Annis Boudinot Stockton
Annis Boudinot Stockton was one of America’s first female published poets. Annis was a close friend and favorite correspondent of General George Washington. Some of the letters from Washington are included in the biography of Annis and her husband His Sacred Honor, Judge Richard Stockton a Signer of the Declaration of Independence by her fifth great-grandson John C. Glynn, Jr.
Only for the Eye of a Friend is the published book of 125 of Stockton’s works by Carla Mulford. Mulford wrote “Known among the Middle Atlantic intelligentsia and literati as a witty and versatile writer, considered by George Washington and the Chevalier de La Luzerne a gracious and elegant host, Annis Boudinot Stockton wrote over a hundred poems on the most important political and social issues of her day. The Revolutionary War, the presidency of Washington, the installation of Congress, women’s friendships, the births, marriages, and deaths of friends and relatives—Stockton touched on all of these themes in writings that set her apart as one of the most prolific poets of eighteenth-century Anglo-America. The quality and quantity of Stockton’s literary output makes her an apt counterpart to her seventeenth-century predecessor Anne Bradstreet and nineteenth-century poet Emily Dickinson”. Many of her poems were published in newspapers of the day such as the Pennsylvania Chronicle, the New York Mercury, and periodicals such as the Columbian Magazine, the New American Magazine and American Museum.
According to Mulford, the fact that Annis could write and that she wrote poems was remarkable. Most women of her class were able to read, although the only thing they read was the Bible. Some young women could write, if only their names. Young women who could read and write, and wrote poetry were most unusual. What made Annis extraordinary was that she could also do needlework and play the harp.
Annis Boudinot was the first daughter born of Catherine Williams and Elias Boudinot in Darby, Pennsylvania, July 1, 1736. Elias descended from Elias, Seigneur de Cressy, a prosperous Huguenot merchant living near La Rochelle that came to New York after he fled from France at the promulgation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.
Her father, apprenticed in New York as a silversmith and merchant, then traveled to the West Indies to run a small plantation. There he married Catherine, the daughter of a Welsh planter in Antigua, West Indies. From Antigua they moved to Darby, Pennsylvania, where Annis was born, then to Philadelphia a few years later where he established a shop and home next door to Benjamin Franklin, where he worked as a trained silversmith, and repaired clocks. Her brothers, Elias and John attended Franklin’s Academy and Annis possibly did as well, as she could read and write.
Her family moved to Princeton, New Jersey, in 1756 when her father became Postmaster of Princeton and opened a tavern close to the College of New Jersey. Annis met her future husband Richard Stockton, a successful lawyer that was admitted to the bar in 1754, and in 1763 received the degree of Sergeant at law, the highest degree of law at that time.
Annis and Richard Stockton married in 1757, and named their home ‘Morven’. Their daughter Julia was born on March 2, 1759, twins Mary and Susan on April 17, 1761, John Richard April 17, 1764, Lucius Horatio in 1768, and Abigail September 8, 1773.
The College of New Jersey was founded by Richard Stockton’s father John and John’s step-father Thomas Leonard in 1752 and is now known as Princeton University. In 1766-1767, Richard Stockton traveled to England, Scotland, and Ireland, and had the honor of personally presenting to King George III an address acknowledging the repeal of the Stamp Act. Annis stayed behind with the children for his 15-month absence. He wrote to Annis often and shared his adventures such as his attendance at the Queen’s birthday ball and meetings with members of Parliament and other eminent men and noblemen of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
While in Scotland as a trustee of the College of New Jersey, he convinced Reverend John Witherspoon to accept the presidency of the College. This was an exceedingly important event in the history of higher education in America. Fortunately, Annis had her brother Elias, a lawyer trained by her husband and married to Richard’s sister, Hannah, to help with the running of the estate during his absence.
Richard and Annis had two Negro slaves, one named Marcus probably born at Morven and after his mother’s death. Annis served as his wet nurse and later taught him to read and write. Years later, he worked as a carriage driver for her son-in-law Dr. Benjamin Rush in Philadelphia, and Annis wrote of “having brought him up as my own son.” In Richard Stockton’s will, he wanted to grant his slaves their freedom, but left it to Annis to liberate them at her discretion. She later hired servants to help her.
In 1772, young Alexander Hamilton called on Annis’s brother Elias and his wife Hannah and lived with them for two years. Annis was fond of him and later wrote poems about Hamilton. Aaron Burr was the son of her dear friends Esther and Aaron Burr that died when he was a child. Tragically, years later Vice President Aaron Burr would kill Alexander Hamilton in a duel.
After Richard’s return to America in 1768, he was elevated to a seat in the royal legislative judiciary, and in 1774, Richard Stockton donned the splendid robes of a judge of the provincial Supreme Court. Annis and Richard lived in a state of splendor, adopted by distinguished men under the royal government. Every stranger who visited Morven was cordially welcomed in the genuine style of ancient hospitality, and it was customary in those days for travelers and visitors to call upon men of rank.
