Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Blake McGready. A short bio is at the end of this post.
In December 1776, Richard Stockton of Princeton, New Jersey, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, disavowed the American Revolution and swore allegiance to King George III. After British forces imprisoned Stockton, he accepted his captor’s amnesty offer. Revolutionaries considered Stockton’s decision an act of cold betrayal and condemned his perfidy. And yet, following his death in 1781, most biographies avoided or ignored Stockton’s questionable political commitment; one tribute claimed his conviction inspired “the utmost confidence of his associates and the country at large.” Stockton owed much of this comeback to his wife, Annis Boudinot. As a prolific and published poet, she helped erase much of her husband’s political infidelity in her writings. At the time of his death she praised him in one tribute, “Can we forget how patiently he bore / The various conflicts of the trying hour / While meekness, faith, and piety refin’d.” She carefully forgot that her husband abandoned the revolutionaries during “the trying hour.”[i]
Resurrecting her husband’s legacy was one of Annis Boudinot Stockton’s contributions to the emerging history of the American Revolution. While historians have demonstrated how Stockton’s race, class, and gender affected her poetry and understanding of her revolutionary times, her relationship to propaganda, mythmaking, and memory has not garnered extensive interest. In their paintings, funeral sermons, memoirs, and more, early Americans spun narratives that avoided much of the revolution’s violence, radicalism, and divisiveness. Furthermore, revolutionaries considered poetry and other writings as proper democratic vehicles for honoring their history, compared to European and aristocratic forms such as monuments or coronations. The poet Stockton was therefore well-positioned to influence revolutionary narratives.
Whereas Stockton used her poetry to erase the faintheartedness of her husband, she also erased the faintheartedness of the revolutionary movement. Her poems contributed to one of the founding generation’s most powerfully deceitful myths: that revolutionaries were firmly united and did not suffer internal divisions. From the midst of war in 1781 she asserted “So I have seen a venerable oak, / Resist the efforts of each howling blast; / Tho’ o’er it’s root the angry surges broke; / It brav’d their fury to the very last.” She presented revolutionaries as a “venerable oak” able to “resist the efforts of each howling blast,” united in pursuit of American independence. Stockton carefully warped history, erasing the revolutionary civil war, highlighting accounts of British villainy, and imagining that her fellow revolutionaries sustained their conviction throughout the entire struggle. These themes borrowed from and built upon one another in shrewd ways, fashioning a myth that continues to endure in national memory. [ii]
Creating the appearance that the nation sustained its rage militaire, or popular enthusiasm and willingness to fight,throughout the Revolution was a fundamental theme of Stockton’s poetry. “Our shepherds spurn’s the yoke, to arms did fly,” Stockton wrote in 1781, “And stain’d with hostile blood the virgin plain. / But ah! the painful conflict they endur’d, / Between the love of liberty and life, / An dread of ev’ry evil which assur’d / Must be their lot in such unequal strife.” Likewise, Stockton maintained that noncombatants were steadfast in their support for the rebels. “While our dear country supporting these, / Our soldiers’ lov’d remains, their shades shall please,” she continued, minimizing the divisions that characterized the war effort. Her poems avoided the resistance to revolutionary measures, omnipresent anxiety in choosing sides in a civil war, or the timidity exhibited by many (including her husband) in renouncing allegiances as the winds of war changed.[iii]
Annis Stockton also used the advantages of hindsight to invent a timeline where popular support for independence never waned. “Lucinda and Aminta,” a poem Stockton composed after the battle of Yorktown, is instructive. She first remembered the popular outbreak of hostilities (“Our shepherds spurn’d the yoke, to arms did fly”), before moving on to specific engagements (“such deeds atchiev’d / At Boston, Bunker’s hill and Hudson’s side”). When it appeared independence was in doubt (“I remember that gloomy day… Despair and hunger usher’d in their way”), Washington’s army managed a surprise victory at Trenton (“To seize a Hessian camp without delay”) and then another at Princeton (“Deceiv’d by fires which did our camp surround, / ‘Till hearing cannon thunder from afar”). She quickly referenced low moments of the American war effort (“Tho often now a low’ring cloud will rise, / Like Brandewine or Germantown’s defeat”), before pivoting a line later to successes such as the victory at Saratoga (“Yet Burgoine’s fate we never can forget”). After praising “these heroic deeds,” Stockton moved on to celebrate the battle of Yorktown (“Such glorious news! Cornwallis has resign’d”). In this version of events, revolutionary momentum rarely slowed. Stockton evaded moments of doubt and created a narrative structure in which American victory was assured and opposition nonexistent. [iv]
[i] W.A. Whitehead, “Sketch of the Life of Richard Stockton,” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, IV (Newark: 1877), 197; Only for the Eye of a Friend: The Poems of Annis Boudinot Stockton (hereafter Poems of ABS), ed. Carla Mulford (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 99.
[ii] James Kirby Martin and Mark Edward Lender, A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763-1789, 3rd ed. (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2015): 3; Poems of ABS, 109.
[iii] Poems of ABS, 107, 124.
[iv] Ibid., 107, 109-111.
Blake McGready is a Park Ranger with the National Park Service. (The views and conclusions in this essay are those of the author and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the National Park Service or the United States Government.) Blake holds degrees in history from SUNY New Paltz and Villanova University, and has worked at historic sites in his home state of New York and in Pennsylvania. He is particularly interested in the American Revolution, environmental history, and memory. He is currently working on a project about the battle of Princeton in national memory.
One thought on “Annis Boudinot Stockton, Mythmaking, and the American Revolution”
It is very misleading to interpret Richard Stockton’s acceding to neutrality under pressure as an act of mere faint heartedness. The story is more complicated than that. The fact is he, as a signer of the Declaration of independence, was subject to severe duress, if not literal torture, at the hands of the British; while at the same time suffering from cancer and which he succumbed to in early 1781. At the same time, it might seem to be implied he joined the British, when rather his was a declaration of neutrality; which as bad as even that may appear is not at all the same thing as out and out betrayal. Son-in-law Benjamin Rush summed him up this way: “Richard Stockton. An enlightened politician, and a correct and graceful speaker. He was timid where bold measures were required, but was at all times sincerely devoted to the liberties of his country. He loved law, and order, and once offended his constituents by opposing the seizure of private property in an illegal manner by an officer of the army. He said after the treaty with France took place, ‘that the United States were placed in a more eligible situation
by it, than they had been during their connection with Great Britain.’ His habits as a lawyer, and a Judge (which office he had filled under the British government) produced in him a respect for the British Constitution; but this did not lessen his attachment to the Independence of the United States.” In sum, though we might characterize him perhaps as a weakling, Stockton was no traitor.