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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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Taking Stock of Richard Stockton

Back in 2008 I wrote a series of postings about Richard Stockton, a judge from New Jersey who signed the Declaration of Independence in August 1776. Four months later he was in the custody of the British army.

As I discussed in my first posting, the standard story of Stockton for the past century and a half matches this passage from the Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence:
Judge Richard Stockton was the only signer to be put in irons, starved and imprisoned under brutal conditions by the British four months after signing the Declaration of Independence.
He reportedly became ill, returned home to find his estate ruined, and died poor and sick as a result of his imprisonment.

My postings pointed out that after Stockton’s release his contemporaries, family members, and clergy didn’t speak of the British army treating him cruelly. (His colleagues did worry while he was in custody in December 1776 and they had little information.) Instead, as soon as Stockton came home, fellow members of the Continental Congress wrote ruefully about how he had “sued for pardon” and “Rec’d General How’s protection.” He resigned from the Congress; rebuilt his health, estate, and legal career; and died of an oral cancer in 1781.

In 2009 Loyalist expert Todd Braisted, now author of Grand Forage 1778, provided a gun with at least a wisp of smoke coming from it: a document showing that Adm. Lord Richard Howe and Gen. Sir William Howe had granted Stockton “a full pardon” by 29 Dec 1776. That cut the judge’s time in enemy hands to less than a month. It also strongly suggested he had reached some sort of deal with the Howes—if not a loyalty oath to the Crown then (as I rather suspect) an agreement between gentlemen to sit out the war.

My articles also discussed how the legend of Stockton’s suffering blossomed in the early 1800s as the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration approached. They really took off in the latter part of that century, despite some evidence to contradict the story and no solid evidence for its more extreme claims. That story turned Stockton into one of New Jersey’s most honored heroes, namesake of Stockton University and subject of a statue in the U.S. Capitol.

Christian McBurney has now rounded up all that material about Stockton and more in an article at the Journal of the American Revolution titled “Was Richard Stockton a Hero?” McBurney has become an expert on captures during the Revolutionary War, the topic of his books Kidnapping the Enemy: The Special Operations to Capture Generals Charles Lee & Richard Prescott and Abductions in the American Revolution: Attempts to Kidnap George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and Other Military and Civilian Leaders. The latter book covers the Stockton capture.

McBurney’s article concludes:
To summarize, I believe Richard Stockton showed great courage in signing the Declaration of Independence. For that reason, and for other work he performed as a Patriot, I believe he is a hero of the American Revolution. But because strong evidence indicates that he signed an oath of allegiance to the Crown, I do not believe he should be celebrated as one of New Jersey’s greatest heroes.
There will no doubt be pushback from fans, descendants, and others invested in the story of Richard Stockton as a martyr for independence.

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