Monday, July 7, 2014

Richard Stockton: Signer of the Declaration of Independence

The signature of Richard Stockton on the Declaration of Independence

 My family moved to a small town four years ago.  The Fourth of July is a big deal here and a large chunk of the community turns out for the annual Fourth of July parade.  It's a lot of fun, and we all get into the spirit of the day.

This year, after the parade had ended, the cookout was cleaned up and the kids were in bed, I dug back into the bins of photos and documents left to me by my grandmother, LaVerne Rutherfurd Smith.  Inside, I found a short letter written by my grandmother that detailed how her interest in genealogical research began.  It reads as follows:

At a family supper on the Fourth of July in 1957 the children wanted to know about the American Revolution we were celebrating.  Then came the question, "Did we have anyone in the Revolutionary War?"  "Of course," came the response.  Then the hard one: "Who?"  That began the search which has led to endless interesting searching and down many side roads of family history.

The coincidence of finding this on the Fourth of July made me smile.  Yes, as my grandmother discovered over the years, we do have ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War.  Even better, we have a semi-distant relation who signed the Declaration of Independence.  While Richard Stockton is not a direct ancestor, his contribution to American history is certainly worth highlighting here. 

 Richard Stockton is my second cousin nine times removed.  His great-grandparents, Richard and Abigail Stockton, are my tenth great-grandparents and the Stockton line's immigrant ancestors, having emigrated from Cheshire County, England to New Jersey in the mid-1600s.  Richard Stockton, the signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born on October 3, 1730 in Princeton, New Jersey.  He was the son of John Stockton and Abigail Phillips.  His father, John Stockton, was wealthy and influential, having served for many years as a judge in the Court of Common Pleas in the County of Somerset, New Jersey while America was still a British colony.  Together with four other local men, he donated the acreage and funds necessary to establish Princeton University.

Statue of Richard Stockton located in the United States Capitol
Richard Stockton was the eldest of John and Abigail's children.  He became a lawyer and a good friend of George Washington.  He served as a trustee of the College of New Jersey, later Princeton University.  He was also a member of the King's Council for New Jersey.  As tensions between Britain and its colony heightened in the mid-1700s, Richard Stockton was torn between his belief that America should separate itself from the crown, and his career and longtime friendships with devoted loyalists.  The book "Biographies of the Signers" by John Sanderson details Stockton's difficulties during this time and his conflicting allegiance. Eventually, Stockton fell firmly into the rebel camp, working on behalf of American independence.

In 1776, Richard Stockton was elected to the Second Continental Congress, and also elected the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court.  He turned down the court position in order to retain his role in Congress.  On July 4th, he signed the document that the Congress had drafted declaring the colonies' independence from England.  His son-in-law, Benjamin Rush, husband of his daughter Julia, also signed the Declaration of Independence.

On November 30, 1776, Stockton was captured by loyalists and turned over to the British.  He was jailed at Perth Amboy.  Stockton was freed six weeks later, but his health was never the same.  He had been subjected to freezing temperatures, starvation and brutality during his prison stay, and the effects of that mistreatment lingered until his death from cancer on March 7, 1781.

An image of Richard Stockton can be found in the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.  He is also featured in John Trumbull's famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence which hangs in the Capitol Building's rotunda.  In that image, he is between Benjamin Franklin and John Hancock, seated on the left in a group of four men.

It is an indirect relationship, but one that certainly inspires pride.  To be connected, however distantly, to one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence is pretty amazing.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Sierra! This whole branch of the family is really interesting. I'll get around to writing more about them at some point, I'm sure.

  2. What an interesting story and something to be proud of for sure!