The Press of Atlantic City claimed in its headline that Richard Stockton, one of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, was a slave owner. Because of that, his statue was removed from display at Stockton University. But was he? And if he were, should that fact alone deny him recognition and admiration?
Stockton was born in 1730, and became a lawyer in 1754 at age 24. In 1766 at age 36, Stockton traveled to England and Scotland to oppose the British “Stamp Tax” on the recording of public documents and sale of newspapers.
When Richard Stockton returned to New Jersey in 1768, he was appointed to the NJ colonial Senate and then to the Supreme Court. In 1776, Stockton was elected to the Second Continental Congress. On July 2, 1776, Stockton became the first NJ delegate to sign the Declaration of Independence. By signing that document, he declared himself a traitor to the British Empire, subject to a slow painful death, and seizure of all property from his next of kin.
Upon returning to New Jersey, Stockton was betrayed, captured at night in his Princeton home, and transported in the cold with almost no clothing to British headquarters near New Brunswick.
Stockton was offered a “full and free pardon” if he would pledge allegiance to the king of England. However, he refused. Stockton was deprived of food, put in irons, and kept in an unheated British prison in New York where 12,000 American prisoners eventually died during the next eight years of war.
Stockton was released a few months later after the personal intervention of George Washington and the Continental Congress. British loyalists claimed Stockton was released because he later signed papers renouncing American independence and pledging loyalty to Britain. Stockton’s family fiercely denied this claim as vicious pro-British propaganda. Because this controversy, many reports about him made at the time may not be true.
In any case, Stockton’s health was ruined and he remained a sick man, in constant pain, until he died in 1781. His house was occupied by the British army as headquarters. All of his property was seized or destroyed by the British.
There appear to be no official reports that Stockton owned slaves. There is an official probate record showing that a younger Richard Stockton, possibly one of Stockton’s six children or a distant cousin “had several slaves, freeing one in 1823”.
It is well known that Richard Stockton was an active Quaker, a religious sect that openly opposed slavery since the 1750’s and actively harbored runaway slaves through the “Underground Railroad” until the Civil War. Some of Richard Stockton’s closest relatives established abolition of slavery organizations in Princeton. New Jersey did in fact outlaw slavery shortly after the American Revolution.
Bruce Carlson, a Stockton student in the 1990’s commented on our Liberty and Prosperity Facebook Page that he found evidence that Richard Stockton owned a slave named “Marcus”, while researching the history of Stockton’s home called Morven, the official residence of five New Jersey governors. According to Carlson, Stockton’s slave became an apprentice pharmacist for Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of America’s most respected physicians at the time.
Did Richard Stockton own slaves? Was Marcus a slave? Was he an apprentice like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington who were legally controlled by their master for the length of a contract as the price of learning a useful trade? Did Stockton like other Quakers “buy” slaves so they could legally move them from place to place, educate them, and prepare them for freedom?
Should Richard Stockton be condemned for what he did? Should his statue be removed from Stockton University?
Whether Richard Stockton owned slaves or not, he did sign The Declaration of Independence. A giant mural of that Declaration is painted on a wall facing the main Student Center. However, it is painted in a way that makes its words impossible to read.
The U.S. Declaration of Independence declared these “truths” to be “self-evident”: “All men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. . . Among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happingess. . . To secure these rights, governments are instituted, exercising their just powers with the consent of the governed. . . Whenever government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it. . . ”
Those words inspired New Jersey to abolish slavery shortly after the Revolution. That Declaration (and other actions by most Founding Fathers including abolishing slavery in the Northwest Territories in 1787, and adopting a Constitution that limited the voting power of slave states in the federal government and allowed Congress to stop bringing new slaves into America in 20 years) later convinced Abraham Lincoln that most of America’s founders supported the “ultimate extinction” of slavery in America. LibertyAndProsprity.org