The Signer Who Recanted

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Various legends linger around the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the circumstances of the signing. A commonly held belief, as one scholar expressed it in AMERICAN HERITAGE (December, 1962), is that “not one man of the fifty-six [signers] lost his ‘sacred honor.’ Throughout the long ordeal of an often-floundering war, in a cause that at times seemed hopelessly lost, there was not among the fifty-six men a single defection—despite the reservations that some had had about independence at the beginning and despite the repeated sagging of popular support for the war.”

Alas, this is not quite true.

One signer, following capture by the British and under pressure of a harsh confinement during what was without question the darkest hour of the Revolution for the American cause, did then defect, by taking an oath of obedience to the king and pledging that he would take no further part in the pending struggle.

Richard Stockton was the fourth generation of a wealthy and prominent New Jersey family. Born in 1730, the son of a county judge, he was a member of the class of 1748 at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and after graduation studied law. He rose steadily in his profession, not only by routine advancement—attorney in 1754, counsellor in 1758, serjeant-at-law in 1764—but, preeminently, in reputation. Before long he was widely considered one of the outstanding lawyers of the province of New Jersey.

When the Stamp Act controversy arose in 1765, Stockton aligned himself on the side of the protesting colonists. But this circumstance did not prevent his appointment in 1768 to the Council of the Royal Governor, William Franklin, a barrister-at-law of the Middle Temple in England and the illegitimate son of Dr. Benjamin Franklin. In February, 1774, Stockton was commissioned an associate justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, meanwhile retaining his seat on the council, whose meetings he attended as late as November 24, 1775—more than a half year after the shooting started.

It is essential to bear in mind that New Jersey sentiment on independence was sharply divided for a long time. Just three days after the last council meeting that Stockton attended, a committee appointed by the New Jersey Assembly drafted a petition to the king, “humbly beseeching him to use his interposition to prevent the effusion of blood; and to express the great desire this House hath to a restoration of peace and harmony with the Parent State, on constitutional principles”—all this after the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. But when news of the New Jersey proposal reached the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, that body resolved that it would be “very dangerous to the liberties and welfare of America” if any colony were to petition the king separately. A congressional committee was immediately dispatched to New Jersey to implement this resolution, with the result that the project for a separate New Jersey petition was quietly dropped.

During the early days of 1776, as American public opinion generally grew ever stronger in favor of independence, the middle colonies still hesitated. By June, however, the Provincial Congress of New Jersey had deposed William Franklin from the governor’s chair and had directed his arrest. New delegates to Congress, among them Richard Stockton, were chosen on June 21 and were empowered to join with representatives of the other colonies “in declaring the United Colonies independent of Great Britain, entering into a Confederacy for Union and common Defence.” Accordingly they participated in the final affirmative vote for independence on July 2, 1776, and the vote for the Declaration itself on July 4. Toward the end of August the new state government of New Jersey began to function. Richard Stockton was chosen as first chief justice of the new state but declined, preferring for the moment the more active career of a member of Congress.

Late in September, Stockton and George Clymer of Pennsylvania were appointed as a committee to inspect the Northern Army, a body composed of the survivors of the troops who had straggled back from Canada to Ticonderoga after the failure of the attack on Quebec. Having inquired into and reported on the wants and miseries of these unhappy troops, Stockton left Albany for his home in Princeton, whence he expected to resume his seat in Congress.

But Princeton by then was in British hands. On returning from his northern expedition Richard Stockton was forced to seek shelter elsewhere. He went to the home of a friend in Monmouth County, John Covenhoven, a member of the state legislature. There, on November 30, 1776, both men were captured by a party of local Tories. Covenhoven was taken to New York, Stockton to the common jail at Perth Amboy, where he was treated as a criminal rather than as a political prisoner. Soon afterward he too was transported to New York and again lodged in jail.