It is time to celebrate this year’s Fourth of July by artfully remembering something forgotten in the fireworks, hot dogs, and beer: Danger.
That was what that group of representatives from a string of British colonies faced when they defied their powerful ruler in 1776.
Their now familiar decision “to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another” was in reality a likely death sentence for the signers and thousands of others if the cause failed.
Continental Congress representative and future United States of America president John Adams was not kidding when moments before the signing of the Declaration of Independence he declared, “You and I, indeed, may rue it. We may not live to see the time when this Declaration shall be made good. We may die; die Colonists, die slaves, die; it may be, ignominiously and on the scaffold.” He then ended his speech with the bold refrain, “Be it so. Be it so.”
The 56 well-warned delegates then rose and signed their names — with Princeton’s Richard Stockton being the first — and stepped from a world of security into uncertainty.
The grand and successful moments of the American Revolution, of course, have been translated to images for others to remember. John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence” and Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” are just two that easily come to mind.
Yet these familiar cultural artifacts do not convey the urgency of a time that Adams summed up as “Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish.”
They also do not express the inner turmoil experienced by Stockton who — living the consequences Adams foresaw — saw health and fortunes ruined for liberty.
The following dramatic retelling — one that casts Stockton’s trials as if it were an opera retold in synopsis form — attempts to capture that spirit. The libretto was inspired by a small paragraph in Alfred Hoy Bill’s 1954 book, “A House Called Morven.”
It noted that six months after the wedding of Stockton’s daughter, Julia, to Benjamin Rush in January, 1776, “the bride’s father, the bridegroom, and Doctor Witherspoon, the officiating minister, signed the Declaration of Independence. Exactly a year after the wedding Doctor Rush was dressing wounds on a battlefield within cannon-shot of Morven; Doctor Witherspoon was a refugee; Richard Stockton, his heath ruined by imprisonment, had been forced to relinquish the cause for which he had suffered; Princeton had been ravaged by fire and sword; Morven had been pillaged and its east wing left a roofless, blackened ruin.”
It is this all-too-human and painful story — his “operatic” grasp for fire and fall from grace — that transforms Stockton from a name of a New Jersey Turnpike rest stop or a state college into the stuff of high drama — not portraiture.
Stockton’s story is also a reminder of the dangers the imperfect founders of a “more perfect union” faced when they signed their names to create a new form of government — one without the “Divine Right of Kings” — and put their lives on the line so future generations could freely celebrate.
An Opera for the Mind with music composed by the reader
#b#Richard Stockton#/b#, a prominent Princeton attorney and delegate to the Continental Congress.
#b#Annis Boudinot Stockton#/b#, his wife and poet.
#b#Julia Stockton Rush#/b#, their grown daughter.
#b#Benjamin Rush#/b#, delegate to the Continental Congress, and later soldier and physician in the Battle of Princeton.
#b#Reverend John Witherspoon#/b#, president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and delegate to the Continental Congress.
#b#Elias Boudinot#/b#, Pennsylvania delegate to the Continental Congress and Annis’ brother.
#b#Hannah Boudinot#/b#, wife to Elias and Richard Stockton’s sister.
#b#Mary#/b#, a young servant.
#b#Martha#/b#, an older servant.
#b#John Hancock#/b#, president of Continental Congress.
#b#John Adams#/b#, Massachusetts delegate to the continental congress.
#b#John Covenhoven#/b#, a New Jersey patriot and friend.
The action takes place from January, 1776, to January, 1777.
Morven in Princeton.
A handsome mansion room with high ceilings and large windows that open onto a bright winterscape.
Two servants — the young Mary and the older Martha — prepare the wedding table for festivities. Mary happily notes that it is wonderful that the newlyweds are starting a new life at the start of a new year, one that may bring freedom. Martha disagrees and says that the world now has balance and kings have power. “Who knows what can happen with a change of order?” she adds.
