Stephen Hopkins (1707–85), statesman, pamphleteer, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born on March 7, 1707, in Providence easterly of a former Indian village called Mashapaug. This site was set off from Providence in 1754, becoming part of the new town of Cranston. It was reannexed in 1868 and is located today in the Elmwood section of Providence.
Hopkins–the second of nine children born to farmers William Hopkins Jr. (ca. 1681–1738) and Ruth Wilkinson (born 1686), a devout Quaker–moved at an early age with his parents and older brother to a farm at Chopmist, in a part of the “outlands” of Providence that were incorporated as the town of Scituate in 1731. On this agricultural frontier, Hopkins grew to manhood, working on his parents’ farm and acquiring skills as a surveyor. In 1726, he married Sarah Scott of Providence (1707–1753), who bore him seven children in a marriage that endured until her death by suicide after a debilitating illness. Five of his children lived to maturity.
Though he lacked formal education, the man John Adams would later describe as a person of “wit, humor, anecdotes, science, and learning” became the first town moderator of Scituate in 1731 at the age of twenty-four. This post was the initial step in a political career that included election to the office of Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives (seven times), service as governor (nine one-year terms), appointment to the position of chief justice of Rhode Island’s highest court (eleven years), and selection as a Rhode Island delegate to the First and Second Continental Congresses (1774–1779).
The rise of Hopkins in the world of government was accompanied by his rapid ascent in the business of trade and commerce. Having moved in 1742 from rural Scituate, which he represented in the state legislature, to the port town of Providence, where he immediately secured reelection to the General Assembly and resumed the post of House Speaker that he first held in 1738, Hopkins formed business partnerships with prominent Newport merchant Godfrey Malbone and then with the powerful Brown family, Providence’s leading eighteenth-century entrepreneurs. After that, his wealth and financial connections fueled his rise to political prominence.
Hopkins’s first significant foray into intercolonial politics came in 1754 when he represented Rhode Island at the Albany Congress. Farsighted enough to see the advantages of colonial cooperation and practical enough to realize the potential usefulness of a strong colonial navy in protecting commerce (one of the suggestions made by that congress), Hopkins favored the plan of union devised at Albany and wrote a pamphlet defending his participation in the locally unpopular conclave.
In 1755, Hopkins was elected to his first term as governor, a post with little constitutional power under Rhode Island’s system of legislative ascendancy. Nonetheless, he began to exert considerable political strength and influence as the leader of the dominant faction in the colony’s emergent two-party system–one of America’s first.
In this political milieu, opposing groups, one headed by Samuel Ward of Westerly and the other by Hopkins, were organized with sectional overtones; generally speaking (though with notable exceptions), the merchants and farmers of southern Rhode Island (Ward) battled with their counterparts from Providence and its environs (Hopkins). The principal goal of these groups was to secure control of the powerful legislature to obtain the host of public offices–from chief justice to inspector of tobacco–at the disposal of that body.
The semi-permanent nature, relatively stable membership, and explicit sectional rivalry of the warring camps have led historian Mack Thompson to describe Rhode Island’s pre-Revolutionary political structure as one of “stable factionalism.” Another historian, David S. Lovejoy, has boldly maintained that Rhode Islanders revolted from British rule not only “on the broad grounds of a constitutional right to keep Rhode Island safe for liberty and property” but also to preserve “the benefits of party politics”–patronage and spoils.
With Hopkins usually prevailing, Rampant factionalism endured until 1768, when Ward and Hopkins agreed to retire from future gubernatorial races. A now humorous incident in this political war occurred in March 1757 when the Hopkins-controlled legislature set off a forty-four-square-mile town from the northern part of Sam Ward’s Westerly and named the new municipality “Hopkinton.” In 1770, Hopkins again became chief justice, an office he first held in 1751. He held this top judicial post for another six years, even after he and his former rival Ward went to Philadelphia in 1774 to represent Rhode Island’s interests in the First Continental Congress.
