Naturally, the only one of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence who recanted – who, later on, swore allegiance to the British – hailed from New Jersey.
A well-known New Jersey college is named after this gentleman. So is a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike.
But there were powerfully extenuating circumstances in the case of Richard Stockton (1730-1781).
He had suffered horribly in a British prison before recanting. He was ill. His home had been destroyed. And at the time, it seemed that our country was clearly losing its fight for independence. Stockton was a desperate man.
After he was freed, he once again swore loyalty to the United States.Today historians tend to absolve him of any of wrongdoing. In fact, the book, "Signers of the Declaration," by John and Katherine Bakeless (1969), in its biography of Stockton, doesn't even mention that he recanted.
Denise Kiernan and Joseph D'Agnese, authors of "Signing their Lives Away: The Fame & Misfortune of the Men Who Signed the Declaration of Independence" (Quirk Books, 2009), conclude that "... it's possible he recanted his patriotic ideals to gain his release."
An article in American Heritage (December, 1962) proudly proclaimed that not a single one of the signers of the Declaration had defected.
Another article in the same magazine, in June 1975, by Frederick Bernays Wiener, responded, "Alas, this is not quite true."
Mike Wright, author of "What They Didn't Teach You About the American Revolution" (Presidio Press, 1999), tells it like it was: "Many histories waffle on the subject, but one Declaration signer did recant his signature on that famous document: Richard Stockton."
Stockton's grandfather had acquired property in Princeton and built a house there, called Morven (now a state museum). Richard was born at Princeton, attended the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), then studied law. At 22, he married, and the couple's first child, Julia, went on to marry the celebrated physician Dr. Benjamin Rush, also a signer of the Declaration.
In 1774, Stockton became a justice of the state's Supreme Court.
He was sympathetic with the rebels, and warned the English that unless proper steps were taken, there would be an "obstinate, awful and tremendous war." He opposed the Stamp Act.
Elected to Congress from New Jersey, he listened to a speech by John Adams – and voted for independence, as did all of his New Jersey colleagues. Said he, "The man to whom the country is most indebted for the great measure of Independence is Mr. John Adams of Boston."
He joined the war effort, but on Nov. 30, 1776, Stockton and a friend, John Covenhoven, a member of the state legislature, were captured by Tories. He was thrown into jail in Perth Amboy, then moved to a prison in New York. He was treated like a criminal, not a political prisoner – and treated so harshly that his health deteriorated.
Both the colonists and the British treated their prisoners harshly -- often intentionally. The British kept many of them in ships in New York harbor. They were cold; they were hungry. Deaths were frequent. "As many as 11,500 Americans died while in British prison ships, perhaps more rebels than died in the fighting," writes Wright.
Surgeon Albigence Waldo, a prisoner himself, reported that American prisoners in Philadelphia, "in their last agonies of hunger, scraped mortar and rotten wood from the walls and greedily ate it for the temporary sensation of nourishment which it gave."
The day Stockton was captured, the British commanders – General William Howe and Admiral Viscount Howe – offered a pardon to all American rebels who would sign a loyalty oath within 60 days.
Stockton "had walked out of prison a free man by submitting to King George III, the man against whom he had forsworn allegiance six months earlier," Wright reports.
At least four other signers of the Declaration were captured and held prisoner, and none recanted. One of them, Thomas Heywood Jr. from South Carolina, just before he was released from prison at St. Augustine, Fla., wrote new words to the British national anthem, "God Save the King." His new title: "God Save the Thirteen States."
Some 4,800 American prisoners were reported to have recanted – 2,700 from New Jersey. Among those who recanted: John Covenhoven.
A signer of the Declaration, the Rev. John Witherspoon, later visited Princeton and wrote to his son that "Judge Stockton is not very well in health and much spoken against for his conduct. He signed Howe's Declaration and also gave his Word of Honour that he would not meddle in the least in American affairs during the War."
Morven had been used as a military headquarters by the British, who had later destroyed it. At this point, Stockton had so few resources that he had to ask for help from his friends.
He couldn't return to politics. Wiener writes: "By then, however, Stockton's reputation was so far destroyed that further public employment was quite impossible."
Stockton died in Princeton at age 51.
The lesson, and it's a good one, is that even otherwise admirable people may have their flaws, their weak moments. Francis Bacon was on the take. Shakespeare wrote the anti-Semitic play "The Merchant of Venice," and in his will left his wife only his "second-best bed." "Shoeless" Joe Jackson couldn't honestly say that it wasn't so – nor could all those baseball players who took steroids (unless they lied).
Beethoven sold the same music to more than one publisher. Joan of Arc recanted, too – and recanted her recantation when she learned that it would not save her life. Charles Lindbergh, besides being friendly with the Nazis, had three secret families and seven secret children. George Washington kept slaves. Mozart rejoiced in the death of that blasphemer, Voltaire. And then there are all those politicians (presidents, vice presidents, contenders) who were guilty of hanky-panky (including Alexander Hamilton).
How someone feels about Richard Stockton – did he deserve censure ... pity? – may depend on how compassionate that person is. I suspect that people living in the Red states are more critical and people living in the Blue states more sympathetic.