Richard Stockton was born near Princeton, New Jersey to John Stockton on October 1, 1730. John Stockton was the founder of the College of New Jersey. Richard attended the West Nottingham Academy under Dr. Samuel Finley, and then earned his degree at the College of New Jersey (Now Princeton) in 1748. He studied law with David Ogden of Newark, the most prominent lawyer in the area at the time. He was admitted to the bar at the age of twenty-four and quickly gained a reputation for being an excellent attorney. Stockton became an eminent lawyer with one of the largest practices in the colonies.
During this time Richard made many influential friends. He was a long-time friend of George Washington and had a close relationship with Benjamin Rush. It was his unique relationship with Rush that led to the acquisition of John Witherspoon. Witherspoon was given the position of President of the College of New Jersey and made it a university that rivaled Harvard and Yale. He also had friendships with James Madison and Aaron Burr. Even though he had many friends of influence and was considered one of the brightest attorneys in the Middle Colonies, Stockton had no use for politics and displayed a distrust in the public. It would be the Stamp Act that would begin to push him into politics.
He applied his talents and person to the Revolutionary cause when the day came. He was appointed to the Royal Council of New Jersey in 1765 and remained a member until the government was reformed. He was a moderate with regard to Colonial autonomy. He argued that the colonies should be represented in the Parliament. With the passage of the Stamp Act, such arguments were overcome by Colonial backlash.
Stockton was a moderate at the Second Continental Congress and disagreed with the more extreme points of both views. He wanted reconciliation, but he saw the reality of independence. He was more of a realist in a convention full of idealist and was not easily taken in by their rhetoric. He struggled with how they would pay for the war, raise an army, support an army, and govern themselves. These were all things that needed to take place before independence could be declared. He drafted a plan to give the colonies their independence without renouncing the British crown. King George III rejected it. This took place in 1774 and by 1775 Stockton was now in favor of independence.
In 1774, he was appointed Justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey. In 1776, the New Jersey delegates to the Congress were holding out against Independence. When news of this reached the constituents, New Jersey elected Richard Stockton and Dr. Witherspoon to replace two of the five New Jersey delegates. They were sent with instructions to vote for Independence. Accounts indicate that, despite clear instruction, Justice Stockton wished to hear the arguments on either side of the issue. Once he was satisfied, the New Jersey delegates voted for Independence. After the Declaration of Independence had been penned by Thomas Jefferson and edited by the committee it needed to be signed. Richard Stockton would become the first to sign the Declaration of Independence. He would pay the price for placing his signature on that document.
Stockton was appointed to committees supporting the war effort. He was dispatched on a fact finding tour to the Northern army. The Continental Congress sent George Clymer and Richard Stockton to Fort Ticonderoga, Saratoga and Albany to help the Continental Army. On his return to the Continental Congress he took a detour and visited his friend John Covenhoven. New Jersey was overrun by the British in November of ’76, when he was returning from the mission. He managed to move his family to safety, but he and John were captured by loyalists. Stockton was stripped of his property and sent on a forced march to Perth Amboy. It was at Perth Amboy where he was given to the British. General William Howe offered Stockton and other prisoners a free pardon if they were renounce the Declaration of Independence and swear allegiance to the King. Stockton refused. Shortly after he was beaten, interrogated, and intentionally starved. Stockton was then moved to Provost Prison in New York where he was subjected to freezing cold weather. After nearly five weeks of abusive treatment, Stockton was released on parole, his health was battered.His old friend, George Washington, negotiated his release, but Stockton’s health was already destroyed. He was required to sign a paper that would forbid him to help the war in any way after his parole. Upon his release he resigned from Congress in 1777 and according to his close friend Benjamin Rush it took him two years to fully regain his health. He returned to his estate, Morven, in Princeton, which had been occupied by General Cornwallis during Stockton’s imprisonment. All his furniture, all household belongings, crops and livestock were taken or destroyed by the British. His library, one of the finest in the colonies, was burned.
To earn a living Stockton reopened his law practice and taught new students. Two years after his parole from prison he developed cancer of the lip that spread to his throat. He was never free of pain until he died on February 28, 1781.In the last years of his life Stockton was tried in the court of public opinion as to whether or not he took an oath to the King for his release. John Witherspoon quickly dispersed these false accusations.