AS I SEE IT: A tale of lost hope and Thanksgiving


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By John Baxter
Two hundred and forty years ago this week, in 1776, American soldiers were lying down to die in the streets of Princeton. With their last breaths they stubbornly refused to be the “summer soldiers” or “sunshine patriots” of which Thomas Paine would write weeks later in “The American Crisis.” Around them panicked residents scattered. The British were coming.
Thirteen years later, in 1789, President George Washington issued the first national Thanksgiving Proclamation. He called upon Americans to give sincere and humble thanks to Almighty God for many blessings including “the able interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war …” The people of Princeton certainly had reason to agree that divine intervention had saved the American Revolution. They had witnessed the most remarkable reversal of the war.
That first Thanksgiving Day happened to fall on Nov. 26. It was on that day in 1776 that George Ross, member of the Continental Congress, wrote from “Prince Towne”: 
“The distress of our Soldiers who I have met almost naked and hardly able to walk or rather wade through the mud has given infinite pain but I shudder to tell you that they fall dead on the road with their packs on their backs or are found accidentally perishing in hay lofts.”
The living remains of the Continental army moved on, snaillike, leaving behind a trail of itself. Somehow, within six weeks, they rose up, returned and marched atop those frail tracks, victorious — but not before many had lost hope in the Patriots’ cause, including one of Princeton’s most prominent residents, Richard Stockton.
Stockton was one of hundreds of individuals caught directly within that ebb and flow of the military campaign, which shook societies, fractured families, and altered lives forever. Changing circumstances challenged their survival and moral instincts. Stockton’s story of fate and fortune stands out, however, because he had signed the Declaration of Independence.
On or about the day of Ross’ letter Stockton returned to Princeton from upstate New York where he had inspected the northern army for the Continental Congress. At Saratoga he had found the “great part of the men barefooted and barelegged” as winter approached. “(S)hall the brave troops from New-Jersey stand in the lines half-leg deep in snow, without shoes or stockings?” he wrote on Oct. 28. He returned home in late November to the desperate scene described by Ross.
At his home Morven, there was a letter from John Witherspoon, imploring Stockton “to lose as little time as possible” in getting assistance from Congress for the sick of Princeton. Witherspoon assumed his friend would be rejoining Congress in Philadelphia. Stockton, however, never did. Although he held service in Congress in high regard — in September he had turned down the honor of being the first Chief Justice of New Jersey’s Supreme Court in order to continue in Congress — the landscape of the war was changing. The British were advancing upon Princeton and opposition appeared feeble.
A few days later, on Nov. 30, a discouraged William Hooper wrote from Congress, “no person here (in New Jersey and Pennsylvania) seems more interested to oppose the Enemy than if they existed in the moon.” British Gen. Richard Howe undoubtedly sensed the fragility of the Continental’s cause. He sought to exploit it issuing a Proclamation, also on Nov. 30, offering “a full & free Pardon of all Treasons … heretofore Committed or done” to anyone declaring loyalty to the King. Thousands of New Jersey residents would sign a declaration.
A week prior to the proclamation, Congress had formed a new committee to rally opposition to the British “with full powers, to devise and execute measures for effectually reinforcing Gen. Washington, and obstructing the progress of Gen. Howe’s army.” In his letter of the 30th, Hooper attributed the continuing resolve of Congress to the fact their “Power of Swallowing depends upon the Event” — in other words, they faced being hanged as traitors should the revolution collapse. The committee was ordered to act swiftly, albeit a member was missing — Richard Stockton.
While many of Stockton’s neighbors fled west toward Pennsylvania and away from British forces, he chose to go east to Monmouth County, taking his family to the home of friends in Freehold. It was a curious choice as Monmouth was a known hotbed of Loyalists. There, on the night of Nov. 30, Loyalists seized Stockton and his host, John Covenhoven, and marched them off to Gen. Howe.
Earlier that day, while Gen. Howe issued his Proclamation, the New Jersey Legislature had voted to continue Stockton’s appointment as delegate to Congress for one year — fate thus presenting Stockton with a stark choice. On Dec. 2, on his second day in British custody, he wrote a letter of resignation from Congress. He signed a declaration of loyalty to the King and received Howe’s full pardon.
From the beginning of the war in 1775 Stockton had been a rather reluctant revolutionary. He was the most conservative of the five New Jersey delegates who signed the Declaration of Independence; the last to be convinced to do so; and now the only signer to renounce it. His decision to “turn his coat,” however, should not be reduced to political ideology.
Stockton had witnessed the dismal conditions at Saratoga. He had left his spare clothing with the soldiers and wrote of how his “heart melts with compassion” to think of their future. He made the harrowing journey around New York City and across northern New Jersey, areas controlled by the British. He then witnessed the suffering in Princeton. He had the safety of his family as well as his own “power of swallowing” to consider. Given the circumstances, who could blame him for losing hope? To many, the Revolution appeared to be lost, causing Thomas Paine to pen the immortal words, “THESE are the times that try men’s souls.”
Stockton’s torment continued when released on Dec. 29. He learned that Washington had resurrected the revolution three days earlier with a daring crossing of the Delaware River and victory at Trenton. He learned Morven was still a British headquarters, as it had been for weeks. He returned, therefore, to the Covenhoven home and on Jan. 3 heard the news that Washington had won another battle, this time at Princeton. The tide of the war had turned.
His house now empty, Stockton went home. Perhaps he wished he could also go back to Nov. 29 and change course away from Freehold. A story started circulating in Princeton that Stockton had chosen to go to Freehold to seek Howe’s protection. In other words, he had decided to switch allegiance voluntarily, before any duress of imprisonment — his capture by Loyalists had not compelled him. Stockton denied this.
Regardless, he kept his word to Howe and never again participated in the conflict. He did, however, break from the Crown, again. In December 1777 he was summoned before the New Jersey Council of Safety to take the Oath of Abjuration and Allegiance. Had he refused, it is likely his property would have been subject to forfeiture.
As he took the oath, Stockton must have marveled at the twists of fate. That October the Continental Army had its greatest victory of the war, and it happened at Saratoga — where he had been moved by compassion to give the soldiers his clothing a year earlier. With that victory, the Patriot cause continued to rise. Following the Battle of Monmouth in the summer of 1778, the British retreated from New Jersey never to return.
Richard Stockton didn’t live to read Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789. He died in 1781, months before the final British surrender at Yorktown; not knowing if independence would be won or not. But undoubtedly he would have been as thankful for independence as any American.
For all of us Thanksgiving is a day to reflect on our history — long-term as well as short; national and familial as well as individual. We give thanks for the blessings we enjoy, and perhaps even more so when those blessings are tinged with a special sense of wonder, knowing that once they seemed beyond hope. 
John Baxter teaches United States history at Princeton High School. In 2001 he was named a James Madison Foundation Fellow. 

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