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Painting by Robert Edge Pine.

New Jersey’s Declaration of Independence signers were not professional politicians

By David Wildstein, July 04 2021 12:01 am

Just one of the five New Jerseyans who signed the Declaration of Independence went on to run for public office.

Abraham Clark had served in the Continental Congress in 1776 and was the only New Jersey delegate who supported independence from the start. The pro-Independence legislature recalled their other four delegates and sent a new delegation to join Clark.

Two of his sons served in the Continental Army; both were captured and brutally tortured.  The British offered to spare the lives of Clark’s sons if he would recant his signing of the Declaration of Independence, but he refused.

Clark ran again for Congress in 1791 and was the top vote-getter. He served in the Second and Third Congress from 1791 until he died in office in 1794.

Clark was the clerk of the New Jersey Provincial Assembly, before becoming Essex County Sheriff and a member of the Provincial Congress.  Clark and four others were appointed the Continental Congress on June 21, 1776 when New Jersey replaced delegates who opposed separation.

After serving in the Continental Congress through 1778, he later represented Essex County on the New Jersey Legislative Council.

Two of Clark’s sons served in the Continental Army and both were captured, beaten and tortured by the British.  Clark refused a deal to spare the lives of his sons if he recanted his position on independence.

Richard Stockton, one of George Washington’s best friends, served on the New Jersey Provincial Council from 1768 to 1774, when he was named to the New Jersey Provincial Supreme Court.

While serving in the Continental Congress, Stockton ran for Governor of New Jersey.  He and William Livingston tied on the first ballot and Livingston later won the race by one vote.  As a consolation prize, Stockton was offered the post of Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, but he declined the offer.

His son and grandson represented New Jersey in the United States Senate: Richard Stockton replaced Frederick Frelinghuysen in 1796 and served two years, lost three races for governor, and then served as a congressman from 1813 to 1815; and Robert Stockton served as Military Governor of California before serving in the Senate from 1851 to 1853.

Francis Hopkinson was the customs collector in Delaware before moving to Bordentown and taking a seat on the New Jersey Provincial Council.

President Washington nominated him to serve as a judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Pennsylvania in 1789.  He served on the bench until his death in 1791.

Some historians say that Hopkinson, and not Betsy Ross, was the designer of the U.S. Flag.

John Hart began his political career as a Hunterdon County Freeholder in 1750.  He served in the New Jersey Colonial Assembly from 1761 to 1771 and later became of judge.  He served as a member of the Revolutionary Assembly before joining the Continental Congress thirteen days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

In August 1776, Hart returned to New Jersey to serve as Speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly.

His great-great-great-grandson, John Hart Brewer, was a New Jersey Congressman from 1881 to 1895.  Another descendant served as mayor of Hopewell and on the township committee until his defeat last year.

John Witherspoon, the president of a college that would become Princeton University, was sent to the Continental Congress in 1776 and served until 1784.  He served two terms in the New Jersey Legislature.

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