Yet contemporary readers gloss over those words as if they meant as little then as they do now.
I assure you that was not the case back in 1776.
These men did in fact risk everything. And some of them paid the price.
One man who paid it all was Richard Stockton of New Jersey.
He didn’t intend for it to be that way. For many years, Stockton had sought only a quiet legal career. However, Providence continually redirected his path towards the cause of American independence. Setting aside his legal practice for a few years to travel in Great Britain, Stockton and fellow American Benjamin Rush (then studying medicine in Edinburgh) recruited a Scottish Presbyterian pastor named John Witherspoon to come to New Jersey to head up the College of New Jersey (later Princeton).
Their efforts were successful and under Witherspoon’s leadership, Princeton would become the intellectual breeding ground for American independence.
The fate of these three great men was often intertwined. Stockton, Rush and Witherspoon would later sign the Declaration together. Rush would also marry one of Stockton’s daughters. Rush and Witherspoon, though, would live much longer than Stockton.
In 1774, Stockton took a seat on the highest court in New Jersey. As the fateful day in 1776 approached, Stockton sought to be a moderate and reconciling voice, constantly seeking some sort of compromise with the British Crown.
He was, at best, a reluctant revolutionary. But his moderation was not shared by the Crown.
Thus, when Stockton was elected to the Continental Congress in June of 1776, he went to Philadelphia as an outspoken advocate for the independence of the colonies. A short time later, he signed the Declaration.
On November 30 of that same year, as British troops pillaged New Jersey, Stockton was pulled out of his bed at night and tossed into the local prison. He was treated with unusual severity – the British apparently not remembering that Stockton had only recently advocated a declaration of independence as a last resort.
Stockton’s home – including his spectacular library – and his farm were destroyed.
Since he was a member of the Continental Congress, his imprisonment was noted at the highest levels. George Washington quickly arranged for a prisoner exchange and Stockton was released after one month in prison. However, the severe and inhumane treatment had already ruined his health. The destruction of all of his earthly possessions no doubt broke his heart.
The damage had been done. Stockton remained an impoverished invalid the rest of his life and died in 1781, before the end of the war, at the age of 51.
His courageous pledge of his life and fortune was called upon.
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