I’ve discussed the length of Judge Richard Stockton’s imprisonment by the British in 1776-77 (about two and a half months, tops), and what his family left out of their telling of the story in the 1820s (that he’d accepted the British commanders’ amnesty and dropped out of the Revolutionary struggle). Now I’ll consider what sources tell us about the conditions he endured while he was in custody.
From 1776-77, we have the complaints from Dr. Benjamin Rush, delegate to the Continental Congress, and from Congress itself. In late December 1776, Rush said he’d heard that the judge, his father-in-law, was suffering “many indignities & hardships from the enemy from which not only his rank, but his being a man ought to exempt him.” The Congress recorded complaints that their colleague had been “ignominiously thrown into a common goal” and “confined in a Common Jail.”
Those reports said nothing about physical abuse. Instead, they focused on the horrible possibility that the judge wasn’t being treated like a gentleman because “his rank” should exempt him from “a Common Jail.” He had been, after all, one of New Jersey’s high court judges under the king, and more recently a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Congress expressed the same concern in other ways. A message to Gen. George Washington on 9 Jan 1777, one paragraph after asking him to find out more about Stockton’s situation, had this to say about the fate of other prisoners:
As you will have Occasion to send in a Flag to Genl [William] Howe we beg leave to suggest the propriety of writing to Lord [Richard] Howe respecting the Ill usage our prisoners suffer onboard the Prison Ships in New York and particularly we cou’d wish his Lordship to be informed that the Officers & Seamen taken onboard British Merchant Ships have not been considered as prisoners of War in this place, but have always been left at liberty to dispose of themselves as they thought proper without restraint, and have very generally got passages to different parts of Europe.Congressmen, being from the nation’s elite, were especially concerned with maintaining the line between gentlemen and ordinary men. They viewed making “no distinction between Master, Mates, Foremast Men & Negroes...[as] an unnecessary cruelty” to prisoners taken at sea. But they weren’t alone in having that value system. Last month I wrote about how deference to gentlemen permeated eighteenth-century society, something that separates us from them.
On the Contrary we find such of our People as are taken onboard Merchant Vessells are either made to work onboard the Men of War or detained onboard the prison Ships under intollerable Ill usage & no distinction between Master, Mates, Foremast Men & Negroes which surely is an unnecessary cruelty on Men who are taken from an innocent pursuit of a Maintainance in that line in which they were bred.
I should note that American authorities also put gentlemen into common jails. For example, when searching for information about Richard Stockton in online sources, I kept coming across references to a Loyalist named Joseph Stockton. On 29 July 1776, the independent New Jersey legislature ordered:
That Joseph Stockton be committed to the common Jail of Somerset, the keeper whereof is hereby commanded to receive him into his custody, and to keep him in close confinement until the further order of this Convention, or future Legislature of this State.Both Joseph and Richard Stockton lived in Somerset County, so they must have known each other; I haven’t been able to figure out how they were related.
It’s possible that the Loyalist and British authorities were physically mistreating Richard Stockton in December 1776, and the Congress didn’t know about it and therefore didn’t complain. However, as I noted last week, Stockton’s minister and wife said nothing about such mistreatment when he died in 1781. Perhaps they thought that doing so would only remind people of how he’d accepted the British amnesty. Perhaps they thought it would be impolitic to speak of a month or two of suffering when the British still held thousands of prisoners of war in New York. And perhaps they didn’t have anything to say about such mistreatment.
Only in the 1820s, in communicating to the authors of the Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, did Stockton’s family describe him suffering physically. They still spoke of the indignities of not being treated as gentleman: “ignominiously consigned to the common prison, and without the least regard for his rank, age, and delicate health.” But they also specified some types of severe treatment:
- The judge was “exposed to the severity of extremely cold weather” while in jail.
- He was once “left more than twenty-four hours without food.”
- The food was bad, and the servings were too small. I know that sounds like a Catskills joke, but the family really did report “a very coarse and limited supply” of food.
The Biography of the Signers description of Stockton’s ordeal is also notable for what it doesn’t include. There’s no mention of him being “brutally beaten” by the Loyalists or British, as T. R. Fehrenbach and other recent authors described. Writers added that detail later, possibly because being “consigned to the common prison, and without the least regard for his rank,” didn’t sound all that horrible as our values changed.
In the 1820s, the Stockton family said that Stockton continued to suffer the effects of British abuse after his release. His exposure to cold in 1776, they said, “laid the foundation of the disease which terminated his existence in 1781,” over four years later. However, on 8 Nov 1779 Stockton’s son-in-law Dr. Rush had written:
Our worthy friend Mr. Stockton continues to mend. All his physicians agree now in pronouncing his recovery complete.I’m not sure whether Rush was speaking of his father-in-law’s recovery from his ordeal in jail, or his recovery from an illness that had arisen in the meantime. In any event, in 1779 he was apparently well enough to ride out for business at Somerset courthouse.
In that year, Stockton developed an oral cancer of some sort. He died in March 1781. I don’t know of a medical connection between exposure to cold and cancer, and suspect that tobacco or genes were bigger factors in Stockton’s death.
TOMORROW: What happened to Stockton’s property?