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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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Revisiting Richard Stockton in Princeton

Way back in 2008, I wrote a series of postings about Richard Stockton, who voted for and signed the Declaration of Independence as a Continental Congress delegate from New Jersey. Then, around the end of November 1776, the Crown forces captured him.

As I discussed at length, a legend grew up in the early 1800s, supplemented with imaginary details in subsequent decades, that the royal authorities mistreated Stockton in jail, ruined his health, and left him in poverty. In fact, eighteenth-century records show that Stockton spent a few weeks in captivity at most, left considerable property for his son, and was said by his son-in-law Dr. Benjamin Rush to have “fully recovered” from his detention before dying of an oral cancer.

In 2009, Todd Braisted shared a document confirming how briefly Stockton was in custody. (Look for Todd’s book about the war around occupied New York, The Grand Forage of 1778: The Revolutionary War’s Forgotten Campaign, coming early next year from Westholme.)

A while back I came across more evidence that Stockton had returned to regular business by mid-1777. College business, at least—he was a neighbor and trustee of Princeton College.

That source is the published edition of A Brief Narrative of the Ravages of the British and Hessians at Princeton in 1776-1777, an anonymous manuscript dated 18 Apr 1777. Toward the end the editor, Varnum Lansing Collins, wrote this footnote:
In his warmth [about British army damage to Princeton College and the Presbyterian Meeting House] the author loses sight of the fact that the first two of these edifices had suffered probably as much damage from the American soldiery as from the British and Hessian. The church had been used by both armies. . . .

The minutes of the Trustees of the College of New Jersey for September, 1776, record the fact that Dr. [John] Witherspoon was to move in Congress “that troops shall not hereafter be quartered in the College.” And three months to a day after our unknown author penned his last paragraph [dated 18 Apr 1777], Dr. Witherspoon, Dr. Elihu Spencer and Richard Stockton, Esq., a committee from the Board of Trustees of the College, presented a petition to Congress praying that no Continental troops be allowed hereafter to enter the College or to use it as a barracks.

The petition recites that every party of provincials marching through Princeton takes possession of the building, and partly through wantonness and partly under pretence of not being supplied with firewood “are daily committing the greatest ravages upon the Building, in breaking up the floors, and burning every piece of wood they can cut out of it.”
Collins reported that the petition was in the manuscripts of the Continental Congress.

Thus, within half a year of his release from supposedly torturous conditions under the British army, Stockton was signing a complaint about damage done by the Continental Army.

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