So what do documents from 1776 and 1777 tell us about Richard Stockton, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and what he experienced as a British captive? How might those primary sources help to explain the discrepancies between what his family and friends said about him when he died in 1781 and the family tradition that was published in the 1820s?
In mid-1776, official records say, Richard Stockton was elected a delegate to the Continental Congress from the state of New Jersey. He arrived in Philadelphia in time to take part in the vote on independence, then was part of a committee to inspect Fort Ticonderoga. When he returned to New Jersey, the British army under Gen. William Howe was pushing down through that state toward Philadelphia.
According to Stockton’s entry in the Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, a squad of Loyalists captured him on 30 Nov 1776. The 8 July 1778 New Jersey Gazette reported that a jury had convicted Cyrenus Van Mater of “giving information to the enemy, and thereby being the cause of their taking the Hon. Richard Stockton, Esq. and John Covenhoven, Esq. in the month of December, 1776.” (By the time that article was printed, though, the British army had raided Monmouth County and rescued Van Mater from jail.) So let’s guess that Stockton was grabbed on the night of 30 Nov–1 Dec 1776, or thereabouts.
All the following quotations come from Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, part of the Library of Congress’s American Memory website. I haven’t figured out how to link directly to particular documents in that collection, however, so I’m relying on other links when I can find them.
Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia (shown above), who had married Stockton’s daughter, wrote to Richard Henry Lee, a fellow Congress delegate, on 30 December:
I have heard from good Authority that my much hon[ore]d father in law who is now a prisoner with Gen Howe suffers many indignities & hardships from the enemy from which not only his rank, but his being a man ought to exempt him. I wish you would propose to Congress to pass a resolution in his favorHowever, members in Congress were worrying over another rumor about Stockton. Word had reached Philadelphia that he had sworn off the American cause under the terms of a general amnesty offered by Gen. Howe and Adm. Richard Howe. On 26 Dec 1776, Elbridge Gerry wrote home to Massachusetts, possibly to James Warren, saying:
Judge Stockton of the Jersies 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.The Congress wasn’t officially ready to accept that rumor as truth. On 3 Jan 1777, it made a formal complaint about how Stockton had “been ignominiously thrown into a common goal [jail].” Three days later John Hancock as chairman wrote to Gen. George 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.” Congress’s Executive Committee told Washington on 9 Jan 1777: “We suppose the Report about Mr Stockton to be totally false but your Excellency will no doubt know that matter perfectly.” I’m not sure which “report” worried them more—Stockton being in a common jail or him asking the British commanders for a pardon.
Some latter-day sources say Stockton was released in a prisoner exchange, but those usually leave a paper trail and there isn’t any evidence of one in his case. Rather, it appears that the British authorities simply set the judge free. That was part of the Howe brothers’ amnesty policy. If gentlemen gave their word they wouldn’t take up arms against the British Empire again, they were free to go on “parole.” (If they did rejoin the Continental army and got recaptured, then they were liable to be hanged.)
By early February—or after less than three months in captivity—Stockton was back home in Princeton. On the 8th a fellow delegate, Abraham Clark, was seeking a replacement for him in Congress because “Mr. Stockton by his late proceedure cannot Act.” The next day, Hancock told Robert Treat Paine, “Stockton it is said, & truly, has Rec’d General How’s protection.” On 15 February, the New Jersey legislature received the judge’s formal resignation as delegate to the Continental Congress.
On 17 March, another New Jersey delegate, John Witherspoon, wrote to his son:
Judge Stockton is not very well in health & much spoken against for his Conduct. He Signed Howes declaration & also gave his Word of honour that he would not meddle in the least in American affairs during the War.“Mr. Cochran” appears to be Richard Cochran, a Scotsman who settled in New Jersey in 1764 and was an early Loyalist. Even setting aside his story, which Witherspoon clearly wanted to do, the Gerry letter above shows that Stockton had been in Crown custody for less than a month before people in Philadelphia heard that he had forsworn the independence movement. How long Stockton was in a jail cell is unclear, but he was definitely back home in less than three months. By 29 April Stockton was apparently shopping for furniture.
Mrs. Cochran was sent to the Enemies Lines by a flag of Truce and when Mr. Cochran came out to meet his wife he said to the Officers that went with the flag that Judge Stockton had brought Evidence to General Howe to prove that he was on his Way to seek a protection when he was taken. This he denies to be true yet many credit it but Mr. Cochrans known quarrel with him makes it very doubtful to candid Persons.
At the end of 1777, the New Jersey government summoned Stockton to take another oath of allegiance, this time to the independent state. Finding the record of this oath in the late 1800s forced historians to notice the reports of Stockton’s promise to Howe in early 1777. In the end, however, most authors simply incorporated those events into the established story of Stockton’s terrible suffering: now they wrote that the British had treated him so badly that just to survive he’d had to swear allegiance to the Crown, so badly that he had to leave the independence fight because of poor health.
Not every author has accepted the usual story of Richard Stockton’s martyrdom. Leonard Lundin wrote of the judge’s “temporary apostasy” in Cockpit of the Revolution in 1940, while still accepting that his imprisonment led to his death. Frederick Bernays Wiener wrote a balanced, less than idolatrous article about Stockton in American Heritage in 1975. In Washington’s Crossing David Hackett Fischer may even be a little too critical, citing Stockton only as an American who “turned his coat” when the British army looked like it was winning. I think the situation is in some ways more complex, and in some ways simpler.
TOMORROW: How badly did the British authorities treat Richard Stockton?