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This Day in History: Richard Stockton, signer of the Declaration

On this day in 1730, Richard Stockton is born near Princeton, New Jersey. He was the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to be imprisoned because of his decision to sign that document. Maybe it is shocking that more signers didn’t meet a similar fate?

Stockton was born to an influential family, studied law, and began a promising career. He spent time in Britain and was known and loved by many leaders of the British government. Did that make his vote for independence all the more painful? It was certainly a hard decision for Stockton to make. He would have preferred to reconcile with England, but he eventually concluded that independence was the only possible solution. As a member of the Continental Congress in 1776, he voted for independence.

In late 1776, he returned from a tour with the army to discover that the British were invading New Jersey and his home was in danger. He immediately moved his family to safety, only to discover that he’d been compromised. Loyalists had discovered his location, and Stockton was snatched from his home in the middle of the night.

He spent several weeks during the winter of 1776-77 in the notorious Provost Prison in New York. The conditions were awful. He was in irons, cold, sick, and hungry. His health took a blow from which it would never recover.

Early in 1777, Stockton was finally released on parole at the urging of Congress. He went home to discover his home partially burned, land destroyed, and many valuables gone. Much of his wealth was lost.

There has been some debate on one point: Did Stockton recant the Declaration during his time at Provost? Almost certainly not. For one thing, the rumor was started by a Tory with a personal grudge against Stockton. Moreover, why would Stockton be released on parole (instead of pardoned) if he’d recanted? As historian Edwin G. Burrows notes, the “apostasy of a big rebel like Judge Stockton of New Jersey, the only Signer of the Declaration to fall into their hands thus far in the war, would have been front-page news in papers throughout Britain . . . . [The British] would have played the story for all it was worth.”

None of these things happened.

Either way, Stockton didn’t live too long after his release. Instead, he developed cancer and passed away on February 28, 1781. He never saw America finally win the freedom for which he had sacrificed so much.

After his death, the New Jersey Gazette wrote of Stockton: “The ability, dignity, and integrity, with which this gentleman discharged the duties of the several important offices to which he was called by the voice of his country are well known.”

Maybe his story should be better known by modern Americans, too.

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