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Richard Stockton (1730–1781)

Richard Stockton (October 1, 1730February 28, 1781) was an American lawyer, jurist, legislator, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Early life

A son of John Stockton, he was born near Princeton, New Jersey attended Samuel Finley's academy at Nottingham, which later became West Nottingham Academy, and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), graduating in 1748. He studied law with David Ogden, of Newark, who was at that time the head of the legal profession in the province. Stockton was admitted to the bar in 1754 and soon rose to great distinction. He was a longtime friend of George Washington. His wife was poet Annis Boudinot Stockton, sister of New Jersey Statesman Elias Boudinot. The Stocktons had six children. Their son Richard Stockton became an eminent lawyer and prominent Federalist leader. Coincidentally, Elias Boudinot was married to Stockton's sister Hannah Stockton (1736-1808).

Stockton initially showed little interest in politics. He once wrote, "The public is generally unthankful, and I never will become a Servant of it, till I am convinced that by neglecting my own affairs I am doing more acceptable Service to God and Man." Stockton did, however, later take an active role as a trustee of the College of New Jersey.

Political career

In 1768, Stockton had his first taste of government service when he was appointed to the governing Council of ; he was later (1774) appointed to the New Jersey Supreme Court. He first took a moderate stance in the troubles between the colonies and Great Britain. He did not favor separation; rather, he suggested in 1764 that some colonial members be appointed to the Parliament. However, he changed his position a year later when the controversy over the Stamp Act arose. In 1774 he drafted and sent to Lord Dartmouth "with a plan of self-government for America, independent of Parliament, without renouncing the Crown." This Commonwealth approach was not acceptable to the King.

He served the College, afterwards known as Princeton University, as a trustee. In 1766 and 1767, he gave up his practice for the purpose of visiting England, Scotland, and Ireland. While he was in Scotland, his personal efforts resulted in the acceptance of the presidency of the College by the Reverend John Witherspoon.

Witherspoon's wife had opposed her husbands taking the position but her objections were overcome with the aid of his son-in-law Benjamin Rush, who was a medical student in Edinburgh. This was an exceedingly important event in the history of higher education in America. Stockton returned to America and the following year, 1768, he was made a member of the executive council of the province and in 1774 was promoted to the supreme bench of New Jersey.

Revolutionary War

In 1776, Stockton was elected to the Second Continental Congress, where he took a very active role. That August, when elections were held for the state governments of the new nation, Stockton and William Livingston each received the same number of votes to be the Governor of New Jersey on the first ballot. Although Livingston later won the election by one vote, Stockton was unanimously elected to serve as the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, but he turned down that position to remain in the Congress.

Stockton was appointed by Congress, along with fellow signer George Clymer, to an exhausting two-month journey to Fort Ticonderoga, Saratoga and Albany, New York to assist the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War. On his return to Princeton, he traveled 30 miles east to the home of a friend to evacuate his family to safety, and away from the path of the British army. While there, on November 30, 1776, he was captured in the middle of the night by his own loyalist countrymen and severely beaten. Just before Stockton was captured, General William Howe had offered amnesty to those willing to renounce the American “rebellion” and renew their loyalty to the King George III. Although many took the offer of amnesty, Stockton did not at that time and was marched to Perth Amboy where he was put in irons, and brutally treated as a common criminal.

He was then moved to Provost Prison in New York where he was intentionally starved and subjected to freezing cold weather. After nearly six weeks of brutal treatment, Stockton was released, his health ruined. Over 12,000 prisoners died in the prison ships and prisons in New York compared to 4,435 soldiers that died in combat over the six years of war. His estate, Morven, in Princeton was occupied by General Cornwallis during Stockton's imprisonment; his furniture, all household belongings, crops and livestock were taken or destroyed by the British. His library, one of the finest in the colonies, was burned.

Stockton's treatment in the New York prison prompted Continental Congress to pass a resolution directing George Washington to inquire into the circumstances and not long afterward, Stockton was exchanged on January 3, 1777. The U.S. National Archives contains other messages showing that Washington duly contacted Howe in New York regarding the exchange or release of Stockton and others.

The circumstances of Stockton's release from custody are not entirely clear, but there is evidence that he swore an oath of peaceable obedience to the King. John Witherspoon wrote to his son David in March 1777, stating that Stockton "signed Howe’s Declaration and also gave his Word of Honour that he would not meddle in the least in American affairs during the War". Congressman Abraham Clark, writing to John Hart about filling vacancies in New Jersey's delegation to the Continental Congress, wrote "Mr. Sergeant talks of resigning and Mr. Stockton by his late procedure cannot Act." Fellow signer Dr. Benjamin Rush in his autobiography wrote "At Princeton I met my wife's father who had been plundered of all his household furniture and stock by the British army, and carried a prisoner to New York, from whence he was permitted to return to his family upon parole." (Corner 130) In December of 1777 Stockton again swore an oath of allegiance to the United States.

Later days and legacy

Stockton and his wife had six children, four daughters and two sons: Julia Stockton (married to Benjamin Rush, also a signer of the Declaration), Mary, Susan, Richard, Lucius and Abigail.

Stockton died at his family's estate in Princeton on February 28, 1781, and was buried at the Stony Brook Meeting House and Cemetery.

Stockton's oldest son Richard was an eminent lawyer and later a Senator from New Jersey. His son, Commodore Robert Field Stockton, was a hero of the War of 1812, and in 1846 became the first military governor of California and later a Senator from New Jersey.

In 1888, the state of New Jersey donated a marble statue of Stockton to the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall Collection. He is one of only six signers to be honored.

In 1969, the New Jersey Legislature passed legislation establishing a state college which was named after Stockton, to honor the memory of New Jersey's signer of the Declaration of Independence. Richard Stockton College of New Jersey is the current name for this educational institution which was previously known under the names Stockton State College and Richard Stockton State College.

References

External links

  • Biography by Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, 1856
  • http://www.aoc.gov/cc/art/nsh/stockton.htm
  • http://president.stockton.edu/richard.html
  • http://www.rebelswithavision.com/RichardStockton.net/
  • American Heritage article on Stockton and the Declaration of Allegiance

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