By John Baxter
At the beginning of a new year, many of us look to the past for an understanding of what has brought us to this point, in the hope of meaning. We string together events into a story. If our fortunes are rising, this exercise in hindsight may give us a comforting sense of being on the right path. We may believe events were guided by some higher being or believe in our own power to control the course of our lives. If our world is in turmoil, looking back over that which was unforeseen a year ago, we may be humbled by our powerlessness to control or to understand.
Time, of course, marches on, events keep coming, and with them, new hindsight. A past previously thought to be understood takes on new meaning. From a moment-in-time, we look at the past with a level of factual certainty lacking when we look to the future. Our understanding is always fragile. As we accumulate knowledge the meaning given to today may crumble tomorrow.
Such was the case for a wedding that took place in Princeton 240 years ago this week.
On Jan. 11, 1776, at her family home Morven, Julia Stockton, daughter of Richard and Annis, wed Dr. Benjamin Rush. Watching John Witherspoon perform the ceremony, many present must have been struck by the coincidences. Ten years earlier, Richard and Benjamin were both in Great Britain, for reasons unconnected to one another. Circumstances joined them in the enterprise of convincing tge Rev. Witherspoon of Scotland to take up the presidency of the College of New Jersey in Princeton.
Years later it was Julia and Benjamin’s shared admiration for the Rev. Witherspoon’s sermons, expressed to each other with equal eloquence and insight, that sparked an attraction. As a result, the wedding unforeseeable in 1765 was, at least in the moment of celebration, enthroned on the mystery of fate, hindsight seeming to provide the common history of Stockton-Rush-Witherspoon with a fresh, higher meaning — an inevitable love.
Not long after, the wedding may have been understood as the last happy gathering of a family soon to be ripped apart. Before the year was over, Julia’s father would be in a British prison; two Stockton cousins, brothers Richard and Joseph, would join Loyalist militia and, in early 1777, one would be taken prisoner and the other killed. Another cousin, Robert Stockton, and Julia’s uncle, Elias Boudinot, would join Gen. Washington, one as quartermaster, the other Commissary of Prisoners.
But on that happy day in January 1776, family and guests undoubtedly looked upon the wedding as a respite from the turmoil flowing after Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill. No doubt toasts for a peaceful year were raised. And yet, a seed for a very different future was already among them. After exhausting superlatives about bride and groom, conversations probably turned to “Common Sense,”an anonymous pamphlet published the previous day in Philadelphia and which would soon galvanize a popular will across the 13 colonies for independence.
Did “Common Sense” reach Morven and become a topic of conversation that quickly? Perhaps not. But there is good reason to think that it did. The pamphlet’s origin begins in a coincidence late in 1774, a year when, as Benjamin Franklin wrote, “… nobody drunk or sober was even talking about war or independence.”
From Morven on Dec. 12, Richard Stockton dispatched to London his plan for how to resolve the differences between Great Britain and her American colonies. One month later, on Jan. 11 (a year prior to the wedding), the Royal Governor of New Jersey, William Franklin, addressed the New Jersey Assembly and Council, of which Stockton was a member. The governor warned his audience to rein in the troublesome colonists or be prepared to face “consequences … deservedly fatal to yourselves.” Stockton quickly got to work preparing the vouncil’s response to Gov. Franklin’s address. It was an unequivocal assurance of cooperation.
On the same day that Stockton sent off his plan, an Englishman of no repute, Thomas Paine, arrived in Philadelphia with a letter of introduction from the governor’s father, Benjamin Franklin. No one, including Paine, would have imagined that a year later, he would be completing a pamphlet that would lay asunder all attempts, including those by Richard Stockton and William Franklin, to save the colonial relationship. That role would come to Paine from none other than Stockton’s future son-in-law.
Benjamin Franklin’s letter opened to Paine the door of Robert Aitken, printer and bookseller,. It was in Aitken’s bookshop that Paine met Philadelphia’s physician and political gadfly, Benjamin Rush. They hit it off as political allies, and soon Rush was convincing Paine to take on a project that Rush had begun but felt he could not complete due to personal relations — a pamphlet promoting separation from Great Britain.
During the later months of 1775, the two men collaborated — Paine did the writing and shared drafts with Rush. Rush gave his feedback, including the title Common Sense. Meanwhile, in his personal life, Rush asked Richard and Annis Stockton for their consent to his courting their daughter Julia. By December the one couple was engaged to be married and the other was putting finishing touches on the pamphlet. As wedding preparations were made, the groom lined up a printer for the pamphlet.
The day before the wedding, “Common Sense” hit the streets of Philadelphia. Given his role, it is hard to imagine that Benjamin Rush didn’t have a few copies on his wedding day.
Of course the full impact of “Common Sense” was unforeseeable to those at Morven that day. No one could have imagined that in July the three men — the father of the bride, the groom, and the minister — would be further locked together as delegates to the Continental Congress, affixing their names, and their fortunes, to the Declaration of Independence. That future would reveal the wedding to be more than just the last happy family event, and not a hiatus from the national turmoil. Nor was it a culmination of the Stockton-Rush-Witherspoon common history begun 10 years earlier. Rather it was an integral part of the story leading to the great civil war and family suffering.
Historians are fond of pointing out that the American Revolution was unexpected. Even after fighting erupted at Lexington and Concord, we are told, the vast majority of the three million colonists were extremely reluctant to make the final break. Over the course of just 18 months, by July 4, 1776, a sea change would occur across the 13 colonies. That radical shift occurred colonist by colonist, family by family and, indeed, many would never give up their loyalty but a tipping point would be reached and independence declared. The fight to win that prize then ensued and, as is the nature of civil war, many families would be divided and would take up arms against one another. No better example exists of the personal dynamic of this struggle — the choices and consequences — than the story of the Stockton family of Princeton in the American Revolution.
John Baxter teaches United States history at Princeton High School. In 2001 he was named a James Madison Foundation Fellow.
AS I SEE IT: A 1776 marriage of many meanings
By John Baxter