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 18, 2008

Richard Stockton and the Creation of a Legend

Within twelve months from the spring of 1776 to the spring of 1777, Judge Richard Stockton of New Jersey went from advocate of American autonomy within the British Empire to Continental Congress delegate to signer of the Declaration of Independence to captive of the British military to subject reaffirming his loyalty to the British Empire and retiring from the independence movement.

Stockton’s oath of loyalty to Britain, attested to in letters of the time, explains why after he died in 1781 his family and minister didn’t even mention his weeks in captivity: that period was an embarrassment rather than a source of pride. That history also explains why people told a less than complimentary anecdote about how Stockton wasn’t chosen to be New Jersey’s governor in 1776, and why the Rev. William Gordon felt safe publishing that story in 1788. The judge wasn’t a revered figure, though he also wasn’t reviled.

Then time passed. Stockton’s widow, Annis, developed a reputation as a patriotic poet and correspondent of George Washington. Their eldest son, also named Richard Stockton (shown above), became the first U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. The couple’s other children were respectable local figures. In the 1820s, the U.S. of A. looked ahead to the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, with special reverence for that document’s signers.

Some of the Stocktons’ children were still alive in that decade. During the Revolutionary War, they had been old enough to understand what their father had experienced and done. Even if he hadn’t told them everything, they must have heard important details. Those aged children might have supplied the details of Stockton’s life in Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence—or those details might have come from the next generation, raised on tales of their grandparents.

Whoever the family sources were, the Richard Stockton story of the 1820s came out as a tale of martyrdom to the cause of American liberty. That biography linked Stockton’s imprisonment, his departure from politics, and his death to make one smooth, heroic narrative. He was so patriotic that treacherous Loyalists made a special bid to capture him and treated him badly, so admired that the Congress made a special effort to get him released. The British treatment was so cruel that he couldn’t go back to working for the cause he was still committed to, so cruel that it killed him before the war was over. Not only did that story skip over the embarrassing bits, but it gave Stockton’s life a more coherent meaning by tying everything together as cause and effect.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the Stockton family created this story and believed it whole-heartedly after the first generation. (Even his children might have convinced themselves it had to be true.) Similarly, historians who focused on New Jersey were prone to retell the tale.

But American authors from outside the family and the state also accepted the Stockton legend uncritically, and some even added more details about his suffering. Historians found evidence of Stockton’s oath to the Crown, and the legend still survived. And not just in the “Price They Paid” essay and similar mythologies. Look on the websites of the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey (opened in 1971), the Morven Institute of Freedom, and even the National Park Service, and you won’t find any hint of the more complex tale. (Princeton University’s page on Stockton is a commendable exception, and after some editorial back-and-forth Wikipedia is more reliable than the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia.)

Many Americans apparently haven’t liked learning that one signer of the country’s founding document later renounced it—and then changed his mind under pressure again. And people of all nations tend to prefer a tidy, admirable legend to more messy human history.

We can see the same thing happening right now with John S. McCain’s biography, and that’s not even over. McCain’s imprisonment in North Vietnam in 1967-73 is well documented, not just because we have lots of papers and video footage, but also through his own memoirs (written with longtime aide Mark Salter). McCain was held in prison for years, much longer than Stockton; suffered much worse treatment; and instead of retiring has served in public office for decades. That’s all beyond dispute. You wouldn’t think anyone would see a need to embellish that story.

Yet, as Peter S. Canellos wrote in the Boston Globe earlier this week, former senator Fred Thompson misrepresented McCain’s history in his speech at the Republican National Convention:

Thompson twisted one of McCain’s most moving revelations—how, while a badly injured POW, he provided some unimportant information to the enemy but felt so disgusted that he wanted to kill himself—into its opposite. “He was offered medical care for his injuries if he would give up military information,” Thompson declared in a sonorous tone. “John McCain said ‘no’.”
Politifact.com called Thompson’s account “false,” noting “he contradicts statements McCain made in his bestselling autobiography.” In fact, McCain made the information-for-medical-care offer to his captors, though not sincerely. He told them he’d talk if they took him to a hospital, secretly planning not to go through with that bargain, and then felt ashamed for compromising even that much. Later, McCain signed an anti-American statement; even though everyone recognized that was a product of torture, he still felt embarrassed.

Thompson’s speech simplified McCain’s real, human history into a false tale of pure heroism, apparently more suitable for prime-time television. And that change was apparently approved by the McCain campaign. It was one of many falsehoods the candidate and his team have told lately, so it was easily overlooked, but it’s the most ironic since it addresses McCain’s personal sense of honor, the quality that he at one point was running on.

Is it any wonder that Richard Stockton’s story—less heroic to begin with, directly tied to the sacred Declaration, and spottily documented—has been embellished and preserved in amber by people who want to admire a Founding Father without doubt?


Anonymous said...

After reading the discussion on Boston1775 of the destruction of Stockton's house and goods -- those bad British! the poor mistreated patriot! or not! -- I picked up _The Winter Soldiers_, by Richard Ketchum. (Ketchum states that he is writing from original sources, although he gives little documentation since he is writing for the general public.) Ketchum is very clear that Stockton's signing of an oath of loyalty to the King, which took place before the battle of Princeton, came as a great shock to persons who had admired him for being an (earlier) signer of the Declaration of Independence, as you have stated. As far as the destruction of buildings and property in Princeton after the battle nearby, Ketchum says that it was begun by American troops, who believed that the town was a nest of Tories -- partly, perhaps, based on Stockton's change of heart. So the story of the good Americans vs. the terrible British takes another hit.

J. L. Bell said...

And it was such a useful, reassuring story, too!

The Stockton family later insisted that they knew details of how the British had dug up two of their three chests of family silver. I’m not at all sure how they knew.

Young Richard and an enslaved man were said to have been at Morven when the British army arrived. But I doubt they stayed long enough to watch all the destruction the family later blamed on that army.