The Signer Who Recanted


On December 30 Dr. Benjamin Rush advised Richard Henry Lee that “I have heard, from good authority, that my much-honoured father-in-law [Stockton], who is now a prisoner with General Hovve, suffers many indignities and hardships from the enemy, from which not only his rank, but his being a man, ought to exempt him. I wish you would propose to Congress to pass a resolution in his favour, similar to that they have passed in favour of General [Charles] Lee. They owe it to their own honour, as well as to a member of their body.”

Congress, then as now sensitive to sentiments of group loyalty, was quick to act, adopting the following resolution on January 3, 1777:

Whereas Congress hath received information that the honorable Richard Stockton, Esq. of New Jersey, and a member of this Congress, hath been made a prisoner by the enemy, and that he has been ignominiously thrown into a common gaol, and there detained:


Resolved , That General Washington he directed to make immediate enquiry into the truth of this report, and if he finds reason to believe it well founded, that he send a flag to General Howe, remonstrating against this departure from that humane procedure that has marked the conduct of these states to prisoners, who have fallen into their hands; and to know of General Howe, whether he chuses that 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.

On January 7 John Hancock, the president of Congress, transmitted this resolution to Washington, requesting that he “make Inquiry whether the Report which Congress have heard of Mr. Stockton’s being confined in a Common Jail by the Enemy, has any Truth in it, or not.”

Stockton’s confinement is not mentioned further in the journals of the Continental Congress, nor is it referred to in any surviving letter written by Washington. Yet he was back home in Princeton by mid-March, 1777, under circumstances clearly indicating that his release was not the result of intercession at the top nor of a trade for other prisoners of equivalent rank in American hands. Indeed, it became all too plain after his return that Richard Stockton had walked out of prison a free man in consequence of unilateral action on his part: he made submission to that very king to whom he had forsworn allegiance a mere six months earlier.

On the day of Stockton’s capture the two British commanders in America, Admiral Viscount Howe and General William Howe, had issued a proclamation. Both men were not only military leaders but also Commissioners for Reconciliation, coordinate offices that they exercised while simultaneously carrying on military and naval operations. The proclamation offered a free pardon to all American rebels who would return to their former allegiance within sixty days.

The brothers Howe could hardly have picked a more propitious moment tor their distinctly generous offer of amnesty, one that required only neutral obedience from those to whom it was addressed. Defeat had continuously dogged Washington’s army since August, when he had been badly beaten at the Battle of Long Island and subsequently obliged to retreat—from Kip’s Bay, from Harlem Heights, and from White Plains. There soon followed, in November, the loss of Fort Washington and Cornwallis’ capture of Fort Lee on the Jersey shore opposite. Soon all of New Jersey, down to and including Trenton, Bordentown, and, intermittently, Burlington, was occupied by the British and their Hessian auxiliaries. By December 8 Washington had been driven from New Jersey to the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. On December 12 Congress adjourned to move to Baltimore, in view of the imminent British capture of Philadelphia.

At this time Washington was all too aware of the appeal that the Howes’ proclamation had on “the Spirits of the People, which are quite sunk by our late misfortunes.” In consequence, he wrote, “the inhabitants, instead of resistance, are offering submission and taking protection from Gen. Howe in Jersey.”

Those “late misfortunes” obviously were the foremost factor inducing acceptance of the Howes’ terms. Another, inevitably, was the strong desire of residents of British-occupied areas to save their property from destruction, confiscation, or both. Finally, the sixty-day limitation in the November 30 proclamation carried the obvious implication that no pardons would be forthcoming thereafter—and in fact subsequent proclamations from the same source required a quid pro quo for benefits conferred: enlistment in loyalist or British units rather than simple neutrality.

By spring, totting up the score, Sir William Howe was able to report to the ministry at home that over forty-eight hundred individuals, twenty-seven hundred of them from New Jersey, had signed the oath and received their pardon. A recent study estimates that two thirds of those submitting had done so between December 8 and 16, the days of optimum British success in the Garden State. The Jerseymen who accepted amnesty included some prominent public figures, among them John Covenhoven, Stockton’s host at the time both men were captured, and Samuel Tucker, a state supreme-court judge.