There’s laughter as Richard Stockton and Annis bring in the party, offering table places to Reverend John Witherspoon and his wife, Elias Boudinot and his wife, and the newlyweds Julia and Benjamin Rush.
When Richard offers a toast to the couple, Rush recounts how as a Princeton student he would visit the Stockton home when Julia was just a child and that love grew. He adds that his love of knowledge and liberty also grew and thanks her father and Reverend Witherspoon for his passionate speeches on liberty and asks him to give one now.
When Witherspoon declines, Elias rises and compliments Witherspoon and Richard on their dedication to freedom and human thought, freeing itself from the restrictions of the crown and open to human dignity.
Witherspoon at last stands and acknowledges the occasion but brings the proceedings back to the reason that they are there: the wedding.
He then calls the occasion a wedding of ideas and thanks Richard and Annis for their dedication to liberty and says, “I am sure the bride’s father has some words.”
Richard sees the moment — one with his family, Witherspoon, Elias and Rush — as “an occasion love of love and of liberty” and says that he will do all he can to give his daughter and grand children a life that allows them to live without servitude to old powers.
Witherspoon applauds and asks that they bring out the family Bible, opens to the front piece, and asks all to sign it, reminding them that they need to write their way into the book of life.
Annis lifts her glass for a toast and says that it is also something of the spirit of the house and evokes the name of the Scottish poet Ossian, his mythic tales, and the name of Morven, meaning the mythic “Great Mountains,” something they are climbing. Richard leaps up to second the toast.
As they others stand and join, a rousing song is heard as the doors open and a choir from the university appears and sings of joyous days to the couple and to joyous days to all. Stockton signals the servants who bring in trays of wine and pass out among the singers.
All join with raised glasses and finish with Richard, Witherspoon, Boudinot, and Rush tapping their glasses together, breaking Richard’s.
As the men laugh, the servant Mary offers a new glass, while Martha shakes her head with concern.
As the chorus repeats the line, “Bring the future on!” Annis leads Julia to Rush. As the couple embraces, so do Richard and Annis.
The same room without festive decorations. The outdoors is green and sunny.
Annis sits, writes, and then and recites aloud a new poem. When Richard enters, she directs a line about spring and hope to him, but there’s no reaction. She repeats it, and there is no reaction. As she begins a third time, he puts his hand up.
After rebuking Annis’ inquiries about his mood, Richard admits his concern about the winds of change and worries about her and the family. She replies that she understands and evokes poetry and scripture to provide strength. Stockton is not convinced.
Martha enters with Witherspoon, who holds a document. Annis asks tells him to cheer her husband. She and Mary leave.
Witherspoon muses to Richard about their providential connection, reminding Richard how he came to Scotland and brought Witherspoon to Princeton, how the minister left his home, and how the two now stand in the hands of God and are changing the world for freedom of thought and belief.
When Richard says that he is unsure about the future and lacks a clear vision, Witherspoon smiles and gives him the document.
Richard reads it aloud and discovers that he and Witherspoon have been elected to the Continental Congress and are requested to come to Philadelphia. Please sign, it says.
Witherspoon exclaims “Independence from tyranny is in our hands, and the weapon is in a quill,” and picks up Annis’ pen and hands it to Stockton, who readily signs the document, and calls for Mary to take the letter to the post office.
“We are in it now,” says Witherspoon and extends his hand. As the men shake, Annis enters and repeats her line of poetry about hope and spring.
Pennsylvania State House, Philadelphia.
Assembly Room — individual desks and seats in semi-circle. The Declaration of Independence is displayed on a slanted table.
Members of the Continental Congress — fanning themselves and wiping their foreheads with handkerchiefs — argue with one another, calling, “It goes too far” and “Not far enough.”
Benjamin Rush rises from the group, looks out the window, and worries aloud about the lateness of Richard and Witherspoon. Congress president John Hancock calls for order and a start to the proceedings. Rush implores them to wait for the New Jersey delegates. Others argue.
