sign a special oath. For example, Isaac Hayne of South Carolina was reportedly forced to sign an oath of allegiance, but with the understanding that he would never be asked to take up arms against his countrymen. In effect, he was required to sit out the war (which he did not do, and he was hanged for it, as explained in a chapter of my new book). Stockton was also likely required not to do anything that would support the Patriot cause or harm the Crown’s efforts to quell the rebellion. The fact that that is exactly what he did after his release is strong evidence of it. Thanks, Christian

      1. Thank you for a well researched and documented article. I have been researching Richard Stockton and I find his history fascinating. Your essay was a great help to my research. However, as I read through the article I did question the assertion that , “Within a month of his captivity, Stockton apparently signed a declaration of allegiance to the king, giving his word of honor that he would not oppose the Crown. It is not known if Stockton cracked under the pressure of imprisonment or honestly believed that the country should return to Crown rule” and later, “Stockton was the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to sign an oath of allegiance to the Crown.” I don’t question whether or not he signed a document allowing him to return home. I do question if it was a declaration of loyalty to the king. Perhaps, it was a parole, which were given out by both sides during the war, which merely required that the signer not participate in the action. Mr. John C. Glynn Jr. in his book “His Sacred Honor” shared this idea that what Richard Stockton accepted was a parole. I am curious to what role did paroles have in this time period and hope to do further research in this field. If Richard had accepted a parole, that would offer an explanation why Howe in his letter to Lord Germain, as mentioned earlier, did not report that Stockton had repledged loyalty to the king. This would also explain why there are not any known reports about Stockton turning coats in newspapers and other public sources. For the Tories this would have been a huge victory and seems odd to me that there is not more mention of Stockton pledging loyalty to the crown. As for the reports from the delegates in Congress discussing how Stockton had signed Howe’s document I am hesitant to accept them as fact. I believe, as you stated, the Congress did fear that Stockton had turned. But, perhaps these were just rumors they were listening to. Mr. Glynn’s in his book discusses at greater length his interpretation of the letter by John Witherspoon. He believes that Dr. Witherspoon was simply passing on a rumor that he had heard and did not feel it was true. However, I find the recently uncovered document by Mr. Braisted intriguing. However, minus the term’ full pardon’, I don’t much to suggest in the document that Stockton had signed the Proclamation declaring loyalty to the king. Another interesting point to be made in favor of a parole is that he did not have to turn over protection papers to the Council of Safety of New Jersey, which every other person had to. This leads me to believe that he did not have papers. However, they may have made an exception for him in order to keep the public embarrassment to a minimum. To be frank I believe that more research will be needed in order to determine whether or not Richard Stockton swore loyalty to crown or whether he signed a parole vowing to not participate in the war.
        I also would be hesitant to state his prison treatment wasn’t harsh. We don’t have strong evidence that he was mistreated, but neither do we have strong evidence that he wasn’t mistreated. But, it was even mentioned in the article that, ” When he returned to Morven, Stockton was in poor health”. Having been an outdoors enthusiast my entire life I can testify that even with proper gear it is easy to get sick from the elements. And from the sources provided it would appear he had anything but proper gear to traverse across the New Jersey countryside for twenty miles in nothing but a night shirt and pants. Lets not forget to mention that he was being brought by a group of men who would see him as an figurehead in the patriot movement. I can only imagine that they took their frustration at the war out on him and Mr. Covenhan as they traveled. Add to the mix the New Jersey weather, which appears to have been cold freezing rain. From personal experience as missionary in Southern Chile for two years, which like New Jersey has frigid cold winters where the rain comes down in torrents and pierces you to the bone, and having walked between five to ten miles a day in this weather, I can call his treatment harsh. Several times as a missionary I became sick from spending only hours in the rain, and that was with a rain coat and multiple layers of clothing, not just a nightshirt and pants. I can not imagine what it would have been like traveling the twenty plus mile round trip to Port Amboy in such conditions. Little wonder he became ill is enough to weaken any man. And it is striking that he remained sick after six weeks if he was in comfortable conditions. I find it odd that he would not have recovered from the march, unless of course he was not being held in favorable conditions. However, I do see how perhaps he could have begun to experience the effects of the cancer during his prison sentence and thus return home sick. Yet, I don’t find much evidence in the sources to say that he already was experiencing the effects of cancer. I bring up my personal experiences not to distract from the historical discussion, but I feel that this provided me with a better connection to Stockton and what he may have gone through. As we all know as historians, we don’t truly know what occurred and are only trying to recreate what occurred with what little evidence we do have.
        As to the section where it is mentioned that perhaps Stockton held Loyalist views, I believe much of that stems from his sense of Honor. In a letter written to Benjamin Franklin before the war (found on Founders Online under “To Benjamin Franklin from Richard Stockton, 22 December 1769”. founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-16-02-0168 ) Stockton said, “My interest as a practising Lawyer is opposed to the Bill; but my duty as a member of the Legislature makes it proper for me to urge its establishment.” From my researching I have begun to feel that Richard Stockton was a man of honor who was highly dedicated in insuring justice. I believe that he felt it was wrong for the Patriots to steal Loyalist properties and so thus represented them. To a lawyer this would be an act of anarchism and be a departure from rule of law. But, I feel this subject needs further research as well.
        Again I would like to thank you for a well written essay and for your fair conclusion that Richard Stockton may not be one of the foremost heroes of New Jersey, but is a hero. I would be fascinated in hearing your opinion and any primary sources on him that you could point me to would be welcome.

