J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, September 05, 2008

Weighing the Evidence on Richard Stockton

Yesterday I quoted from the entry on Richard Stockton in Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence in the 1820s. That nine-volume series seems to have been the first attempt to create a reference guide to all fifty-six of those men, reflecting growing interest as the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration came closer.

It’s clear that the authors consulted Richard Stockton’s family about him. They wrote about his youth and domestic life, and compared his appearance to a portrait the family owned. However, I don’t see the authors acknowledging the family as a main source.

Indeed, at one point they obscured the connection. The Stockton entry reports:

It has been remarked by Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was a member of the same congress, that Mr. Stockton was silent during the first stages of this momentous discussion [on independence], listening with thoughtful and respectful attention to the arguments that were offered by the supporters and opponents of the important measure then under consideration.
Rush was married to Stockton’s daughter Julia.

It’s no surprise that the resulting entry was uniformly laudatory. Here, for instance, is the story of how Stockton nearly became the first governor of an independent New Jersey at the end of August 1776:
William Livingston and Mr. Stockton were the first republican candidates for the office of governor. On the first ballot they received an equal number of votes, but, as the emergency of the crisis required an immediate nomination, the friends of Mr. Stockton were induced to acquiesce in the final election of his competitor. He was, however, immediately chosen, by a unanimous vote, chief justice of the state, which office he declined.
The Biography of the Signers told readers that Stockton lost this election only because his friends had recognized “the emergency of the crisis” and done the right thing. However, in 1788 the Rev. William Gordon (shown above) had written this in his history of the Revolution:
The New Jersey legislature, in the following September [sic], chose William Livingston esq; a gentleman of the law and of first-rate abilities, to be their governor. There was an equal number of votes for him and Mr. Stockton; but the latter having just at the moment, refused to furnish his team or horses for the service of the public, and the legislature coming to the knowledge of it, the choice of Mr. Livingston took place immediately.
The Biography insisted that Gordon’s story “is manifestly undeserving of credit, and would imply a deficiency of patriotism on the part of Mr. Stockton, which never existed.”

The official record of this session of the New Jersey legislature is sparse and offers no confirmation one way or the other. It simply records the tie vote on 30 Aug 1776, and the election of Livingston as governor and Stockton as Chief Justice the next day. I can’t help noting, however, that the Biography entry acknowledged that Stockton still had a “fine stock of horses” at his estate two months later.

Gordon’s anecdote may not be true. It may not even be his—the publishing history of his book is tangled. But that story is evidence that in the 1770s (when he wrote) and 1780s (when he published) people were willing to criticize Stockton in print. Forty years later the Biography authors, influenced by the judge’s family, rejected any detail that might “imply a deficiency of patriotism.” And that must have affected how they described Stockton’s imprisonment by the British authorities.

TOMORROW: Working back to 1781.

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