Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island is not one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence whose name stands out. He was, however, a man that was exceptional. He was a member of a very prominent family that had been involved in Rhode Island politics since the time of founder Roger Williams. Stephen was his own man and was a colonial governor, educator, judge, merchant ship owner, surveyor, patriot, and American hero.
Stephen Hopkins was born on 7 March 1707 in Providence, Colony of Rhode Island. He was the second of nine children of William and Ruth (Wilkinson) Hopkins. Both of his parents came from families that were early settlers of New England and who became successful and prominent colonial citizens.
Hopkins grew up on a farm in an area of Rhode Island that had no schools. His mother was his first teacher, and his grandfather and uncle taught him basic mathematics and surveying. He was a voracious reader using his grandfather’s excellent library, which was supplemented by a small circulating collection. Although he had little if any formal education, he became truly knowledgeable in literature, mathematics, surveying, and the sciences.
Because of Stephen’s youthful responsibility, his father gave him 70 acres of land in 1726 and his grandfather gave him another 90 acres. On 9 October 1726, he married Sarah Scott. Both were only 19 years old. Sarah was also from a prominent New England family. This union produced seven children, five living to maturity.
At the age of 23, Hopkins began his political activities by serving in several local positions in the newly formed town of Scituate. His career began as justice of the peace in 1730. He eventually represented the town in the General Assembly serving from 1732 to 1741. He was named Speaker in his last year.
About 1740 Stephen joined his brother Esek Hopkins in commercial ventures and in 1742 moved his residence to Providence. They established a mercantile-shipping firm and constructed and outfitted sea-going merchant vessels. Stephen was also part owner of a privateer, the Reprisal. He was the primary force behind the transformation of Providence from a small, muddy village to a thriving commercial center, and he was instrumental in establishing Rhode Island’s final borders.
Later in life Stephen partnered with the Brown brothers Moses, Nicholas, Joseph, and John in 1766 to establish Hope Furnace near Scituate. This iron works produced pig iron and cast cannon for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Stephen’s son Rufus managed this business for 40 years.
Hopkins stayed politically active in his new home. He represented Providence in the General Assembly from 1744 to 1751 and was assistant justice of the Rhode Island Superior Court from 1747 to 1749. He became Chief Justice in 1751.
Sadly, Sarah Hopkins died on 9 September 1753 at 43 years old.
Always interested in education, Hopkins helped establish a public subscription library and Rhode Island College in 1754. He was the first chancellor of the college, which later became Brown University. He helped found the Providence Gazette and Country Journal in 1762, and was a member of the American Philosophical of Newport. His interest in science led him to become involved in erecting an observatory in Providence for observations of the transit of Venus over the sun. That event occurred in June 1769, and they used the observations to establish the exact geodetic location of Providence.
Hopkins was a delegate to the Albany Congress (Albany, New York) in 1754. This congress was attended by only seven colonies to discuss relations with Native Americans and to prepare for the impending war with France. This is where Hopkins first met Benjamin Franklin who was pushing his “Albany Plan” for uniting the colonies. This plan was rejected by the colonies and Britain. During the congress Franklin and Hopkins became friends and 22 years later were the two oldest signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Stephen Hopkins married Anne Smith, a 38-year-old widow with three children in 1755. Anne and Stephen had no children together.
Stephen was elected governor of Rhode Island in 1755 and was re-elected to this one-year-term office several times through 1766. The most pressing situation through much of this time was the French and Indian War (1754-1763). Many Colonists, including Rhode Islanders served in this brutal and very bloody war which ended in a British victory. A benefit of this war was that it prepared many colonial officers and men to eventually fight the British.
Hopkins’ opponent in most campaigns for governor was Samuel Ward who was also a capable and patriotic man. The two men disagreed on the hot topic of hard currency or specie use versus the use of paper money. Hopkins favored paper money. Their competition became so bitter and personal that it distracted from the issues and in 1768 they agreed to stand-down, and to back a compromise candidate. After the election, the two men met and became life-long friends.
