Silas Downer, a patriot and lawyer, was born in Norwich, Connecticut, to a farm family that subsequently moved to Sunderland, Massachusetts, near Deerfield, where Downer got his early schooling. He entered Harvard College at age fourteen and earned an undergraduate degree and a Master of Arts degree by age twenty-one. After graduation in 1750, Downer came to Rhode Island to apply his remarkable talent in calligraphy as a scrivener, or professional penman, and as a copyist, letter writer, and public notary. As one of the very few highly educated men in the colony at that time, he soon entered into the practice of law. Among his most influential clients, who were increasingly numbered among his best friends and patrons, were Stephen and Esek Hopkins and the Brown brothers of Providence. During the 1760s, Downer served as clerk of the upper house of the General Assembly and as librarian of the Providence Library. He also initiated the drive to build the Market House in Providence and served on a legislative committee that revised the general laws.
As the constitutional dispute with the mother country developed after 1763, Downer used his writing skills to compose a series of essays and remonstrances against England’s current commercial and administrative policies. Several of these protests have been discovered, collected, and edited by Brown University historian Carl Bridenbaugh under the title Silas Downer: Forgotten Patriot (1974).
Downer’s most important patriotic treatise was his 1768 Discourse, delivered at the dedication of the Liberty Tree in Providence, wherein he stated that parliamentary statutes pertaining to the governance of the colonies were “infractions on the natural rights of men” and, therefore, void. This work, repudiating Parliament’s recently passed Declaratory Act of 1766, has been cited as the first significant challenge both to the authority of Parliament to make laws of all kinds to regulate the colonies and to the Declaratory Act’s statement of undivided sovereignty in a unitary empire.
His writings and those of his more famous colleague, Stephen Hopkins, suggested a federal theory of empire in which sovereignty was divided between the mother country, which exercised it on imperial issues, and the colonies, which exercised it over their purely local affairs. Eventually, this theory was incorporated into the Constitution of the United States to establish the relationship between the federal government and the individual states. Professor Bridenbaugh (with some hyperbole) has called Downer’s oration “the most important single event in the pre-revolutionary history of the colony of Rhode Island.”
Downer continued his efforts as “a son of liberty.” In 1774, Stephen Hopkins took Downer to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia to be secretary of the Rhode Island delegation, which was headed by Hopkins and his former rival Samuel Ward. Once war erupted, Downer served as the state’s Council of War clerk.
Following the conflict, he returned to the practice of law without fanfare or notoriety. He died on December 15, 1785, at his cousin’s home in Roxbury, Massachusetts. More than any other man, Downer can be described as Rhode Island’s “Penman of the Revolution.”
Silas Downer was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1998.
For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.