The darkness was oppressive in the small, windowless cell. The dense, moist air pressed in around the prisoner as he sat in the corner, only a thin army blanket to keep him warm. Suddenly the door swung open, and warm light poured into the room, pushing out the blackness and illuminating the face of the captive. “Come with me” said the guard who held the door open. A few moments later, the prisoner, clad in the rags that had once been a fine suit of clothes, stood before a panel of British officers, decked out in their finest military regalia.
“Richard Stockton” the most senior officer began, “you have been tried and found guilty of treason against the King. What have you to say for yourself?” The prisoner lifted his head with pride and responded with a tone of resolution in his voice; “You may believe that your accusation of treason is well founded, but it is because you are foolish enough to believe that I answer to the King. But sir, I am a servant of the people, and I answer to no despot.” The British officer stared deep into Richard’s eyes to find some waver of fear, but the prisoner remained unflinching. It was clear that this man would not be moved. Surprisingly, It had not always been that way.
“The public is generally unthankful, and I never will 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.”
He had meant every word of it. Now, with a flourish, Richard Stockton signed his name to the letter and sealed the envelope, effectively halting the flood of requests for his appointment to local government. He was tired of it all. He was just a humble lawyer who had devoted himself to leading a peaceful and quiet life, a man who purposefully avoided the political scene whenever he could. Long ago Richard had decided to leave the impersonal nature of politics to other men. He chose to dedicate his efforts to institutions that actually did some good. When his father had left him the family estate and a large inheritance, Richard put them to good use, donating land and contributing financially to build up the College of New Jersey, an organization in which he took great pride. In fact, the College may not have survived without his generosity. Between his law practice, serving as a trustee of the College, and raising his family of seven, Richard was perfectly content with his life, and insisted that politics remain far from his doorstep.
But the forthcoming days would prove to be turbulent for the non-partisan lawyer and his family, as tensions rose between the independent-minded colonists and their imperial sovereign. Richard found that he struggled to remain neutral as lines were drawn, factions formed, and muskets cocked. It was truly a time for choosing, and Richard Stockton found himself right in the middle of it. At age 45, Richard had been nominated to represent the colony of New Jersey at the Second Continental Convention. For the first time, Richard realized that the same politics he had ignored all those years had slowly eroded the rights of his neighbors, and had become anything but impersonal. Suddenly, a dreadful thought came over Richard. By keeping himself isolated from the political realm, he had contributed to the problem. By remaining silent when he could have spoken, Richard had aided those who sought to oppress. By not acting when he could have resisted, he had allowed his neighbors to be robbed of their liberties. Richard sank to his knees, and realized the debt he owed to his fellow man. With this revelation came a realization: All was not lost. There was a way to repay this error. Immediately, Richard accepted the nomination to the Continental Congress.
He had found his conviction, and was “convinced that by neglecting his own affairs, he could do more acceptable service to God and Man.”
At the Convention, Richard began to encourage other delegates to consider the weight of history that bore down upon them at that very moment. He did not spend an idle second, but passionately defended the liberties he had previously taken for granted. When a Declaration of Independence, drafted by one of the Virginia delegates, was proposed, Richard whole-heartedly supported it. When that very same declaration was put to the vote, many later said that it was Richard Stockton’s voice that cried the loudest; “yea”. And when the Declaration was signed, Richard was never more proud of his name than how it appeared on the bottom of the charter.
Soon it became clear that the King would not let the American Colony go without a fight, and so Richard stayed to assist the fledgling patriot army in the War for Independence. It was only then that he was stopped. Richard was captured by a British raiding party as he attempted to evacuate a family from the path of the army.
Richard was immediately recognized by his British captors as an influential proponent of independence, and was treated accordingly. They had offered him a deal. He would renounce the cause of Independence and recant of his involvement in the passing of the Declaration, or he would face charges of treason. Richard firmly refused. After sitting in the darkness of his cell for weeks, eating only what food was pushed through the keyhole, the door had swung open and the guard had barked “Come with me”. He had stood in the middle of the room, clad in the rags that had been his suit, and faced the panel.
Now he faced them, ready to give his final testament. Richard stared back into the eyes of the British officer as he spoke: “If the finding of this court is the crime of treason, than so be it. For my only ‘crime’ was patriotism, and my ‘treachery’ was loyalty to my God and my fellow man.”
Even when enticed with freedom, Richard Stockton did not betray his calling to civil service. He was released on parole only when George Washington personally condemned the British treatment of prisoners.
The College of New Jersey, Richard’s pride, and the university that he shaped, was later renamed “Princeton University”.
Sources + Bibliography:
– Jefferson, Thomas. Declaration of Independence: archives.gov
- Library of Congress Archives, archives.gov
- United Sates Congressional Biographies, congress.gov
- U.S. Congress, Journals of the Continental Congress, Government Printing Office, 1904.
- Boyer, Marilyn. For You They Signed: Marilyn Boyer, 2009.
- Sanderson, John. Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence: R. W. Pomeroy, 1823.