Richard and Annis Stockton – An Epic Tale

By Linda Arntzenius

Princeton’s history is nowhere more apparent than in street names like Washington, Stockton, Mercer, Olden, Bayard, Nassau, and Witherspoon, to mention the most obvious. But for whom was Alexander Street, Guyot or Harrison named? And what of Mansgrove, Mount Lucas, and a host of others? Starting with the Princeton-born Richard Stockton (1730-1781), the first person from New Jersey to sign the Declaration of Independence, Princeton Magazine embarks on a series of articles exploring the history behind such references.

The history of this particular Richard Stockton (there were many, as Richard was a popular family name) and his poet wife Annis Boudinot Stockton (1736-1801) is tied to their home at Morven, now a museum, and the revolution against Colonial rule that forged a new nation.

The challenge of writing about historical figures is to bring the long dead to life within the context of their times. When local dramaturge Dan Aubrey took on that challenge, he turned to opera for his “Dramatic Recounting of an American Tragedy.” His “opera for the mind with music composed by the reader,” focuses on the short eventful period that turned the lives of Richard and Annis Stockton upside down.

Richard and Annis made a handsome couple. According to one source, he had green eyes, was six feet tall and slender, and was an accomplished swordsman and horseman. Contemporary accounts show his poet wife Annis to have been his match; their letters to one another reveal a loving relationship that produced four daughters and two sons. They were comfortably well-off, prominent members of Colonial society.

As a young lawyer, working his way up the Colonial ladder, Richard had many professional advantages. The future Continental Congressman was born in Princeton to John Stockton (1701-1758), the wealthy landowner who helped bring to Princeton what would later become Princeton University (then known as the College of New Jersey and located in Elizabeth). Ten years after its founding in 1746, the College moved to Princeton although it wouldn’t be officially named Princeton University until 1896. Richard graduated in 1748, in the first class. He studied law, was admitted to the bar in 1754 and by 1763, was a sergeant at law, the highest law degree at that time.

Active in the development of the College, Richard represented its interests, as well as the interests of the American Colonies, on a trip to Britain in 1766. His efforts persuaded the famed Scottish Presbyterian Minister John Witherspoon to leave hearth and home to take up the College presidency. In Britain, Stockton moved in eminent circles. He was consulted on American affairs by members of Parliament and personally presented an acknowledgment of the repeal of the Stamp Act from College trustees to King George III. It was reported to have been favorably received by His Majesty. On his return to New Jersey, Stockton was given a seat in the New Jersey Provincial Council by his friend, the Royal Governor; an appointment to the Colonial New Jersey Supreme Court followed in 1774.

At Morven, Annis presided over a literary salon and, according to her contemporary Milcah Martha Moore, “demonstrated her affection for the British literary greats by replicating a version of Alexander Pope’s gardens at Twickenham (arguably the center of cosmopolitan literary culture).”

Richard and Annis lived privileged lives and yet they joined the patriot cause. Why? Like many leading colonists, the Stocktons became increasingly disillusioned with British rule.

web 1Operatic History

Aubrey chose opera to tell Stockton’s story, he says, because its high style suits epic drama. “Yes it’s contrived, but it’s elevated and I want people to feel this story, to awaken their own imaginations and connect with it.”

“As for Richard, what a dramatic life! He was put on a prison ship just off Perth Amboy; he lost everything, his health was affected,” says Aubrey. “And the more I found out about Annis, the more I discovered a deeply interesting personality filled with poetry, art, knowledge, care and hope for liberty. She’s radical but very quiet about it. As I get older I appreciate how truly radical these first patriots were. They put everything on the line for an idea.”

Aubrey gets excited when he talks about the Stocktons. Having been part of the first class of students at Richard Stockton University (then College), he has long had an ear for Stockton references. During his three decades as a writer and administrator with arts and cultural organizations, he’s found no shortage of them across the state, including the rest area on the southbound New Jersey Turnpike.

And of course, Aubrey adds, who wouldn’t be inspired by the romance of “Morven,” the name Annis gave their home after the fabled castle of King Fingal in James McPherson’s Ossianic saga, then all the rage.

