Commodore Robert F. Stockton, 1795–1866: Protean Man for a Protean Nation

by R. John Brockmann


To follow the life of Commodore Robert Field Stockton is to find oneself in the middle of nearly every important event occurring between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, and to discover their deeply paradoxical elements. Stockton was a protean man in his politics, his beliefs, his activities, and his passions, as hinted at in this newspaper editorial of December 1847: Commodore Stockton is a “peace maker,” and a war maker—he can block the game in railroad stocks, or block ports—can speak with trumpets, or speak with tongues—can make laws and administer them—can govern armies or fleets, and occasionally, when a missionary is sick he can take his place, and preach a Christian discourse, as he did in the Sandwich Islands. (“Gold Pen,” National Era 1 (51) (Dec 23, 1847), p. 1.) Stockton was indeed a commodore—the highest naval rank at the time—and had quite a number of significant naval achievements, from the War of 1812 and the Barbary War to chasing pirates in the Caribbean in the 1820s and his conquest of California in 1847. Yet he was constantly disobeying or exceeding orders so that he became known as the Navy’s “problem child.” Stockton’s role as “peace maker” may have referred to his attempt to create the largest naval cannon in the world in 1843. This was the same cannon that during a demonstration to President Tyler’s cabinet backfired and killed half the cabinet. “Peace maker” could also refer to Stockton’s leadership in the 1860-1861 peace movement, the National Peace Conference, which attempted to forestall the Civil War. Stockton was also a war maker who personally offered to underwrite a war between Texas and Mexico in 1845 and who, after becoming the first naval officer to be elected to the Senate (1851), advocated US military intervention worldwide to support indigenous wars of liberation.

Stockton first made his reputation as “Fighting Bob” in the defense of Baltimore in the War of 1812, and, on his first naval command, he founded Liberia for freed slaves. Yet he also owned slaves on his sugar plantation in Georgia, and later probably used “rented” slave labor his in Virginia gold mines. As a naval officer, he chased pirates with the West Indies Squadron and may have been responsible for the death of Jean Lafitte; yet he acted like a pirate himself in ruthlessly protecting his Joint Companies’ monopoly of railroad and canal traffic across New Jersey. Stockton achieved nautical design prominence by bringing John Ericsson to America to create the first steam-powered, propeller-driven warship and the most powerful cannon in the world. (Ericsson later designed USS Monitor in the Civil War.) However, in demonstrating his cannon to high government officials, the cannon backfired killing nearly half of President Tyler’s cabinet. From Congress and the President, Stockton brought the invitation of annexation to Texas, but then he tried to initiate a war between Texas and Mexico that he would clandestinely underwrite with profits from his transportation monopoly. He sailed to California arriving at the start of the Mexican-American war so that he was the commander-in-chief of all US forces, and joined with John C. Fremont and his filibusters to take California for the United States—yet he never had specific orders to take California.

Upon his return, he became the first naval officer to become a U. S. Senator, and then he sought the nomination for president twice: once on the 1852 Democratic Party ticket almost nosing out Franklin Pierce and once on the American Party or Know-Nothing ticket. His nomination from the nativist American Party is particularly ironic because he has been instrumental twelve years earlier in suppressing nativist riots in Philadelphia. In 1861, on the eve of the Civil War, New Jersey sent him as a member of a delegation to the Peace Conference in Washington that attempted to avert the Civil War. However at the peace conference, Stockton threatened to beat up a member who opposed his policies. Stockton eventually retired from public life to the New Jersey seashore where he founded the community of Sea Girt, and sat idle during the Civil War. He died in 1867 just after witnessing the expulsion of his son who had attempted to succeed him in the U. S. Senate.

Historians of the Early Republic and antebellum naval operations will discover hitherto unknown or unappreciated materials and texts in the protean odyssey of this unsung American hero.


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