Founding Fathers - Richard Stockton

Richard Stockton

Born: October 1, 1730 (Princeton, NJ)

Died: February 28, 1781 (Princeton, NJ)

This week we will take time to look at a figure in the drama of American independence who was respected on both sides of the Atlantic - Richard Stockton.  The oldest of eight children, Richard was born to a wealthy landowner and his wife, John and Abigail.  He was initially educated in Maryland before attending the College of New Jersey, where he would graduate in 1748 at the age of 18.  Some years later, John Stockton donated land and was instrumental in relocating the college from Newark to Princeton, where it would eventually take on the name of the town and become Princeton University.  Richard continued his studies in the field of law under a notable lawyer named David Ogden, and in 1754 he was admitted to the bar.  His legal career was respected, not just in New Jersey but throughout the colonies, and he would eventually attain the highest legal degree available - Seargent-at-Law.  In 1757 Stockton married Annis Boudinot, who had grown up next door to Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, and the couple would raise six children together.

Although success as an attorney had made him several influential friends, including George Washington, Richard Stockton put his practice on hold and traveled to England in 1766 as a representative of his college.  His sterling reputation and skillful communication opened many doors for him, including time with many noblemen and members of Parliament who were sympathetic to the views of the American colonies as well as a personal audience with King George III.  Stockton eloquently acknowledged the repeal of the Stamp Act on behalf of the school, apparently impressing the king, before traveling to Scotland to meet with Reverend John Witherspoon.  Dr. Witherspoon had been offered the presidency of the College of New Jersey, which he had declined due to his wife's misgivings about emigrating to the colonies, but alongside a fellow alumnus who was then attending the University of Edinburgh, Benjamin Rush, Stockton was able to persuade him to change his mind.  Not only did this provide the school with one of the greatest leaders in their history, but it also was the occasion of the first meeting of the three men who would all serve as delegates together just a few years later.

Returning to Princeton in 1767, Richard Stockton once again began practicing law and continued to display an aversion to politics.  Despite asserting his dislike of serving the public, he was placed on a royal executive council the following year before taking a seat on the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1774.  Correctly predicting the certainty of war without drastic measures, he wrote a proposal to give the colonies their own government apart from British Parliament, while still maintaining loyal ties to the Crown.  King George rejected the final offer of reconciliation and Stockton, having exhausted all of his options, became a proponent of independence.  In 1776, with a number of New Jersey delegates to the Continental Congress withholding their votes for independence, the state sent Stockton and his old friend Dr. Witherspoon to Philadelphia to break the gridlock.  Despite having clear instructions on how to vote, Stockton insisted on hearing all arguments (including having John Adams repeat an entire speech that he had missed) before leading the delegates to vote for and sign the Declaration.

Immediately after the vote, Richard Stockton's name was considered by the state assembly to become governor of New Jersey, an election he lost by just a single vote.  He was chosen as Chief Justice of New Jersey instead, but declined the position in order to remain in Congress.  Stockton was active during his limited time in Philadelphia, but after traveling north to determine the state of the Continental Army in New York, he learned of the British invasion of New Jersey and rushed home to his family in Princeton.  Before they were able to evacuate to safety, Stockton was discovered and captured by Loyalists, and he was unceremoniously marched half-naked in the cold November night to Perth Amboy.  He became the only person to be arrested and imprisoned simply for signing the Declaration of Independence, and he was subjected to a great deal of mistreatment including being held in irons, starvation, and freezing cold.  After two months General Washington was able to negotiate his release early in 1777, at which point British General William Howe obtained a written promise to longer participate in the war effort.  He came home in broken health to find all of his possessions and a portion of his home had been burnt, including his furniture and substantial library, and he resigned his seat in Congress, honoring his promise to Howe but also far too sick to contribute.  Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was by that point Stockton's son-in-law, indicated that it took two years for him to recover.  At the same time, he battled rumors that he was released from British custody after having pledged an oath of loyalty to the Crown, rather than merely agreeing not to participate in active rebellion.  Stockton's health did not last, however, and while he attempted to practice law to help support his family he soon developed cancer that affected his lip and throat.  After a brief and painful battle he died in 1781 at the age of 50, eight months before the American Revolution was won.  

The signature of Richard Stockton can be found as the fifth name on the fifth column beneath the Declaration of Independence.


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