Before putting his name to the Declaration of Independence, Richard had taken a moderate rather than a revolutionary stance. In 1774 he put forward “a plan of self-government for America, independent of Parliament, without renouncing the Crown.” One wonders what might have transpired had his suggestion been acceptable to the British. Instead, the following year, Parliament resolved to raise revenue in the Colonies. In response Stockton suggested that the Colonies seek representation in the House of Commons, “or else we shall be fleeced to some purpose.”

Ultimately revolution seemed the only recourse this side of the Atlantic. Stockton was one of five New Jersey signatories to the Declaration. Soon after, with the British pursuing the retreating American army down the King’s Highway, the Stocktons were forced to flee their home.

Constance M. Greiff and Wanda S. Gunning’s impeccably researched history Morven: Memory, Myth and Reality describes what happened. The Stocktons sought refuge with a friend in Monmouth County. But the region was a loyalist stronghold and not long after their arrival, Richard was dragged from his bed in the middle of the night and turned over to the British at Perth Amboy. Morven was occupied by the British under General Cornwallis. Its contents were taken or destroyed along with all of the crops and livestock. Its library, said to be one of the finest in the Colonies, was burned. “The whole of Mr. Stockton’s furniture, apparel, and even valuable writings have been burnt,” reported his son-in-law Benjamin Rush. “All his cattle, horses and hogs, sheep, grain and forage have been carried away.”

“Richard Stockton was the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to be imprisoned by the British just because he signed,” says Richard (Dick) Stockton Snedeker, a contemporary Stockton descendent and history enthusiast.

Stockton was moved from Perth Amboy to New York’s notorious Provost Prison, where he was half starved and inadequately clothed during the harsh winter weather. More prisoners died in British prisons and prison ships than on the battlefields—over 12,000 compared to 4,435 soldiers killed in combat over six years of war. Stockton endured almost five weeks before being paroled on January 13, 1777, the day after Hugh Mercer died following the Battle of Princeton.

The release document called for Stockton to give his word not to participate in rebellion and it seems that he kept his word. Two years later he developed a cancer that spread from his lip to his throat. He died at Morven on February 28, 1781, at the age of 51, and was buried at the Quaker cemetery at the Stony Brook Meeting House in Princeton. In 1888, the state donated a marble statue of Stockton to the National Statuary Hall Collection at the United States Capitol.

Mistress of Morven

Richard and Annis were close friends of George Washington and his wife Martha, who visited Morven on numerous occasions. Annis was among Washington’s favorite correspondents. As one of the nation’s first published female poets, she wrote in support of the patriot cause, memorializing figures like Washington in epic verse. A witty and versatile writer, Annis held her own among the intelligentsia and literati of her day. Her poems reflect a passion for gardens, history, natural philosophy, and politics, and were read far beyond the Colonies in England and France.

Born on her father’s plantation in Antigua, Annis had a privileged life. Her father, Elias Boudinot, was a silversmith and merchant whose ancestors were French Huguenot refugees. She married Richard circa 1757 after the family moved to Princeton in the early 1750s. The couple’s six children were born at Morven: Julia, in 1759 (married to Declaration Signer Benjamin Rush); twins Mary and Susan, in 1761; Richard, in 1764; Lucius Horatio, in 1768; and Abigail, in 1773.

At the time the family left Morven, the children were aged between 3 and 17. Twelve-year old Dick, then a student at the College stayed behind with a servant, possibly to guard the house and prove that it had not been abandoned, and Annis had the presence of mind to bury the family’s silver as well as papers associated with the American Whig Society. The Society was a secret revolutionary group and the papers where a Who’s Who of Princeton patriots, so it was vital they did not fall into the wrong hands. In gratitude, after the war, Annis was appointed as a member of the Society, a singular honor for a woman at that time.

While Annis published poems in leading newspapers and magazines of the day, it was not until 1984, when a manuscript copybook with more than 120 of her poems and other writings passed from private hands (Christine Carolyn McMillan Cairnes and her husband George H. Cairnes) into the New Jersey Historical Society that the true extent of her output was known. A complete collection was published in 1995.