Stockton and Witherspoon rush in, ask pardon, and describe a storm and a delay. The delegates use the opportunity to continue their argument.
Hancock calls for order while John Adams shouts over everyone and asks to speak. Hancock approves.
Adams stands alone and delivers his impassioned speech, “Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish, I give my hand and my heart to this vote. It is true, indeed, that in the beginning we aimed not at independence. But there’s a Divinity that shapes our ends. Why, then, should we defer the Declaration? You and I, indeed, may rue it. We may not live to see the time when this Declaration shall be made good. We may die; die colonists, die slaves, die, it may be, ignominiously and on the scaffold. Be it so. Be it so.
“Before God, I believe the hour is come. My judgment approves this measure, and my whole heart is in it. All that I have, and all that I am, and all that I hope, in this life, I am now ready here to stake upon it; and I leave off as I began, that live or die, survive or perish, I am for the Declaration. It is my living sentiment, and by the blessing of God it shall be my dying sentiment. Independence now, and Independence forever.”
As the delegates are heard repeating the lines, “I am ready here to stake upon it, all I am, all I hope,” Richard rises and repeats the words to himself, “In the beginning we aimed not at independence. But there’s a Divinity that shapes our ends. Why, then, should we defer? Independence now, and Independence forever.”
He joins with the chorus “Be it so. Be it so” and walks to the document and signs it. Others line behind him. Lights fade to black.
In the dark, a cannon shot.
The room at Morven — Gray sky and autumn trees outside the windows.
A harried Annis stands in the middle of the room quickly reading documents before putting them in a storage box before her. Mary rushes in and says that she heard that British soldiers are advancing from the north.
Richard appears with a note and exclaims that Washington is fleeing the state and congress has fled to Baltimore.
Annis begs him to help her pack one last thing, the Bible that they all signed. They look at it and contemplate what providence has in store for them, then pack the Bible.
Witherspoon arrives and after exchanges of concern, they share their plans. Witherspoon will go across the Delaware River. Stockton is accepting an invitation from his friend, John Covenhoven in Monmouth. Witherspoon warns of the danger of staying in New Jersey, but Stockton says he needs the comfort of friendship and will let providence direct.
Witherspoon replies that one needs to check one’s heart before allowing such a thing to happen. Annis says that she has checked her own. Witherspoon replies, that one should remember to check one’s tongue and leave no clue to where they are going.
As Richard escorts Witherspoon out, Annis closes the box as Mary and Martha reappear with Mary telling Annis that the family needs to go. “There is a reward on you,” says Mary.
Annis asks Mary to bury the Bible with the other materials. And then gives both Mary and Martha money and a letter that grants them use of the house.
What about you? Mary wants to know. Annis tells her where they are going. Stockton returns and says they need to hurry.
Annis looks at the room and says she will see it soon.
As they leave, Martha gazes at vanished couple, then down at the money, and clenches her fist.
Lights up on the handsome entrance to John Covenhoven’s house.
There’s pounding on the door and Covenhoven appears and opens it to reveal a wet Annis and Richard in the rain.
Covenhoven welcomes them and notes that with the British in control of the region that he was fearful for them. Then dismissing the couple’s appreciation, he says he will get them food and drink.
Alone, Annis shares with Richard her hopes to see Morven again. She then apologizes for bringing him into the situation. Richard is confused, and Annis says it was she and her brother who first embraced liberty and perhaps influenced him. He admonishes her and reminds her of his own steps to the moment and his willing signature to the document. “Then we have brought this on together and will face it together,” she says.
She then shares what her life with him has meant to her, and he says everything he does is for her.
As they embrace, there is the sound of a crowd outside. It grows louder. As Annis and Richard stand frozen, the door explodes open to show a militia and its leader pointing towards Stockton, “Take the traitor! Restore order! Restore the world that we know!”
The chorus repeats the phrase as men seize Stockton. He and Annis extend their arms to one another, but she is pushed away as Stockton is pulled into the rain and night.
