I’ve been analyzing the legend of Richard Stockton, often said to be the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to be taken prisoner solely for signing that document. Most biographies of Stockton say that the British authorities treated him harshly, leaving him a broken man who died shortly afterwards. That version of Stockton’s life leaves out several awkward historical details:
- He was imprisoned for fewer than thirteen weeks, probably even less time than that.
- To gain his release he accepted an amnesty from the British commanders and promised to abandon the independence movement.
- There’s no evidence from Stockton’s lifetime or shortly afterward that he was mistreated. Even a generation later, his family described only exposure to cold and poor food, not the beatings, chains, and other tortures that appear in later accounts.
- Stockton had apparently recovered from the effects of his captivity before dying of an oral cancer.
First of all, to say Stockton became a turncoat by abandoning the Continental Congress leaves out the British point of view. He had already broken his oath of loyalty to the British Empire—as had every other American government and militia official who joined the independence movement. When Stockton accepted a seat on New Jersey’s high court from Gov. William Franklin in 1774, he swore to serve King George III. Yet two years later the judge was signing his name to a document that pledged “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honour” to the cause of breaking away from that king.
Then around the start of 1777 Stockton accepted the British commanders’ offer of pardon and signed an oath that took this form:
I, A. B., do promise and declare, that I will remain in a peaceable obedience to his Majesty, and will not take up arms, nor encourage others to take up arms, in opposition to his authority.And finally at the end of 1777 Stockton swore yet another oath of loyalty to the state of New Jersey.
We can agree that Stockton’s promises of obedience were flimsy, subject to whatever pressure he was feeling at the time. But at the same time I think he was genuinely torn between the empire and the republic. Stockton’s December 1774 proposal on the imperial crisis shows that he would have been happy to remain a British subject under the king as long as the North American colonies had more autonomy. (Most Americans would probably have agreed with that position at the time.) He came to the side of independence at nearly the last minute, after he arrived at the Congress in June 1776.
Furthermore, though Stockton kept swearing allegiance to whatever authority was pressing him at the time, it’s clear that he was under the most pressure of all after his arrest in late 1776. That imprisonment was neither as long nor as painful as later authors have said, but it must have been a shock to his system. As a genteel attorney and judge, he was used to dealing with men who were held in jail—not to being in a “common jail” himself. Cold and lack of good food aside, the hardest part of being imprisoned for Stockton was probably lack of control and uncertainty about his fate. He was a high-born, intellectual gentleman, and he was at others’ mercy.
In late 1776 the infant U.S. of A. appeared to be in the same dire straits. The Crown forces had pushed the Continental Army out of New York and New Jersey. Until the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, weeks after Stockton’s capture, they seemed unstoppable. Hundreds of other New Jersey men swore loyalty to the British king in that period. Those circumstances make Stockton’s choice easier to understand. He appears to have favored American independence, but wasn’t fervent enough to stick to it when it looked like a really lousy idea.
Furthermore, I think it’s significant that there’s no evidence that Stockton offered aid to the British military. In the fall of 1776, just before he was captured, the judge had been busy helping to organize the Continental defenses around Fort Ticonderoga. I haven’t come across any hints that he gave the British commanders sensitive information about that topic.
On returning home, Stockton interpreted his oath as a promise not to help the American side. However, close family members continued to support the independence movement. His son-in-law Dr. Benjamin Rush was a Congress delegate in 1776-77 and a top medical officer in the Continental Army in 1777-78. His brother-in-law (through both wife and sister) Elias Boudinot was commmissary general of prisoners 1776-79 and delegate to Congress off and on from 1778 to 1783. On 4 July 1780, the New Jersey Gazette published a story about ladies raising money for the Continental Army, and it listed “Mrs. R. Stockton” among those with “well known patriotism.” (I should note that the extended Stockton family also contained some Crown supporters as well.)
So I don’t think it’s accurate to say Stockton became a turncoat in 1777, meaning that he switched sides. Rather, I suspect the judge decided, for the sake of his emotional health, to get out of the game altogether. He spent the rest of his life on the sidelines.
TOMORROW: How legends are born.