  • Thanks for this interesting article on Richard Stockton. One thought that came to mind while reading it was Donald Trump’s incredibly absurd claim that John McCain was not a war hero because he was captured.

    I have read the accounts of Stockton’s brutal treatment by his captors before. As an example, this very article recounts Lewis Whitestone’s wife having her health reportedly ruined while in captivity, and she died in 1779. What kind of barbarous people would do this to a woman, simply because her husband was away, still in Philadelphia serving in Congress? So her captivity was at a very similar time as Stockton’s, in the dead of a very rough winter, and every report that I have heard was that he was held and treated in most monstrous conditions on board a ship in Perth Amboy. I think we need to read the evidence again and reflect more carefully on some of the things that Stockton suffered before concluding too quickly that Stockton is not “one of New Jersey’s greatest heroes:”

    According to one letter writer from Philadelphia on December 30, Stockton’s captors “treated him with the greatest barbarity, driving him, on foot, through rivers and creeks, with the greatest precipitation, to Amboy, where we hear he lies dangerously ill.”[10] Even prominent Loyalist William Smith recorded in his journal that Stockton’s captors had “apprehended and forced [him] away naked to Amboy, in a most distressed condition.”[11]

    Similar to the way I would not want to sit in judgement over John McCain for being captured as opposed to dying on the battlefield, I would not want to second guess Stockton’s response to the extreme torture that he experienced, “being driven, on foot [his captors obviously on horseback], in a driving freezing rain, sleet or snow storm or a combination of all three might explain the phrase “with the greatest precipitation” on December 30th, though rivers and creeks, being all the while naked … this all being reported by prominent Loyalist sources ……. From Southern New Jersey, close to his ruined gracious mansion in Princeton [later restored and used as the Governor’s mansion for many decades] to Amboy, New Jersey on the coast which is at least 30 miles away. Maybe the author of this article should be put in a similar circumstance, stripped of his clothes, next winter, and be driven in a blinding storm through rivers and streams on foot, naked and see how he is feeling after the 30 mile journey! This, under anybody’s definition, was extreme torture. Surviving this is like surviving the Baton Death March! It is clear that the capture of a Signer, was being used as a trophy, by whom they hoped to set forth a horrific example. The fact that Stockton, one of the wealthiest men in America, was subject to these barbarous acts helps explains why he died very soon thereafter at just the age of 51. As the Wikipedia article has it:

    When his health permitted, Stockton attempted to earn a living by reopening his law practice and teaching new students. [He had to try something, because all of his livestock, and money was gone, 5,000 pounds is serious money!] …he developed cancer of the lip that spread to his throat. He was never free of pain until he died on February 28, 1781, at Morven.

