Theodore Foster

Inducted: 2000
Born: 1752 - Died:
1828

Theodore Foster (1752-1828) was born in Brookfield, Massachusetts, in 1752, the son of Judge Jedediah Foster and Dorothy Dwight of Dedham, a descendant of William Pynchon, an original incorporator of the Massachusetts Bay Company and a founder of Springfield, Massachusetts. As a young man, Foster came to Providence to study at Rhode Island College (now Brown University) and graduated in 1770. In 1771, this socially prominent young man married the equally prominent Lydia Fenner, the sister of Arthur Fenner Jr., who would serve as governor of Rhode Island from 1790 to 1806.

Making law and politics his allied professions, Foster was Providence’s town clerk from 1775 to 1787 and a deputy from Providence in the General Assembly from 1776 to 1781. In the Assembly, he became a close ally of Stephen Hopkins and was appointed secretary of the Rhode Island Council of War. In 1781, the western portion of the town of Scituate was set off as a separate fifty-two-square-mile municipality and named in Foster’s honor–an amazing recognition for a twenty-nine-year-old Massachusetts native.

Foster’s achievements increased in the years following American independence. In 1785, he was appointed judge of Rhode Island’s Court of Admiralty, and he became a leader in the movement to ratify the federal Constitution. Although the Antifederalists rejected him for the post of secretary of the South Kingstown ratifying convention in March 1790, Foster kept valuable and revealing minutes of that body, which were finally edited and published in 1929 by Professor Robert C. Cotner.

Foster’s services in support of the Constitution earned him election by the General Assembly as one of Rhode Island’s first two United States senators. He began his service on June 7, 1790, with antifederal leader General Joseph Stanton Jr. of Charlestown, his counterpart, joining him in the Senate soon thereafter. Foster served as an ardent Federalist until his retirement in March 1803. For his final three years in the upper chamber, he was joined by his brother Dwight, the U.S. senator from Massachusetts. Like James Mitchell Varnum, Foster was a Massachusetts native whose brother represented the Bay State in each house of Congress: Dwight Foster, a Brown graduate, was a U.S. congressman from March 1793 to June 1800 and a senator from June 1800 to March 1803, when both brothers retired from congressional service.

Theodore Foster was noted not only as a lawyer and a statesman but also as a scholar. He received master’s degrees both from Brown (1773) and Dartmouth (1787) and served as trustee of Brown from 1794 until 1822. Upon his retirement in 1803, he began a life of scholarship on his estate in Foster in concert with a scholarly next-door neighbor, Dr. Solomon Drowne, his classmate at Brown and a prominent botanist and physician who dubbed his estate “Mt. Hygeia” after the Greek goddess of health.

Foster collected numerous documents and letters pertaining to Rhode Island politics during his lifetime. He intended to use these materials (many of which came from Stephen Hopkins) to write a general history of the state. Although that goal was not accomplished, his heirs sold the Foster Papers to the Rhode Island Historical Society, where they constituted a treasure trove for researchers of the critical era in which Foster played such a central role.

Foster’s wife Lydia, who bore him three children, died in 1801, and in 1803, he wed Esther Brown Millard, by whom he had five more children. Foster’s last public service was as the representative from Foster to the General Assembly from 1812 to 1816. He died in Providence in 1828 at the age of seventy-five and was interred in Swan Point Cemetery.

Senator Theodore Foster was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2000.

For additional information:

Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T.

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