The Signer Who Recanted

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The proof of Richard Stockton’s defection comes from reliable sources: two of his New Jersey colleagues in the Continental Congress, both of them fellow signers of the Declaration of Independence. On February 8, 1777, Congressman Abraham Clark wrote to John Hart, still another signer and at the time Speaker of the New Jersey Assembly. One of the matters dealt with in Clark’s letter was the filling of vacancies in New Jersey’s congressional delegation:

Mr. Sergeant talks of resigning and Mr. Stockton by his late proceedure cannot Act. I wish their places may be Supplied by such as will be reputable to New Jersey, not only by their integrity but Abilities.

Beyond a doubt Stockton’s “late proceedure” that disabled him from further service in the Continental Congress was his acceptance of what the Howes had offered. Another congressman and signer, Dr. John Witherspoon, wrote his son David in March, 1777, from Philadelphia:

I was at Princeton from Saturday … till Wednesday. … Judge Stockton is not very well in health and much spoken against for his conduct. He 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.

Witherspoon was the president of the College of New Jersey and an old acquaintance; it is probable that he and Stockton personally discussed the whole lugubrious affair during Witherspoon’s visit. Stockton appears never to have denied either the fact or the scope of his recantation.

The public disapproval of his conduct that was reported to David Witherspoon must have been general and widespread and sufficient to require Richard Stockton, despite his impaired health, to take a new oath of allegiance to the state of New Jersey in December, i777- That oath is preserved in the state’s archives. Significantly, Washington in a counterproclamation issued late in January, 1777, pursuant to the emergency powers vested in him by Congress just before it learned of the victory at Trenton, had called on every person who had submitted to the Howes to repair to the nearest American general officer “and there deliver up such protections, certificates and passports, and take the oath of allegiance to the United States of America.” Those who refused to do so were invited “forthwith to withdraw themselves and families within the enemy’s lines”; failing to do which within thirty days they would “be deemed adherents to the King of Great-Britain, and treated as common enemies of the American States.”

It was probably the harsh treatment suffered while in British confinement that had broken Richard Stockton’s spirit to the point where he would renounce every principle he had espoused for over a decade. We have no way of knowing whether he had also been subjected to psychological pressure, such as daily recitals of the military reverses being suffered by the Continental Army. But it is evident that the physical regimen imposed upon him had broken his body, too; it took him three full years to recover his health. Not until November, 1779, could his son-in-law write: “Our worthy friend Mr. Stockton continues to mend. All his physicians agree now in pronouncing his recovery complete.”

By then, however, Stockton’s reputation was so far destroyed that further public employment was quite impossible. His fortune, too, had been gravely impaired. His Princeton home, Morven, which Lieutenant General Earl Cornwallis had used as headquarters while the British occupied Princeton, had been thoroughly sacked in the winter of 1776–77. (Today Morven, restored throughout, is the official residence of the governors of New Jersey.)

In any event Stockton’s “recovery” was of short duration. A cancer was shortly discovered in his body, which resulted in his death in February, 1781, at the age of fifty.

It is not difficult, in the abstract, to denounce Stockton, to criticize him for weakness of character, to fault him for lack of resolution, or to repeat Washington’s complaint about “the late Treachery and defection of those who stood foremost in the Opposition, while Fortune smiled upon us.” But perhaps only persons who have suffered the cruelties inflicted on captives in bitter ideological struggles are qualified to do so, and of that number only those who have remained steadfast amidst their torments and privations. It is obloquy enough that Richard Stockton must go down in history as the single signer who recanted.