Richard Stockton

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Founding Fathers
Senator stockton.jpg
Richard Stockton
State New Jersey
Religion Christian- Presbyterian [1]
Founding Documents Declaration of Independence

Richard Stockton (1730–1781) was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.[2] Like many signatories, he died prematurely on account of harsh treatment by the British. He was an attorney by trade, and was born and lived in the colony of New Jersey.

Early life

His great grandfather was that Richard Stockton who first emigrated to the New York colony between 1660 and 1670 (or perhaps earlier to what was then known as New Netherland). The present subject was actually the third bearer of the name Richard Stockton (the second was his grandfather).

He was born on October 1, 1730, to John Stockton on the family estate of Morven, near Princeton.[2] He married Annis Boudinot, and together they had six children.[3] Annis was an accomplished poet, and her brother was the well known delegate to the Continental Congress Elias Boudinot. Elias, in turn, was married to Richard's sister Hannah.

One of his sons, also named Richard Stockton, was a member of the Federalist Party and ran for Vice President in 1820.

Education and Professional Advancement

Richard Stockton studied for two years at the West Nottingham Academy in Maryland, under Dr. Samuel Finley.[4] He then entered what was then known as the College of New Jersey (the modern Princeton University).[4] He graduated in 1748 and studied law in Newark under David Ogden. In 1754 he was admitted to the bar, and in 1763 he was granted the degree of sergeant at law, the highest distinction for a lawyer of that era.[2][4]

Pre-Revolutionary Career

In June 1766 he sailed to London, England. He stayed in England for fifteen months. During that time he sought and obtained much "patronage" for the College of New Jersey. He was also, for a week, a guest of the Marquis of Rockingham (Prime Minister of England between Lords Grenville and North). He was granted the "freedom of the city" in Edinburgh, Scotland. There he first met Dr. John Witherspoon, who later became a resident of New Jersey himself.[2]

Continental Congress

Statue of Richard Stockton at the U. S. Capitol

In September 1767 he returned to New Jersey, where in 1768 he became a member of the Royal Executive Council of that colony.[2][4][5] Stockton once refused, in writing, to serve as a public official "till I am convinced that by neglecting my own affairs I am doing more acceptable Service to God and Man."[5] Nevertheless, in 1774 he was made a Justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey.[5] Also in that year, he drafted and set to Lord Dartmouth a plan for making America a semi-autonomous polity, "independent of Parliament, without renouncing allegiance to the Crown."[5]

Eventually, however, the intractability of the situation between America and Britain would alter his stance. In 1776 he was elected as a delegate to the Continental Congress.[2][4][5] He arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in time to participate in the debate over the Declaration of Independence. At first he was not disposed to sign the Declaration, though he and Witherspoon had strict instructions to vote for independence.[4] But John Adams persuaded him to sign with his eloquence.[2]

Betrayal and Capture

In September 1776 he was re-elected to Congress, and was detailed on a fact-finding mission to the Army of the North, then under the command of General Schuyler.[2][4] After returning from that mission, he had to hurry to get his family to safety after General Washington was defeated in New York and had to run from Lord Howe across New Jersey. He managed to get his family to safety,[4] but on November 30, 1776, American loyalists betrayed Stockton, captured him in the middle of the night, and turned him over to the British.[4] During his time as a prisoner of the British, he was taken to Perth Amboy, New Jersey, and subjected to cruel treatment.[2]

Imprisonment and Death

Being unwavering in his belief in the cause of Liberty, Stockton refused an offer of amnesty based on swearing allegiance to the King. As a result, The British destroyed his farm and burned his library, which was one of the best in America. Stockton was later transferred to the Provost prison in New York.

After six weeks of lack of food (including twenty-four hours without feeding) and freezing cold weather in prison in New York, Stockton was finally released, this after the Continental Congress threatened Lord Howe with retaliation against British prisoners. Sadly, his health had already been ruined.[2] He was, furthermore, penniless, because of both the destruction of his estate and the severe devaluation of the Continental currency. He also suffered from a cancer in his neck. On February 28, 1781, Richard Stockton died at the age of 51.[2] He was laid to rest at the Friends' Burying Ground at Stony Brook, Princeton.[6]


Portrait bust of Richard Stockton in the Stockton College library

In 1888, New Jersey honored Stockton by donating a statue of him to the U. S. Capitol National Statuary Hall Collection.[5] Only six signers of the Declaration of Independence are so represented.

In November 1968, the New Jersey legislature first approved a bond issue, and in 1969 it passed legislation to establish a college in his honor, the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.[7]

The New Jersey Turnpike Authority also named a service area in his honor.[8]

Statement of Faith

Throughout his life, Stockton was a deeply devoted Christian. Early on, he did not show much interest in serving the public. He told Joseph Reed:

The publick is generally unthankful, and I will never become a servant of it, till I am convinced that by neglecting my own affairs, I am doing more acceptable service to God and Man.[9]

After he had put everything on the line including his own life, he requested the following in his Will:

As my children ... may be peculiarly impressed with the last words of their father, I think proper here, not only to subscribe to the entire belief of the great leading doctrine of the Christian religion ... but also in the heart of a father's affection, to exhort them to remember 'that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.'


  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 Benson John Lossing. Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. New York: George F. Cooledge and Bro., 1848. Reprint: Aledo, TX: Wallbuilder Press, 1995, pp. 77-80
  3. Revolutionary Women in the War for American Independence
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 Authors unknown. "Entry for Richard Stockton." Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Retrieved June 15, 2007.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Authors unknown. "Entry for Richard Stockton." Architect of the Capitol, 2007. Retrieved June 15, 2007.
  6. National Year Book, SAR
  7. Authors Unknown. "A Brief History of the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey." Office of the President, Stockton College, 2005. Retrieved June 15, 2007.
  8. Authors unknown. "Richard Stockton Service Area." New Jersey Turnpike Authority. Retrieved June 15, 2007.
  9. A House Called Morven: Its Role in American History, 1701-1954