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.” 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?”
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. 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.
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.
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 . . . .” 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, 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. 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. 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.” 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.”
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. 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.”
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.
Lt. Col. 33d Regt.
December 29, 1776
To Col. Elisha Lawrence of the New Jersey Volunteers
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.” 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.” 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.
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.” 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.
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.” 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). The next day, Hancock informed Robert Treat Paine, “Stockton it is said, & truly, has received General Howe’s protection.” 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.”
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.” 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.” 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.”
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. 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.
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. 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.” 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. 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.
 Quoted in Howard W. Smith, Benjamin Harrison and the American Revolution (Williamsburg, VA: Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1978), 42.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Quoted in Alfred Hoyt Bill, A House Called Morven. Its Role in American History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954), 38.
 Smith, Letters of Delegates 5:256, n. 4.
 Ibid., 465, n. 4.
 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.
 Extract of a letter from Philadelphia, December 30, 1776, in Massachusetts Spy, January 30, 1777, and Norwich Packet, February 3, 1777.
 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”).
 Bill, A House Called Morven, 40.
 B. Rush to R. H. Lee, December 30, 1776, in Smith, Letters of Delegates 5:706.
 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”).
 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.
 J. Hancock to G. Washington, January 6, 1777, in Smith, Letters of Delegates 6:40.
 Bell, “Primary Sources on Richard Stockton,” September 8, 2008, at boston1775.blogspot.com (search “Richard Stockton”).
 B. Rush to R. H. Lee, January 7, 1777, in Butterfield, Letters of Benjamin Rush, 1:126.
 E. Boudinot to G. Carlton, October 2, 1783, in Smith, Letters of Delegates, 21:10; see also Bill, A House Called Morven, 40.
> E. Gerry to J. Warren, December 23, 1776, in Smith, Letters of Delegates 5:641.
 A. Clark to J. Hart, February 8, 1777, in ibid., 6:240.
 J. Hancock to R. T. Paine, February 9, 1777, in ibid., 247.
 J. Witherspoon to D. Witherspoon, March 17, 1777, in ibid, 6:454-56.
 Minutes of the Council of Safety of the State of New Jersey (Jersey City, NJ: John H. Lyon, 1872), 178.
 W. Smith Diary Entry, July 10, 1779, in Sabine, Historical Memoirs of William Smith, 2:130.
 Benjamin Rush Recollection, in Rush, Autobiography, 147.
 B. Rush to G. Morgan, November 8, 1779, in Butterfield, Letters of Benjamin Rush 1:245.
 B. Rush to J. Rush, April 21, 1784, in ibid., 327; see also ibid., 245, n. 3.
 Bell, “Richard Stockton and the Creation of a Legend,” September 18, 2008, in boston1775.blogspot.com (search “Richard Stockton”).
 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.