Richard Stockton is perhaps one of the lesser-known signers of America’s Declaration of Independence, but he truly gave of his life, his fortune, and his honor for the cause of liberty. He was born on October 1st, 1730; his father, a wealthy New Jersey landowner, provided land for the College of New Jersey, which would later become Princeton University. After graduating from that college in 1748 Stockton studied law, in time becoming a distinguished lawyer and later an appointee to the New Jersey Supreme Court. Opposed at first to the Colonies separating from Great Britain, he was well-received during a 1766-67 visit to England, Scotland, and Ireland, even gaining an audience with the King himself. Stockton’s stance changed, however, as the motherland continued to impose her will on the fledgling United States, and in 1776, as a member of the Second Continental Congress, he was the first of the New Jersey delegates to affix his signature to the Declaration. Fearing for his family’s safety several months later, he took them to the home of friend John Covenhoven, but on the night of November 30th loyalists dragged Stockton and Covenhoven from their beds and turned the two men over to the British. Refusing to accept a pardon from General William Howe by agreeing to remain faithful to the King, Stockton was put in irons at Perth Amboy before being taken to New York, where he was subjected to deliberate starvation and freezing temperatures for over a month. During his imprisonment Stockton’s estate was occupied by General Cornwallis; his library, considered one of the Colonies’ finest, was burned; and his belongings, crops, and livestock were seized or destroyed. A broken man, Stockton never fully recovered from the brutality he suffered at the hands of the British; he died in pain from throat cancer on February 28th, 1781 at only 50 years of age.
At his interment, the Rev. Dr. Samuel S. Smith said of Stockton:
As a Christian, you know that, many years a member of this church, he was not ashamed of the gospel of Christ. Nor could the ridicule of licentious wits, nor the example of vice in power, tempt him to disguise the profession of it, or to decline from the practice of its virtues. He was, however, liberal in his religious principles. Sensible, as became a philosopher, of the rights of private judgment, and of the difference in opinion that must necessarily arise from the variety of human intellects; he was candid, as became a Christian, to those who differed from him, where he observed their practice marked with virtue and piety. But if we follow him to the last scene of his life, and consider him under that severe and tedious disorder which put a period to it, there the sincerity of his piety, and the force of religion to support the mind in the most terrible conflicts, was chiefly visible. For nearly two years he bore with the utmost constancy and patience, a disorder that makes us tremble only to think of it. With most exquisite pain it preyed upon him, until it reached the passages by which life is sustained: yet, in the midst of as much as human nature could endure, he always discovered a submission to the will of heaven, and a resignation to his fate, that could only flow from the expectation of a better life.
Such was the man, whose remains now lie before us, to teach us the most interesting lessons that mortals have to learn, the vanity of human things; the importance of eternity; the holiness of the divine law; the value of religion; and the certainty and rapid approach of death.