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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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Richard Stockton Recently Remembered

As I quoted on Thursday, the Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, published in the 1820s, described how Richard Stockton of Princeton, New Jersey, was captured by Crown forces, imprisoned under brutal conditions, and released in such poor health that he could do no more political work. He died a few years later of the effects of his captivity, the authors wrote. And I noted yesterday how that narrative must have reflected how Stockton’s descendants described events in the early nineteenth century.

As late as 1820, however, Stockton’s imprisonment wasn’t central to the national memory of him. That year, a number of newspapers, including the Portsmouth Oracle on 8 July, published a column of short biographies of the men who signed the Declaration. The entry on Stockton said simply:

A judge, and member of the council of the Province. In 1776 he had an equal number of votes in the first balloting for governor of the state with Mr. Livingston, who was subsequently chosen: died March, 1781.
Stockton’s near-election had appeared in the published record of the New Jersey legislature and in the Rev. William Gordon’s history of the Revolution, as quoted here, so it was public rather than family knowledge.

The only private information printed about Stockton before the Biography of the Signers appeared in the sermon that the Rev. Samuel Smith preached at his funeral in 1781. That sermon was published along with two odes by widow Annis Boudinot Stockton, a well known Patriot poet. (The thumbnail picture of her above comes courtesy of New Jersey Public Television and Radio.) Needless to say, that pamphlet had nothing but good things to say about Richard Stockton.

All that pamphlet stated about Stockton’s experiences in the Revolutionary War was:
The office of a judge of the province was never filled with more integrity and learning than it was by him, for several years before the revolution. Since that period he hath represented New-Jersey with dignity in the Congress of the United States. But a declining health and a constitution worn out with application and with service obliged him, shortly after, to retire from the line of publick duty, and hath at length dismissed him from the world.
That’s all very vague, with no dates. And not a word about Stockton’s arrest or captivity as the cause of his health problems. If anything, Smith implied that Stockton had worn himself out working for New Jersey. The death notice that appeared in the Pennsylvania Packet on 10 Mar 1781 says even less.

The pamphlet offered these details about Stockton’s death:
For nearly two years [i.e., since 1779], he bore, with the utmost constancy and patience, a disorder that makes us tremble only to think of it. With most exquisite pain it preyed upon him, till it had eaten its way into the passages by which life is sustained...

[Footnote:] The disorder of which Mr. Stockton died was a cancer in the neck, and for many months the pain was so extreme that he could not enjoy the smallest repose but by the help of anodyne medicines.
There’s a slightly different account in John Frelinghuysen Hageman’s History of Princeton and Its Institutions (1879), which appears to be based on local traditions:
His health became impaired; and after riding on a cold day to Somerset [County] Court, his lip was cracked just at the parting, being so severely chapped that it resulted in a cancerous affection which terminated his life. Surgical operations and incisions proved useless. He suffered intensely; and died at Morven, his residence in Princeton, February 28, 1781.
Putting the pieces together, it looks like Stockton died of some kind of oral cancer which first appeared in 1779, probably while he was out conducting some legal business. It seems unlikely that being imprisoned could lead to a cancer.

More important, why didn’t Stockton’s family and friends publish anything about his jailing in 1781? Clearly it’s time to look at some primary sources.

COMING UP: Looking at some primary sources.

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