    What a man might do in the troughs of delirium, in signing an oath of loyalty might be excused. Especially since he so quickly signed an oath of allegiance once back in his home. Remember how those American Sailors recently signed an apology to the Iranians after they had strayed into Iranian waters awhile back? Sometimes you do what you have to do to avoid even worse things befalling you. Maybe Stockton’s situation was like that. But it is clear that his son-in-law Benjamin Rush, who probably attended him as physician in his ruined health, never wrote anything derogatory about his “much honored father-in-law’s” actions, nor his Pastor John Witherspoon. They both consider him nothing but a dear friend, and fellow brother in Christ and co-laborer in the great cause of liberty.

    Stockton and his wife, Annis, were also close friends of General George Washington. After Stockton’s death, Annis, one of America’s first published female poets, became a favorite correspondent of General Washington. Washington and his wife, Martha, were frequent visitors to Morven.

    So the author of this piece should not conclude: “I believe that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and other great heroes of the American Revolution would be surprised that New Jersey, out of all of its great contributors to the American Revolution, chose Richard Stockton as its top Revolutionary hero.” George Washington by his correspondence with Stockton’s widow and frequent visits to their home, showed that he considered Stockton as a great man and most certainly no traitor like Benedict Arnold.

    Most telling however are the words uttered at his funeral among his friends and community by Dr. Samuel S. Smith in his eulogy in Princeton to describe the esteem to which this great man of faith, eloquence and leadership among his peers and the students of the College of New Jersey was held. Many of the congregation in attendance were students at Witherspoon’s college, and they were reminded of the greatness of their fallen hero:

    “Another of your fathers of learning and eloquence is gone. He went before in the same path in which you are now treading [Stockton was an alumni of the College] and hath since long presided over [Stockton was a sacrificial donor and trustee of the College] and helped to confirm the footsteps of those who were laboring up the hill of science and virtue [Stockton often gave lectures at the college, one in front of Governor Boone of New Jersey when the governor was visiting the commencement of 1760, when a 14 year old Rush, in ‘a very sprightly and entertaining manner’ delivered an ingenious English harangue in Praise of Oratory] Smith continues in his eulogy, “while you feel and deplore the loss as a guardian of your studies, and a model upon which you might form yourselves for public life, let the memory of what he was excite you to emulate his fame. …. The office of Judge of a province was never filled with more integrity and learning that it was by him, …. As a Christian, you know that many years a member of this church, he was not ashamed of the gospel of Christ. ….. But if we follow him to the last scene of his life, and consider him under that severe and tedious disorder which put a period to it, there is the sincerity of his piety, and the force of his religion to support the mind in the most terrible of conflicts, was chiefly visible. For nearly two years, he bore with the utmost constancy and patience, a disorder that makes one tremble to think of it. With most exquisite pain it preyed upon him … yet in the midst of as much as human nature could endure, he always discovered a submission to the will of heaven, and a resignation to his fate, that could only flow from the expectation of a better life.”

    Yes, there can be no doubt about it, Stockton was a great hero of New Jersey, a hero among the founders of the United States, a hero among the leaders of the Presbyterian church in America, a hero among the student of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) and a hero of the faith of our Fathers.

    1. In the context of the eighteenth century and the sentence in which it appears, the phrase “with the greatest precipitation” means “at top speed” rather than in speculative freezing rain, sleet, or snow.

  • Doug: Thanks for your comments and taking my article seriously. I won’t repeat all the facts supporting Stockton taking an oath to the Crown. As I stated in the article about Stockton, “I believe he is a hero of the American Revolution. But because strong evidence indicates that he signed an oath of allegiance to the Crown, I do not believe he should be celebrated as one of New Jersey’s greatest heroes. I believe that George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and other great heroes of the American Revolution would be surprised that New Jersey, out of all of its great contributors to the American Revolution, chose Richard Stockton as its top Revolutionary hero.” I stand by that view. Washington may have heard rumors that Stockton signed an oath, but until recently, there was no contemporaneous written support for it. Thus, a myth was allowed to arise about Stockton’s sacrifice, as J. L. Bell has pointed out. Knowing what we know now, is he really one of New Jersey’s top two all-time heroes? That is the narrow question I was addressing. I was not addressing whether or not he was a hero; I said I thought he was. I certainly did not compare him to Benedict Arnold or any other traitor.