Richard Stockton struggled toward reconciliation between the colonies and Britain, and on December 12, 1774, he drew up and sent to Lord Dartmouth, Secretary for the Colonies entitled, “An Expedient for the Settlement of the American Disputes,” which was a plan for the self-government of America, but still owing allegiance to the English Crown. If something of the kind were not done, he warned the result would be an obstinate, awful and tremendous war. When all his attempts failed, he resigned his royal appointments and was made a member of the Continental Congress.
In 1776 as a member of the Continental Congress, he voted for and later signed the Declaration of Independence. Their son-in-law, Dr. Benjamin Rush, also signed the Declaration of Independence, as did his friend Reverend John Witherspoon.
On September 26, Richard Stockton was sent on a two-month journey to inspect the northern army that was in need of clothing, provisions, and all necessary things. He wrote to fellow signer Abraham Clark on October 28th “the Regiment is marching with cheerfulness, but a great part of the men barefooted and barelegged. My heart melts with compassion for my brave countrymen who are thus venturing their lives in the public service and yet so distressed. There is not a single shoe or stocking to be had in this part of the world, or I would ride a hundred miles through the woods, and purchase them with my own money- for you’ll consider that the weather here must be different from that in New Jersey; it is very cold now I assure you. For God’s sake my dear sir, upon the receipt of this collect all the shoes and stockings you can, and send them off for Albany—if any breeches, gloves and coats be ready send them along—But shall the brave troops from New Jersey stand in lines half leg deep in snow without shoes or stocking—God forbid. I shall empty my portmanteau of the stockings I have for my own use, but this is a drop of water in the Ocean.”
As the British invaded New Jersey, Annis remembered important and dangerous papers that had been deposited in Whig Hall, nearby at the College of New Jersey. She gathered them secretly herself and buried them with the family valuables in her garden –a feat for which she was made the only woman member of the Whig Society.
Leaving Albany, New York on November 21, Richard arrived home a few days later, and on November 29, he moved his family 30 miles to the home of his friend John Covenhoven, as their home, Morven, was in the path of the British Army.
On the night of November 30, Richard and Covenhoven were dragged from their beds by a band of Tories and delivered into the hands of the British at Perth Amboy. As a Signer of the Declaration of Independence, Richard was treated with particular brutality, marched through the freezing weather to the common jail, and then sent to the Provost Prison in New York, where he was put in irons, kept without food for twenty-four hours, and then given only the coarsest fare. Reports of his ill-treatment were such that on January 3, 1777, the Congress directed General Washington to send a protest against it to General Howe. The formal remonstrance from congress and other efforts to obtain his exchange resulted in his release in 1777.
Annis and the children, 15-year-old twin girls; John Richard, 12; Lucius, aged 8; and three-year-old Abigail; were homeless until mid-January when their home was occupied by British General Cornwallis and Colonel Harcourt. Their concern for Richard must have been incredibly stressful considering he could be hung for treason.
In mid-January 1777, Stockton was finally released in very poor health, and they met their son-in-law Doctor Benjamin Rush who wrote, “At Princeton I met my wife’s father who had been plundered of all his household furniture and stock by the British army, and carried a prisoner to New York, from whence he was permitted to return to his family upon parole.” Rush also estimated the Stockton’s loss, including horses, cattle, and sheep, to be not less than five thousand pounds.
The valuable library was burned, and forever lost. The portraits of Richard and Annis were slashed, bayoneted, and thrown out of doors. Thankfully, Annis salvaged her Bible and some letters Richard had written to her during his absences.
Annis endured Richard’s poor health for nearly two years, and then he developed cancer of the throat and died before the war ended in 1781 at age 51. Richard Stockton paid the cost of his avowed patriotism, fulfilling his pledge by giving his “life, fortune and Sacred Honor” to his native country. Annis suffered through the fear, anxiety, loss of property, and ultimately, the loss of her husband, for the American Revolution. Annis wrote to her brother Elias “Though a female, I was born a patriot.”
It seems many women of the time were strong patriots as British General Cornwallis wrote “We may destroy all the men in America and we shall still have all we can do to defeat the women.” Doctor Benjamin Rush wrote “The women of America have at last become principals in the glorious American controversy.”
After Richard’s death, Annis remained at her home, Morven, with her children and hosted George and Martha Washington and other dignitaries when Congress moved to Princeton in 1783, and her brother Elias Boudinot served as the President of Congress and signed the treaty of peace with England.
After a public reception by Congress for General Washington in Princeton, Annis expressed her feelings in a poem and sent it out to “Rocky Hill” where Washington and Mrs. Washington were living at that time.
