Stockton, Richard

Stockton, Richard 1748 (1730-1781), a member of the first graduating class, and the first alumnus elected a trustee, was born in Princeton of a Quaker family that was among the community's earliest settlers. His grandfather came to the colonies in 1696 and a few years later acquired from William Penn a large tract of land that embraced the present borough of Princeton. His father inherited the portion of the property that included the dwelling later named ``Morven'' where Richard was born, and was, for many years, presiding judge of the court of common pleas; a liberal patron of the College, the elder Stockton's influence contributed to its being located in Princeton.

Richard received his preparatory education at Samuel Finley's academy in Nottingham, Maryland, and graduated from the College in 1748 when it was still located in Newark. All of his five classmates went into the ministry. Stockton read law in the Newark office of David Ogden, a leading member of the New Jersey bar, and was admitted to the bar in 1754. He opened an office in Princeton and acquired a reputation for being the most eloquent and persuasive advocate in New Jersey. Among the able young men who read law with him were Joseph Reed 1757 and Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant 1762, both of whom later served as attorney general of Pennsylvania, and William Paterson 1763, later attorney general and governor of New Jersey.

In 1757, when he was twenty-seven, Stockton was elected a trustee of the College. Ten years later, while on an extended visit in Great Britain, he was asked to go to Scotland to extend to John Witherspoon the trustees' invitation to succeed the recently deceased Samuel Finley as president of the College. Stockton was ``successful in removing all the objections which originated in Witherspoon's mind,'' but not those in Mrs. Witherspoon's, and he wrote his wife, ``I have engaged all the eminent clergymen in Edinburgh and Glasgow to attack her in her entrenchments, and they are determined to take her by storm, if nothing else will do.'' Finally, with the help of Benjamin Rush 1760, then a medical student at the University of Edinburgh, Mrs. Witherspoon was persuaded to consent, and her husband accepted the call.

After his return, Stockton took an increasingly active part in the political life of the Province of New Jersey. In 1768 he was made a member of its council and in 1774 a judge of its supreme court. Elected a delegate to the Continental Congress on June 22, 1776, he took his seat in Philadelphia in time to hear the closing debate on the Declaration of Independence and to sign it along with Witherspoon and Rush. Two months later, in a vote by the state legislature, he was narrowly defeated for the governorship of New Jersey by William Livingston, and was then chosen first chief justice of the state, but declined this office, preferring to continue in the Continental Congress.

The following November, when British troops were rapidly approaching Princeton, Stockton took his family to the home of a friend in Monmouth County for safekeeping. While there, he was betrayed to the British by Loyalists and was dragged in bitterly cold weather to Perth Amboy. He was later taken to New York and put in the notorious Provost Jail, where he suffered brutal treatment until January 3, 1777, when a formal remonstrance from Congress led to his release.

Upon Stockton's return to Princeton, it became known (according to a letter from President Witherspoon to his son, David) that during his imprisonment the British had persuaded him to sign General Howe's Declaration, which required an oath of allegiance to the Kin~g -- an act Stockton revoked later that year by signing oaths of adjuration and allegiance prescribed by the New Jersey legislature. His health shattered, his estate pillaged, his fortune depleted, he continued to live in Princeton, an invalid, until his death from cancer on February 28, 1781, in his fifty-first year. ``It was one of his earliest honors to have been a son of this college,'' said Vice President Samuel Stanhope Smith at Stockton's funeral in Nassau Hall, ``and it was one of the first honors of his college to have given birth to such a son.'' He was buried in the Quaker burial ground at Stony Brook Meeting House.

Stockton's wife was Annis Boudinot, daughter of a merchant and silversmith who was for a time postmaster of Princeton. Their eldest daughter Julia married Benjamin Rush. Stockton's descendants occupied prominent places in the College and town, the state, and the nation. Among them were a United States secretary of the treasury, Richard Rush 1797; two judges of superior courts; three state attorneys general; and four United States senators.

A portrait of Stockton hangs in the Art Museum, one of his wife, in the John Maclean House. The Stockton family home, Morven, became the official residence of the governor of New Jersey in 1951. New Jersey's Richard Stockton State College was dedicated in his honor in 1971.


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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