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, August 29, 2017

The Mixed Meaning of Richard Stockton

In 2008 I posted a multi-part inquiry into the legend of Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey.

According to the standard story, in late 1776 the British forces captured Stockton and treated him so badly that he was in poor health until he died from the consequences in 1781. That story led to New Jersey honoring Stockton in multiple ways, including putting his statue in the U.S. Capitol as a state hero.

I pointed out that:
  • Stockton’s Continental Congress colleagues immediately shared reports and concerns that after being captured he abjured his support for independence.
  • Sources from the 1770s and 1780s say little about mistreatment or extended illness arising from it. Stockton died of an oral cancer, not something normally brought on by cold.
  • Only in the 1820s did American authors start to complain that Stockton was mistreated and died as a result. Reported details of that treatment, still unsupported by documents, became worse as time went on.
The following year, Todd Braisted, now author of Grand Forage 1778, provided a smoking gun: a December 1776 letter from a British army officer stating that Adm. Lord Richard Howe and Gen. Sir William Howe had “granted a full pardon to Richard Stockton, Esq”. The judge then removed himself from politics and the war. Not only does that letter suggest that Stockton reached some kind of agreement for his freedom, but it also shows he was in British custody for less than a month.

Drawing on those postings and further research, Christian McBurney discussed Stockton’s case in detail in his book Abductions in the American Revolution and in this 2016 article for the Journal of the American Revolution. He questioned whether New Jersey should continue to have Stockton be one of the two figures it displays in the U.S. Capitol, given the state’s other heroes.

This month brought news that Stockton University in New Jersey has removed a bust of Richard Stockton (shown above) from its library. The reason was not, however, because his iconic status in the state rests on a shaky legend of stoic suffering at the hands of the enemy.

Rather, the university removed the bust because Stockton owned slaves. Those people are documented in his will, in which the judge said his widow Annis could free them if she chose. (I’ve found no evidence she did so. Their son Richard owned slaves as an adult, as did their daughter and son-in-law, Dr. Benjamin Rush—even though he advocated for an end to slavery.)

As a public university, and one founded to provide more opportunities for students who don’t have advantages in our society, Stockton University has good reason not to glorify someone who participated in slave-owning even while championing liberty for gentlemen like himself.

At the same time, I don’t see how removing Stockton’s bust will fix that contradiction when the institution is still, you know, named Stockton University.

The school started in the 1970s as South Jersey State College and evolved through Stockton State College, Richard Stockton State College, and the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey before becoming Stockton University in 2015. Has the Stockton name developed enough of its own legacy to leave the judge behind? Does Stockton’s documented interest in higher education (as a trustee of Princeton College) make him a good namesake for a university despite his other behavior?

Ironically, Stockton University is in Galloway Township. There’s some thought that the Crown named that settlement in 1774 after the Pennsylvania politician Joseph Galloway. He was one of America’s leading Loyalists, fleeing to exile in Britain four years later. And yet the name lives on.


Credo2065 said...

I particularly like your "mythbusting" posts. This one made me think -- it's something of a double standard. We (as a society) remove a bust of a signer of the Declaration of Independence because he owned slaves. I think we can all agree that owning other people is an evil act. But are we prepared to remove all the images of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson from our public buildings and currency? I don't advocate for it. But it seems to me that this is putting a bandage on an old scar. It's superficial. And insincere.

J. L. Bell said...

I think there’s a simple response to the argument that removing art linked to Richard Stockton, Isaac Royall, or Robert E. Lee would or should lead to removing art linked to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The latter two men contributed a great deal more to America than the first three. Therefore, we as a society might decide that their contributions to our republic outweigh their exploitation of other people.

In contrast, Richard Stockton’s most visible contribution was to be one of 56 men who signed the Declaration, plus some work for the Continental Congress in 1776. That’s much less than drafting the document, much less serving as a state governor, a diplomat, and in the three highest offices of the federal government as Jefferson did. Isaac Royall gave some of his money (gained from slave labor) to Harvard but did little else of note. Take away Robert E. Lee’s work on behalf of the Confederacy, and there’s really nothing that would justify so many statues.

All that said, if there’s one public place where it might make sense to have a bust of Richard Stockton, it might be at this university. He was an active supporter of Princeton College, the state’s only institute of higher learning in his lifetime. But I might not feel so comfortable seeing his face or name if I could name my enslaved ancestors.

Rob said...

A very interesting post.

Good point at the end of your comment about being able to name one's enslaved ancestors and how one would feel being confronted by the bust of a slave owner on a daily basis. Moreover, when so many claim connections to Richard Stockton and other signers, think what a privilege this is when so many cannot follow their ancestry back because their forebears were enslaved.

The more research that is done into the issue of Stockton's loyalty to the revolution or to the King, it becomes increasingly evident that the fabrications created to explain and justify his actions bear little or no relation to the truth. I am curious, though, why you locate the genesis of these stories in the 1820s. I would be interested to see the references to this, but would also wonder why the communications between Annis Stockton (who was deeply invested in keeping her husband's reputation strong), and George Washington (who was similarly invested in not having it appear that there were doubts in the minds of some of the signers) would not have been considered part of this process of rehabilitation. Moreover, Benjamin Rush seems also to have made some contributions in an attempt to justify his father-in-law's transgression.

J. L. Bell said...

The earliest sources on Stockton's confinement were of course contemporaneous with it or slightly after. His son-in-law, Benjamin Rush, wrote most sympathetically while some fellow delegates, such as Elbridge Gerry, were more critical. Officially, the Congress and Gen. Washington wrote of him being unjustly penned up with common soldiers, but obviously there was some whispering about his behavior.

At Stockton's death in 1781, there was a funeral sermon published with this widow’s poems. That pamphlet didn't even mention his captivity, much less blame it for his death. As late as 1820 a newspaper publishing capsule biographies of all the Founders didn't mention Stockton's imprisonment or his subsequent retirement from politics.

Only with the publication of Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence in the 1820s did Stockton's detention become a central part of his story. That was also the first narrative to describe him being beaten or starved, as opposed to exposed to cold in a jail with no window glass. And that narrative makes clear that Stockton descendants, some of whom were prominent in New Jersey politics, were among its sources.

From then the narrative of Stockton's suffering became more exaggerated. That's why I date the genesis of that legend to that decade, fifty years after the Revolution.

Richard Stockton's rehabilitation in American political memory no doubt benefited from his widow's friendship with George Washington. However, I don't see direct statements by her leading to the new story. I view her as an independent actor, especially after her husband's death. Their son, also named RIchard and a powerful politician, seems to have been more involved in revising his father's story. He may have been guided by tales he heard from his mother, of course.