Unrest and actions against the Crown were increasing During the 1760’s. Rebellion was in the air. After passage of the hated Stamp Act, Hopkins wrote the pamphlet “The Rights of Colonies Examined.” This pamphlet was published in 1764 and he wrote: “British subjects are to be governed only agreeable to laws which they themselves have in some way consented.” This predated John Dickinson’s more widely distributed “Letters From a Farmer” by three years. Publication of the pamphlet established Hopkins as a leader of public opinion in all the colonies.
In 1768, a ship owned by John Hancock was seized and recommissioned into the British Navy as the Gaspee. This vessel was sent to Newport, Rhode Island where it was used to stop and search merchant vessels for “contraband.” The Gaspee was burned in 1769 by an angry mob of colonials. Royal Governor Wanton was ordered to arrest those involved and to send them to England for trial. However, Rhode Island Superior Court Chief Justice Stephen Hopkins stated he would not enforce the order and would not allow his officers to enforce it.
Hopkins and Samuel Ward were selected to represent Rhode Island at the First Continental Congress in 1774. On the floor of that body, Hopkins made a very bold statement about the situation with the British: “powder and ball will decide this question. The gun and bayonet alone will finish the contest in which we are engaged, and any of you who cannot bring your minds to this mode of adjusting this question had better retire in time.” This statement must have sent chills up the spines of those who wanted to negotiate.
In July 1775, Hopkins did sign the Olive Branch Petition to the King which sought a peaceful resolution of the grievances. Of course, this petition was rejected by the Crown. This congressional session also established a Continental Navy and Hopkins arranged for his brother Esek to become the first commander in chief of the Navy.
Stephen Hopkins voted to approve the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776 and signed the document on 2 August. He suffered from “shaking palsy” which resulted in his signature appearing unsteady. He used his left hand to help steady his right and he stated: “My hand trembles, but my heart does not.” His long history of fighting palsy had already caused him to hire a clerk to write for him.
The Congress established a 13-member committee (one from each state) to draft a constitution for the new country. Hopkins was selected to represent Rhode Island. However, the elderly Hopkins resigned due to failing health and returned to Rhode Island in September 1776. Congress approved the final draft of the Articles of Confederation on 15 November 1777.
Hopkins Managed to be an active member of Rhode Island’s general assembly until 1779. He died on 13 July 1785 at the age of 78 and was buried in the North Burying Ground at Providence. His funeral was attended by a large assembly, including President of the Confederation Richard Henry Lee, court judges, college professors and students, and common citizens.
Stephen Hopkins has been honored in many ways by many people and he left a legacy of long and honorable service to his country. He participated in the founding of the United States of America. Being self-educated he knew the value of education and helped to establish libraries and a college. The real measure of the man is that most of his contemporaries respected him:
Future United States President John Adams appreciated Hopkins’ contributions during the congressional sessions, writing:
“… Governor Hopkins of Rhode Island, above seventy Years of Age kept us all alive. Upon Business his Experience and judgment were very Useful. But when the Business of the Evening was over, he kept Us in Conversation till Eleven and sometimes twelve O Clock. His Custom was to drink nothing all day nor till Eight O Clock, in the Evening, and then his Beveredge was Jamaica Spirit and Water. It gave him Wit, Humour, Anecdotes, Science and Learning. He had read Greek, Roman and British History: and was familiar with English Poetry particularly Pope, Tompson and Milton. And the flow of his Soul made all his reading our own, and seemed to bring to recollection in all of Us all We had ever read. I could neither eat nor drink in those days. The other Gentlemen were very temperate. Hopkins never drank to excess, but all he drank was immediately not only converted into Wit, Sense, Knowledge and good humour, but inspired Us all with similar qualities.”
In his diary, the Reverend Ezra Stiles wrote of Hopkins,
“I well knew Gov. Hopkins. He was a man of penetrating astutious [sic] Genius, full of Subtlety, deep Cunning, intriguing & enterprizing…” adding that he was a “man of a Noble fortitude & resolution” and “a glorious Patriot!”
There is nothing else that I can add except that Stephen Hopkins is a man that should be better known. He was a true patriot and an American hero.