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The Signer Who Recanted

April 2024
8min read

Under duress in a British prison, Richard Stockton of New Jersey had the singular misfortune to become

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.

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.

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.

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