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Subsequent Generations

After Richard’s death and until 1795, Annis stayed on at Morven, which was inherited by the Stockton’s elder son, also called Richard. Like his father, Richard Stockton (1764-1828) studied law and graduated from the College of New Jersey (in 1779). He married Mary Field in 1788 and had nine children. Because he felt that the College was becoming too secular, he contributed land for the Princeton Theological Seminary. This Richard went on to represent New Jersey in the United States Senate (1796-1799) and serve in the House of Representatives (1813-1815). He was the first U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey. Subsequently Richard’s younger brother Lucius Horatio Stockton (1765-1835) became U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey.

Richard and Annis’s grandson, Robert Field Stockton (1795-1866) is perhaps the most colorful character in the long line of Stocktons. Known as “The Commodore,” his life was a 19th century adventure of “derring do,” peppered with heroism, seafaring battles, and characters like the Wild West dispatch rider Kit Carson. This Stockton saw action in the War of 1812 and went on to become the Military Governor of California when the Mexican army was defeated in 1846.

The Commodore began as a midshipman in the U.S. Navy in September 1811, shortly after his 16th birthday, and served on ships from the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the coast of West Africa, and Europe. After the official abolition of slavery, he captured several slave ships and helped negotiate the treaty which led to the founding of the state of Liberia. He also tried his hand at mining gold in Virginia and, although he was offered the post of U.S. Secretary of the Navy by President John Tyler in 1841, he declined, going on instead to support the construction of an advanced steam warship with a battery of very heavy guns.

After leaving the Navy in 1850, he was elected as a Democrat from New Jersey to the United States Senate in 1851 and sponsored a bill to abolish flogging as a Navy punishment.

And just as his grandfather had tried to bring about a peaceful end to Colonial struggle prior to the Revolutionary War, The Commodore was a delegate to the Peace Conference that attempted to settle the secession crisis in 1861. The attempt failed and Civil War began later that year. In 1863, Robert F. Stockton was appointed to command the New Jersey militia when the Confederate Army invaded Pennsylvania.

Other famous Stocktons include the Commodore’s son John Potter Stockton (1826-1900) who followed family tradition to serve as a United States Senator (1865-1866) and as New Jersey Attorney General (1877-1897).

Today’s Stockton descendents include Martha Stockton of Stockton Realtors, whose father Bayard Stockton III, was one of the last members of the Stockton family to live at Morven. The house was sold in 1945 to Governor Walter E. Edge, who ensured that it would eventually be transferred to the State of New Jersey to be used either as an executive mansion or as a museum. Formerly used by the state as the Governor’s mansion, Morven is now a museum.

Marlee Sayen Schmucker, who works as Morven’s development and communications manager, has Stockton family roots as the 6th great-granddaughter of Richard Stockton through her father’s side. “It has been fun learning more about my family through working here,” says Marlee. “I now know that my connection to Richard, ‘the Signer,’ is through his son Richard Stockton, Jr. then to Robert Field Stockton, ‘the Commodore,’ Robert Field Stockton, Jr., Robert Field Stockton III, and then to Mary Agnes Blackfan Stockton Janney, my great grandmother, to Hannita Evalyn Blackfan Janney, my grandmother, and to William Stockton Mellon Sayen, my father.”

Sean Murray is connected to the Stockton family through his mother and has researched the family history. He’s been told that he resembles the Morven portrait of one of Signer Richard Stockton’s two sons. The connection, he says, has led to an appreciation of America’s place in history, “and the risks our ancestors took to give us the country we have today. Richard’s story, in particular, is a tragic one and evidence of what was at stake by embracing the revolution. I have a highly developed respect for those who took those risks, not knowing the outcome.”

Princeton’s Stockton Street may owe its name to the Signer of the Declaration of Independence but, thanks to his Commodore grandson, the Stockton name traveled far beyond Princeton
and Stockton, New Jersey to towns in California, and Missouri.

For more on the history of Morven, see Morven: Memory, Myth and Reality by Constance M. Greiff and Wanda S. Gunning. For more on Annis Boudinot Stockton, see Only for the Eye of a Friend: The Poems of Annis Boudinot Stockton, edited by Carla Mulford (University of Virginia Press, 1995), a copy of which is in the Princeton Room of the Princeton Public Library. Dan Aubrey’s “Dramatic Recounting of an American Tragedy” and Ken Wilkie’s cartoon were first published in U.S.1 Weekly, July 1.