Covenhoven rushes in and comforts Annis who stands alone with her extended arms.
Lightning flashes as she puts her hands to her eyes and sobs.
A dark cell in a prison ship off the coast of New Jersey.
Richard — in shackles and a tattered nightshirt — shivers, coughs, and pleads with the guard for a blanket and bread. The guard appears at cell door, laughs, and admonishes Stockton, “That is what traitors to the king deserve.” Richard wants to know the date. When the guard replies December 23, Stockton realizes he has been in prison for a month. The guard then tells him the news of defeats for Washington and that the revolution will be tamed by spring.
As Richard asks himself “What can be done?” Figures in his thoughts appear around him: Adams reciting his speech; Annis speaking of liberty and poetry; Witherspoon speaking of freedom, and Rush talking of love and liberty.
Richard exclaims, “What have we done?” He drops to the floor in agony and coughs.
As he does, a British officer arrives, watches, and approaches. He holds a document and announces that he is a representative of Colonel Howe and is offering the opportunity for freedom. But there is a provision: that he signs this document.
Richard says he has refused the parole before and will not pledge allegiance to the king.
The officer tells him to realize that the colonial forces are weak and the revolution is a losing cause, that there is no honor in being executed as a traitor and knowing that one’s wife will be thrown into destitution, and that Howe is actually responding to a request from General Washington and offering freedom in exchange for a promise that he not help the war in any way.
The officer concludes by telling Richard that thousands have never left this prison and to think about the offer, he places the document and quill before him, and leaves.
Stockton asks himself if he has been wrong, if he is weak and is unsure of his fate. He then repeats lines from Witherspoon’s words at the wedding about the book of life and recalls Adams’ phrase, “Be it so, be it so.”
He crawls to the document, painfully says “Annis,” signs, and collapses completely.
The once handsome mansion room at Morven is in ruins. Broken windows reveal a bleak winterscape. Light snow falls through the ceiling.
There is a low and minor key refrain from the students’ wedding-day song as Julia and Benjamin Rush escort Annis into the room.
Now the song fades away, and Annis asks what has happened. Rush painfully recounts how during the Battle of Princeton, after attending the wounded he made his way to Morven to find that General Cornwallis had used their home and upon fleeing let soldiers loot and carry away the livestock and burn furniture and books.
Annis recalls the year before — who sat where, what they wore, how they looked, what was said, and the hopes they had. Meanwhile, Mary enters with the box she had moved before they fled and says it is time to return.
Annis opens the box, lifts out the Bible, puts it on the table, and says to Rush, “They call him a traitor. Is that true?”
When he replies, “I do not believe it,” she asks, “Then what is the truth?” “His love for you,” replies Rush.
As Annis turns away and asks “when will I see him again?” a weakened and feeble Richard enters and stares at her. Julia goes to him, kisses him, and then nods to her husband and exits, leaving Richard and Annis alone in the ruins. When he coughs, Annis turns and rushes to him. He flinches as they embrace. They gaze at one another.
“What have we made?” he asks as a light snow falls outside and through the roof on them.
She replies, “Our choices. And we will continue to do so.”
The distant chorus resumes. Annis hears it, smiles, moves to the Bible, raises a pen, and asks him to remember the “book of life, one that needs to be constantly written.”
He painfully approaches and takes her hand. They hold the pen together and sign the Bible before embracing.
The chorus rises, as he falls into a chair, puts his hands over face, and sobs. Annis embraces him.
#b#Epilogue#/b#: Richard Stockton died on February 28, 1781, never seeing the end of the war for the cause that filled his dreams and ruined his life: Liberty.
U.S. 1 preview editor Dan Aubrey has worked as a stage manager for a number of small theater companies, including La Mama Experimental Theater Company in New York, and served as producing director for the Actor’s Equity Foundation Theater in southern New Jersey. He has written several professionally produced original plays and adaptations.