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Richard Stockton 1730-1781
By Ken Anderson
Feb 28, 2004 - 11:48:00 AM

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Richard Stockton died on this day, February 28, 1781. Who was he? He was the first of the New Jersey delegation to sign the Declaration of Independence. He was the only signer to have been imprisoned by the British for the sole purpose of having signed the Declaration. In poor health, brought upon during his imprisonment, he returned home to find his house and property missing, his family nowhere to be found. He died in poverty, never seeing his wife and children again.

Born at Morven, near Princeton, in Somerset County, New Jersey on October 1, 1730, Richard Stockton came from an ancient and respectable American family. His great-grandfather, who bore the same name, had come from England around 1670, residing for a short time on Long Island, then moving to a large tract of land (around 6,400 acres), the center of which is now Princeton. Upon his death in 1705, his great-grandfather left his estate to several children, the largest portion of which went to his son, also named Richard.

Richard, the signer's grandfather, himself died in 1720, leaving his estate to his youngest son, John, a man known for possessing high moral and religious character, and for his generosity toward the College of New Jersey, which later became Princeton College.
Richard Stockton 1730-1781

Richard Stockton, the signer, was the eldest son of John Stockton.

Educated chiefly under the tutelage of the Rev. Samuel Finley in a distinquished academy at West Nottingham, Richard attended the College of New Jersey, graduating with honors in 1748.

Upon leaving college, he studied law under David Ogden, of Newark, who was at that time the head of the legal profession in the province of New Jersey. After being admitted to the bar in 1754, Richard became a distinguished attorney.

He was a member of the Executive Council of New Jersey from November 2, 1758 to June 17, 1776; an Associate Justice of the State Supreme Court from February 28, 1774 to June 17, 1776; and an unsuccessful candidate following a very close election for Governor of New Jersey on August 31, 1776. He was elected Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court of New Jersey on August 31, 1776, but declined the office.

In 1766 and 1767, he relinquished his professioanl business for a time in order to visit England, Scotland, and Ireland. During this tour, he was well received by the King of England, and was consulted on American affairs by the Marquis of Rockingham and by the Earl of Chatham.

When talk turned to independence, he returned home. Stockton argued at first for reconciliation between the Colonies and Britain; and, in December of 1774, he sent Lord Dartmouth a proposal for colonial self-government.

In June of 1776, he was elected by the Provincial Congress of New Jersey as a delegate to the General Congress, then sitting in the city of Philadelphia. Although he remained quiet during the early debates on independence, he was persuaded, in part through the eloquence and passion of John Adams, and expressed his agreement with the final vote in a short but energetic speech.

It is a remarkable fact that in the early history of the American Revolution, the colonists claimed they were still loyal subjects of England. The people, at first, really were such, but the war made a great change in the feelings of the American people.

On September 26, 1776, Richard Stockton and George Clymer were appointed to a committee to inspect the Colonial Army in the north. Returning home, he found that the British had advanced on his home. His family had escaped and were with friends. For their safety, he moved them to the home of John Covenhoven in Monmouth.

Richard Stockton is interred in Stoney Brook Meeting House Burial Ground near Princeton, New Jersey.
Stockton was betrayed by loyalists, however. On November 30th, he and Covenhoven were dragged from their beds at night and taken to New York, where he was placed in a common prison. Although he was not the only signer to be imprisoned by the British, he was the only one to have been jailed simply because he had signed the Declaration of Independence.

Upon learning of his imprisonment, the Provincial Congress issued the following resolution:

Whereas congress hath received information that the Honorable Richard Stockton, of New-Jersey, and a member of this congress, hath been made a prisoner by the enemy, and that he hath been ignominiously thrown into a common goal, and there detained - Resolved, that General Washington be directed to make immediate inquiry into the truth of this report, and if he finds reason to believe it is well founded, that he send a flag to General Howe, remonstrating against this departure from that humane procedure which has marked the conduct of these states to prisoners who have fallen into their hands; and to know of General Howe whether he chooses this shall be the future rule for treating all such, on both sides, as the fortune of war may place in the hands of either party.

Richard Stockton was finally released, but his treatment while in prison had been harsh, and his health had suffered. He returned to his home to find his property devastated, his papers and library burned, and his horses stolen or driven away.

He was dependent on the charity of friends for even the necessities of life. He died on February 28, 1781, even before the end of the war, at Morven, his birthplace. His wife and family lived the rest of their lives in poverty.

Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence:

  • 5 signers of the Declaration of Independence were captured by the British during the war, and treated harshly as prisoners.
  • 17 held commissions in the army or did medical duty during the War.
  • 9 died from their wounds or from hardships suffered during the war.
  • 2 lost their sons in the Continental Army.
  • 2 had sons captured.
  • At least a dozen had their homes pillaged and burned.

What kind of men were they?

  • 26 were lawyers or jurists.
  • 11 were merchants.
  • 9 were farmers or large plantation ownerrs.
  • 1 was a teacher.
  • 1 was a musician.
  • 1 was a printer.

They were, for the most part, men of means and education, yet they signed the Declaration of Independence knowing full well that the penalty could be death if they were captured.

For example:

In the face of the advancing British Army, the members of the Continental Congress fled from Philadelphia to Baltimore on December 12, 1776. It was an especially anxious time for John Hancock, whose wife had just given birth to a baby girl. Due to complications stemming from the trip to Baltimore, the girl lived only a few months.

In December of 1776, during 3 days of British occupation of Newport, Rhode Island, William Ellery's house was burned, and all of his property destroyed.

Richard Stockton had rushed back to his estate near Princeton shortly after signing the Declaration of Independence to find his wife and children living like refugees with friends. They had been betrayed by a Tory sympathizer who also revealed Stockton's own whereabouts. British troops pulled him from his bed one night, beat him, and threw him into jail where he nearly starved to death. Upon his release, he found his estate had been looted, his possessions burned, and his horses stolen. He had been treated so badly in prison that his health was failing and he died before the end of the War. His surviving family lived the rest of their lives in poverty.

Carter Braxton was a wealthy planter and trader. One by one, his ships were captured by the British navy. He loaned a large sum of money to the American cause, and it was never repaid. Suffering commercial setbacks following the war, he was forced to sell his plantations and mortgage his other properties to pay his debts.

Thomas McKean was so hounded by the British that he had to move his family almost constantly. He served in the Continental Congress without pay, and kept his family in hiding.

Vandals looted the properties of Clymer, Hall, Harrison, Hopkinson, and Livingston. Seventeen of the signers lost everything they owened.

Thomas Heyward, Jr., Edward Rutledge, and Arthur Middleton, all of South Carolina, were captured by the British during the Charleston Campaign in 1780. They were kept in dungeons at the St. Augustine Prison until exchanged a year later.

At the Battle of Yorktown, Thomas Nelson, Jr. noted that the British General Cornwallis had taken over his family home for his headquarters. Nelson urged General George Washington to open fire on his own home. This was done, and the home was destroyed. Nelson later died bankrupt.

Francis Lewis also had his home and properties destroyed. The British jailed his wife for two months, so affecting her health that she died only two years later.

John Hart, a New Jersey farmer, was driven from his wife's bedside when she was near death. Their thirteen children fled for their lives. Hart's fields and his grist mill were laid waste. For over a year, he eluded capture by hiding in nearby forests. He never knew where his bed would be the next night, and often slept in caves. When he finally returned home, he found that his wife had died, his children had disappeared, and his farm and stock were completely destroyed. Hart himself died in 1779 without ever seeing any of his family again.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were educated men who clearly were not motivated by greed. They were secure in their property, and lived well under British rule, but they valued liberty more.

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