Say; can a female voice an audience gain
And Stop a moment thy triumphal car?
And wilt thou listen to a peaceful Strain
Unskilled to paint the horrid Scenes of war?
The motive only stamps the deed divine.
But thy last legacy, renowned Chief,
Has decked thy brow with honors more Sublime,
Twined in thy wreath the christians firm belief.
Thus crown’d, return to Vernon’s soft retreat;
There, with Amanda, taste unmixed joy.
May flowers Spontaneous rise beneath your feet,
Nor Sorrow Ever pour her hard alloy.
And, oh, if happly in your native Shade
One thought of Jersey Enters in your mind,
Forget not her on Morven’s humble glade,
Who feels for you a friendship most refin’d.
(Note: Amanda was Martha Washington’s pen name)
Washington replied with a lightly humorous touch with which he is rarely credited. She had sent an apologetic letter along with the poem. So he began:
Rocky Hill, Sept. 2d, 1783
You apply to me, my dear madam, for absolution, as though I was
your father confessor…You have reason good, for I find myself
strongly disposed to be a very indulgent ghostly adviser on this
occasion, and not withstanding ‘you are the most offending soul alive,’
(that is, if it is a crime to write elegant poetry,) yet if you will come
and dine with me on Thursday. . . I will strive hard to assist you in
expiating these poetical trespasses on this side of purgatory. . ..I will
not dare to charge you with an intentional breach of the rules of the
decalogue in giving so bright a coloring to the services. I have been
able to render my country, though I am not conscious of deserving
anything more at your hands than what the purest and most disinterested friendship has a right to claim; actuated by which, you will permit me
to thank you, in the most affectionate manner, for the kind wishes you
have so happily expressed for me and the partner of my domestic
enjoyments. Be assured we can never forget our friend at Morven,
and that I am, my dear madam, with every sentiment of friendship
“Your most obedient and obliged servant,
Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, a student at the College of New Jersey, called Annis the “Duchess of Morven” for her elegance and dignity of manner.
Annis’ brother Elias Boudinot also served in Congress again from 1789-1795. He was the first president of the American Bible Society. Elias is responsible for our Thanksgiving Holiday; for it was Elias that proposed on Sept 25, 1789, a resolution that we officially celebrate a day of public thanksgiving. After much debate, it was agreed on, and President Washington then issued a proclamation designating a day of prayer and thanksgiving.
Annis continued to host dignitaries at Morven for many years. Her oldest son, Richard, was in his later years known as the “Old Duke,” and like his father was a lawyer, elected to Congress and served during the War of 1812. He lost his son Horatio in the war and another son, Commodore Robert Field Stockton, became a naval hero, conquered California in 1846, served as first military Governor (Stockton, California is named for him), and later served in the Senate.
Annis lived at Morven for several years with her son Richard, wife Mary, and their family of six children. In later years when Washington paid his last visit to Annis, she was boarding at a friend’s house in the neighborhood. Her last few years were spent with her youngest daughter, Mrs. Robert Field at White Hill, New Jersey. In May 1799, she wrote that she was unable to walk. In January 1801, her grown children gathered to bid her a last farewell. “Her latter end was happy and full of peace and joy” her beloved son-in-law Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote in his autobiography. “Her mind was perfectly clear and rather joyous” wrote her brother Elias. She died on February 6, 1801, having outlived her dearly loved husband almost exactly twenty years and was buried at White Hill, a patriot to the end.
Kathryn Glynn and John C. Glynn, Jr.
Descendant – 5th Great-Grandson of Annis Boudinot and Richard Stockton
- Bill, Alfred Hoyt. A House Called Morven, Princeton University Press London, Geoffrey Cumberlege, Oxford University Press 1954.
- Boyd, George Adams. Elias Boudinot Patriot and Statesman,Princeton University Press 1952.
- Ferris, Robert G. Signers of the Declaration, United States Department of the Interior National
- Park Service, 1973.
- Glynn, Jr, John C. and Kathryn Glynn. His Sacred Honor Judge Richard Stockton A Signer of the Declaration of Independence, Hereditea, 2006.
- Malone, Dumas. The Story of the Declaration of Independence, Oxford University Press, 1954. Philadelphia: R.W. Pomeroy, 1823.
- New Jersey Wills, Somerset County, May 20, 1780. 660R.
- Richard Stockton to Abraham Clark, Historical Society of Princeton, 1776.
- Rush, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush. Edited by George W. Corner. Princeton: The American Philosophical Society, Princeton University Press 1948.
- Annis Boudinot Stockton portrait: Artist, Gerardus Duyekinek courtesy of the Princeton University Art Museum gift of Mr. and Mrs. Landon K. Thorne for the Boudinot Collection included in Morven, Memory, Myth & Reality by Constance M. Greiff and Wanda S. Gunning, 2004.