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Richard Stockton


Photo by: National Statuary Hall Collection

Signer of the Declaration of Independence

RICHARD STOCKTON was born October 1, 1730 near Princeton, New Jersey. His family was ancient and respectable. His great grandfather, of the same name, came from England around 1670, and after residing a few years on Long Island, moved with a number of associates to an extensive tract of land, of which present day Princeton is nearly the center. This tract consisted of 6,400 acres. Richard Stockton was the eldest son of John, who had inherited the family estate "Morven" and was for years chief judge of the court of common pleas of Somerset county. His early education was highly respectable and he entered the college of New Jersey, graduating in 1748.

After leaving college, he studied law with the honorable David Ogden, of Newark, who was at that time the head of the legal profession in the province. Stockton was admitted to the bar in 1754 and soon rose to great distinction, both as a counselor and an advocate. He avoided politics and rendered important service to the College, afterward known as Princeton, as a trustee. In 1766 and 1767, he gave up his practice for the purpose of visiting England, Scotland, and Ireland. While he was in Scotland, his personal efforts resulted in the acceptance of the presidency of the College by the Reverend John Witherspoon. Witherspoon's wife had opposed her husbands taking the position but her objections were overcome with the aid of Benjamin Rush, who was a medical student in Edinburgh. This was an exceedingly important event in the history of higher education in America.

Stockton returned to America and the following year, 1768, he was made a member of the executive council of the province and in 1774 was promoted to the supreme bench of New Jersey. He struggled at first towards reconciliation between the colonies and Britain and in December 1774 he sent Lord Dartmouth a proposal for colonial self-government. However, he soon became active in efforts to organize opposition to the crown and on June 21, 1776, he was chosen by the provincial congress to be a member of the continental congress.

Stockton married Annis Boudinot, a poet in her own right and sister of Elias Boudinot, who married Stockton's sister. The Stockton's had six children, their son Richard became an eminent lawyer and prominent Federalist leader, and his daughter Julia married Dr. Benjamin Rush, also a Signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Although quiet during the opening debates for independence, by the close of the discussion he expressed his agreement in the final vote with a short but energetic speech. He was reelected to congress, where he was an active member and in September 1776, he became a candidate for governor of New Jersey under the state's new constitution. On the first ballot Stockton and William Livingston received an equal number of votes, but Livingston won by one vote on the next ballot. Stockton was then chosen chief justice of the state, but he declined in order to remain in congress. 

Stockton's political career was unhappily shortened by military developments in New Jersey. On September 26, 1776, he and George Clymer were appointed to a committee to inspect the northern army. On his return home, he found the British advancing and Stockton moved his family to Monmouth, to the home of John Covenhoven. Stockton was betrayed to the enemy and on November 30, both Stockton and Covenhoven were dragged from their beds at night and taken to the common prison in New York. Stockton was treated with unusual severity and brutality that seriously affected his health. His home was pillaged, his library, which was one of the best in the country, had been burned by the British, and his lands were laid to waste. Stockton's treatment in the New York prison prompted congress to pass a resolution directing George Washington to inquire into the circumstances and not long afterward, Stockton was exchanged. However, he never regained his health and his fortune was so greatly diminished by the devastation of his property, that he was forced to accept the temporary aid of his friends. The indignities and suffering left him a broken, humiliated man. He remained an invalid until he died at Morven on February 28, 1781.

Source: Centennial Book of Signers

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For a High-resolution version of the Original Declaration of Independence

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