Richard Stockton – History

Richard Stockton was the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to be captured and imprisoned by the British.

Read about the history below, pens made from trees at Morven, his home will be found here.  

Born in Princeton New Jersey in 1730 to John and Abigail Stockton. He was sent first to school at West Nottingham Academy in Maryland, offered by Reverend Samuel Finley, who eventually became president of what would become Princeton University. From the Academy he went to the College of New Jersey in Elizabeth. The school then moved to Newark New Jersey and was run by Aaron Burr Sr. (father of the future notorious, Vice President). At 18 he graduated in its first class of 1748.

He remained in Newark to study Law in the renowned office of David Ogden Esq. By 1754 Richard Stockton returned home to Princeton, an attorney in his own right, with a practice that stretched from Newark to Philadelphia and training apprentices of his own. Among his protégé was Elias Boudinot, who was destined to become President of the Continental Congress and his Brother-in-law.

In Princeton, now a small village, he became a large landowner. He, his stepfather, and other citizens of the village convinced the College of New Jersey to move to Princeton, with incentives of donated money and land on which to build the school that would eventually take the name of the town. He served his Alma mater as a member of the board of Trustees from 1757 until his final day. Late that same year or early the next he married Annis Boudinot, who would become the first American published female poet.

In 1766 through 67, Richard traveled to England, leaving Annis home with their young children. He would write to her lovingly and often throughout his travels. Through Annis he also kept up correspondence with the colonial Governor of New Jersey, William Franklin, the son of Benjamin Franklin. While there, with the help of fellow American Benjamin Rush, he persuaded the Scottish Reverend John Witherspoon to immigrate to Princeton and serve as the schools President. Though he missed home, he enjoyed his time there and met many notables and nobles. He was presented to and made an address to the King and attended the Queen’s Birthday Ball.

The year before his travels, the British Parliament passed the notorious Stamp Act that placed a tax on certain printed materials such as legal documents, magazines, playing cards, newspapers, and many other types of paper used throughout the British colonies in America. Up to this point in his life, Richard Stockton had little interest in meddling in politics. However, the Stamp Act gave this loyal British subject some misgivings, and he did make some suggestions. He urged the New Jersey Assembly to send delegates to the Stamp Act Congress in New York in 1765, he also thought it perhaps time to have British subjects in the American colonies elected to seats in Parliament where they could better directly represent his fellow citizens and directly argue for their rights as well as responsibilities.

After his return from England, his colonial Governor William Franklin appointed him to the Governor’s Counsel. The respect he engendered through his practice and reputation, grew, and in 1774, the Governor named him to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

These were, however, the times that tested and tore at the loyalties of all of his stature. For many, allegiance to a more and more, foreign country, now shifted to hearth, home, and the others that shared that shift. A moderate at heart Judge Stockton proposed a Commonwealth solution of self-government, while maintaining allegiance to the Crown. All though there was some sympathy for the Americans in London at the time, plans and proposals of this sort, for the most part, fell on deaf ears.

In June of 1776, Justice Richard Stockton Esq. and the Dr. Reverend John Witherspoon were sent to replace two New Jersey delegates to the Second Continental Congress, who had voted against adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Through the sweltering arguments in the sweltering heat of Philadelphia the Declaration was finally passed. In August, he was back in his comfortable hone, Morven, on the Kings Highway, in Princeton, having signed the Declaration of Independence, along with his friends, reverend Witherspoon, Dr. Benjamin Rush, and Benjamin Franklin, the father of the now to be arrested and imprisoned New Jersey Governor.

In late November, Stockton was reelected to be a New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress. A dubious and dangerous honor, as Washington’s war was going very badly. His army was retreating through New Jersey on the Kings Highway through Princeton, with the Kings forces hot on their heals. Many other Princeton residents left in the wake of Washington’s retreat and followed him through Trenton and beyond. However the Stocktons sought refuge with friends in Monmouth county. There local Tories found Richard Stockton, signer of the Declaration of Independence and took him prisoner. During the entire war he was the only signer captured and imprisoned by the British. They kept him in desperate conditions in the infamous Provost Jail of New York.

Having severely beaten the Americans back across the Jerseys, it seemed the end of the war was at hand. The British army settled into winter quarters thorough out the colony and garrisoned at Princeton, among other places. Stockton’s beloved Morven was seized by the British as spoils of war. The extensive library and papers, the furnishings and household goods, food supplies and livestock, all removed and put to the use of the army. General Cornwallis moved in to the mansion but the house was treated very rudely.

Sir William How, in addition to being the commander of the British army was also one of the peace commissioner. He was conscious of the need to win the hearts and minds of these misguided British citizens in the colonies. He was at this time actively repatriating colonists and offering pardons to any one in New Jersey and New York. Richard Stockton was offered a pardon on condition that he would not meddle in American affairs for the duration of the war. After about a month of captivity Richard Stockton accepted the offered pardon. At about the same time Washington had pushed the British from the Jerseys with the two Battles of Trenton and the Battle of Princeton.

The honorable Judge Stockton would keep his word. This cast him in the light of suspicion to a large portion of his fellow citizens. He started rebuilding his home and law practice. A difficult task in a time of war. Especially while under the pall of suspicion when neither Tory nor Patriot were inclined to do business with him.

His health waned, and by November of 78, it was clear that he was suffering from cancer. Despite attempts to remedy the disease, it took its inevitable course through to February 28th 1781.

His legacy however did not end there. His family and the house, Morven, continued to serve his state and the nation. Morven has received U.S. Presidents and dignitaries from around the world and been the official residence of several New Jersey Governors.