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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Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Martyrdom of Richard Stockton

In June 1776, the New Jersey convention elected Richard Stockton (1730-1781) as a delegate to the Continental Congress. He was one of the colony’s leading attorneys, and under the Crown had received appointments to the governor’s Council and the high court.

Stockton arrived in Philadelphia in time to take part in the debate about independence. Initially cautious, he became convinced that the colonies had to break from Britain, and was one of the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence. In the next few months, he was active in the Congress’s efforts to build up its army, traveling north to inspect Fort Ticonderoga.

In the fall of 1776, the British military returned to the thirteen colonies in overwhelming force and swept Gen. George Washington’s troops off Long Island, out of New York City, and down through New Jersey. A squad of Loyalists took Stockton prisoner and turned him over to the royal authorities. As a result, Stockton is one of the prominent figures in the essays that discuss how much the Declaration’s signers suffered for their beliefs.

In a 1965 essay for American Legion magazine, T. R. Fehrenbach wrote:

Stockton, a State supreme court justice, had rushed back to his estate, Morven, near Princeton, in an effort to evacuate his wife and children. The Stockton family found refuge with friends—but a Tory sympathizer betrayed them. Judge Stockton was pulled from bed in the night and brutally beaten by the arresting soldiers. Then he was thrown into a common jail, where he was deliberately starved.

A horrified Congress finally arranged for Stockton’s parole, but not before his health was ruined. Finally the judge was released as an invalid who could no longer harm the British cause. He went back to Morven. He found the estate looted, his furniture and all his personal possessions burned, his library, the finest private library in America, destroyed. His horses had been stolen, and even the hiding place of the family silver had been bullied out of the servants. The house itself still stood; eventually it was to become the official residence of New Jersey’s Governors.

Richard Stockton did not live to see the triumph of the Revolution. He soon died, and his family was forced to live off charity.
A very similar, less detailed passage appears in the essay Rush Limbaugh attributes to his father.

The short, often-circulated article “The Price They Paid” doesn’t mention Stockton by name, but some of the essays analyzing it refer to him:
  • Prof. E. Brooke Harlowe: “Five signers were indeed captured by the British, but not necessarily as traitors. Richard Stockton (NJ) was the only one who was probably captured and imprisoned just for having signed the Declaration of Independence.”
  • Snopes.com: “Richard Stockton of New Jersey was the only signer taken prisoner specifically because of his status as a signatory to the Declaration, ‘dragged from his bed by night’ by local Tories after he had evacuated his family from New Jersey, and imprisoned in New York City’s infamous Provost Jail like a common criminal.”
Where does all that information come from? The phrase “dragged from his bed at night” appears in Stockton’s entry in the nine-volume Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, compiled by John Sanderson and Richard Waln, Jr., and published in the early 1820s. Its full account reads:
On the thirtieth of November, he was, together with his friend and compatriot John Covenhoven, at whose house he resided, unfortunately captured by a party of refugee royalists, through the treachery of a man acquainted with the place of his temporary residence, dragged from his bed by night, stripped and plundered of his property, and carried by the way of [Perth] Amboy to New York.

At Amboy he was exposed to the severity of extremely cold weather, in the common gaol, which barbarity, together with his subsequent treatment in New York, laid the foundation of the disease which terminated his existence in 1781. On his removal to New York, he was ignominiously consigned to the common prison, and without the least regard for his rank, age, and delicate health, for some time treated with unusual severity. He was not only deprived of the comforts, but the necessaries of life, having been left more than twenty-four hours without food, and afterward afforded a very coarse and limited supply.

The inhuman treatment which he received, so repugnant to the principles of civilized warfare, and so intolerable to an individual who had been accustomed to all the comforts and delicacies of life, depressed his spirits and seriously affected his health.
Apart from the dates when Stockton was captured and when he died, however, the Biography of the Signers offers few specifics about his activity from 1777 to 1781. The book states no sources for its information, either.

Later authors added details and made connections that aren’t in the Biography of the Signers entry. For example, that early source says nothing about Stockton being “brutally beaten,” as Fehrenbach wrote. Several writers in the late 1800s said that the Congress’s resolution on Stockton’s behalf in early January 1777 secured his release, possibly in an exchange for prisoners that the Americans held, but no one gave the date for that release or exchange. This UShistory.org site even says, “He was not released until several years later, badly treated and in very poor condition.”

All accounts agree that Stockton never recovered from his horrid confinement. William Nelson’s New Jersey Biographical and Genealogical Notes, published in 1916, stated: “When released his health was hopelessly shattered, and he was an invalid until relieved by death, February 28, 1781, at Princeton.” The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, published in 1904, declared that Stockton “died as much a martyr to the cause of independence as if he had received a mortal wound in battle.”

TOMORROW: How reliable are those statements?

(Come on, regular Boston 1775 readers. You know where this is going.)

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