When England began reorganizing its American empire in 1763 after the Seven Years’ War, Hopkins set about developing and articulating economic and political proposals that ran counter to parliamentary enactments. In the radical Providence Gazette, which he helped to establish in 1762, Hopkins opposed the renewal of the Molasses Act upon its expiration in 1764. He denounced the measure’s six-pence-per-gallon duty on foreign molasses as destructive of Rhode Island’s lucrative triangular trade with Africa and the West Indies and a levy that diminished Rhode Island’s ability to buy British manufactures or pay British creditors. The Sugar Act of 1764 reduced the duty to three pence, but that toll was far greater than the one-half-of-one-percent duty recommended by Hopkins in his essay, and the new levy was marked by much more vigorous enforcement than the old.
Late in 1764, Hopkins penned a more elaborate analysis of imperial relations, one that shifted from a purely economical defense of colonial rights to a political and constitutional conception of the British Empire. In this pamphlet, The Rights of Colonies Examined, Hopkins repeatedly referred not merely to the economic interests of Rhode Islanders or the northern colonists (as in his earlier essay) but to the broad rights of “Americans.” This treatise is notable in that it suggests a federal theory of empire, with Parliament legislating on matters of imperial concern–war, trade, international relations–but with colonial assemblies possessing sovereignty in local affairs, including taxation. In 1766, this bold tract was published in London under the title The Grievances of the American Colonists Candidly Examined.
In 1768, another Providence lawyer, Silas Downer–a colleague, friend, and protégé of Hopkins–delivered a path-breaking public discourse at the local “Liberty Tree,” repudiating the recently passed Declaratory Act and denying the authority of Parliament to make any laws of any kind to regulate the colonies. In 1774, Hopkins took attorney Downer to the First Continental Congress to serve as secretary to the Rhode Island delegation, which was headed by Hopkins and his former rival Samuel Ward.
Influenced by his Quaker beliefs and his own professions of liberty, Hopkins freed his slaves in 1773, and the following year, while serving in the state legislature, he co-sponsored a statute that prohibited the importation of “Negroes” to Rhode Island, proclaiming in its preamble that “Whereas, the inhabitants of America are generally engaged in the preservation of their own rights and liberties, among which, that of personal freedom must be considered as the greatest; those who are desirous of enjoying all the advantages of liberty themselves, should be willing to extend personal liberty to others.”
During the Second Continental Congress, which convened in September 1775, Hopkins became chairman of the naval committee, and he secured for his brother Esek (1718–1802) the position of first commodore and commander in chief of the newly created Continental Navy. Then, as chairman of the naval and marine committee, Stephen supervised the civilian administration of the American Navy.
In July 1776, Hopkins became one of two Rhode Island signers of the Declaration of Independence (William Ellery was the other). When he affixed his signature to the engrossed copy of this momentous document on August 2, 1776, he guided his palsied right hand with his left, allegedly remarking, “My hand trembles, but my heart does not.” During this pivotal year, Hopkins also served as the Rhode Island member of the thirteen-man committee that drafted the Articles of Confederation, America’s first written constitution. Declining health, including what was then described as “shaking palsy,” limited Hopkins’s role in the events of the Revolution.
Despite his election as a delegate, he was unable to attend sessions of the Congress in Philadelphia after 1776. Still, he served from December 1776 to May 1778 on the Rhode Island Council of War, an ad hoc body established by the legislature to supervise and direct Rhode Island’s war effort. In addition, he was a delegate to the convention of New England states in 1776, 1777, and 1779, serving as the convention’s president in 1777.
In his declining years, Hopkins continued his productive relationship with the powerful and versatile Brown family of Providence, with whom ties of family, religion, literary and civic projects, and commercial enterprise bound him. In 1781, he had an unexpected visit from George Washington, who had come to Rhode Island to consult with Count Rochambeau then quartered with his French army in Newport. Houseguest Moses Brown (who, like Hopkins, was a leading Quaker businessman) remarked on the “unaffected friendliness” of the two revolutionaries as they talked about the war and the upcoming Virginia campaign. In January 1782, Ann Smith, his second wife of twenty-seven years, died. Five of Hopkins’s seven children (all by his first marriage) had predeceased him by then.
On July 13, 1785, Hopkins–governor, jurist, legislator, patriot, pamphleteer, farmer, merchant, educator (he was the first chancellor of Brown University), amateur scientist, and civic leader–died peacefully in his Providence home, a structure now preserved as a national historic site, and was buried in Providence’s North Burial Ground.
Stephen Hopkins was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1973.
For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.