    The quotes about the harsh treatment of Stockton from my article all relate to the period when his Tory captors were bringing him to New York. They don’t deal with his treatment when he was in the hands of British generals in New York.

    I agree that British prisons were horrible. I have a chapter in my recent book on how some Patriot leaders were treated in New York prisons. (I also wrote an article on the British treatment of prisoners in Newport, RI). The British generals seemed to think that if their soldiers did not stick a bayonet at you, they were blameless for the horrible conditions, despite the obvious evidence of overcrowding, bad sanitation, malnutrition, rampant disease and frequent deaths.

    There is no reliable evidence that Stockton was treated harshly in New York. I suspect he was not treated as bad as the Patriot captives I describe in the above paragraph (who were taken to New York after Stockton’s departure). Stockton was at the top of the social scale in America and for that reason it is unlikely he was treated particularly harshly by fellow gentlemen of the same or similar class (British officers). Henry Laurens, for example, the former President of the Continental Congress, who was captured in the high seas and held in the Tower of London, was not tortured or treated particularly egregiously (also discussed in my book; the British did put pressure on him to turn, which he did not do). I suspect, like Charles Lee, Stockton was confined to a room or two in a residence or apartment; but unlike Lee, he may not have been generously provided with food and drink.

    Senator McCain was in a totally different situation. The analogy would be if McCain had signed an agreement with his Vietnam captors that, in exchange for being released, he would agree to quit the military and not support the U.S. effort against Vietnam. Of course, he did not do that. Yet as a prisoner he was tortured horribly, both physically and mentally. This torture violated the Geneva Convention and any semblance of norms for treatment of prisoners. McCain could have given in to his captors, with a understandable excuse that his captors were violating all human decency. Yet he never gave in. To me, that absolutely makes him a tremendous hero.

    Thanks, Christian

  • Fascinating piece that sheds a brighter light on Stockton’s vexed status in New Jersey history. He left a line of descendants who enjoyed great wealth and considerable influence — both social and political (even literary) — into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This, no doubt, has made the true nature of his legacy more complicated. One small correction — Witherspoon was the sixth, not the first, president of The College of New Jersey. That honor belongs to Jonathan Dickinson, who played an important role in founding it. Witherspoon was also preceded by Aaron Burr, Sr., who was succeeded by his son-in-law, Jonathan Edwards.

    1. Thanks Josh. Having read Nancy Isenberg’s biography of Aaron Burr, I should have retained that information. Yes, if I had written this article in 1903, it would have received quite a different reception!

  • As to Richard Stockton’s Oath that secured his amnesty from the Howe Brothers, it should be noted that around 2,700 New Jersey men took the same amnesty; a situation that the New Jersey Legislature in 1777 tried to ameliorate when it passed the Writ of Abnegation and Allegiance in which those who took the British oath could now take one swearing loyalty to New Jersey and the United States. Stockton took the New Jersey Oath, but followed the stipulations in what was basically his parole from the British and had nothing more to do with the Patriotic cause. As to no serious repercussions by the Whigs in New Jersey towards Stockton, it might have helped that William Patterson the Attorney General whose responsibility it was to prosecute those expected of treason had studied law under Richard Stockton.

  • I learned at a visit to Morven two interesting facts that go to Richard Stockton’s loyalty. First when fleeing, he left his 12 year son and a slave to care for Morven. This is odd on multiple fronts.

    Also, after Stockton’s return from captivity, he had considerable difficulty reestablishing his law practice and attracting clients.

    Stockton is joined in Statutory Hall by Ethan Allen, another RevWar leader with dubious loyalties!

  • We know from what horrible things he and his family suffered after being released that he was no doubt a worthy patriot at least the British believed it to be so and also his fellow founders did not dispute his commitment to the Revolution. He did recommitt himself to New Jersey and the new republic upon his release.

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