Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island: General Assembly Speaker, Superior Court Chief Justice, Governor, and Signer of the Declaration of Independence
Stephen Hopkins was a Founding Father who was very influential during much of the 1700s in his home state of Rhode Island. In fact, he has been called “the greatest statesman of Rhode Island.” Moreover, he participated in all major pre-Revolutionary joint colonial conferences.
Hopkins was born in Providence in the Colony of Rhode Island on March 7, 1707 into a family with a long history in that area. His father, William, was descended from Thomas Hopkins who had moved to Providence from Plymouth in 1641 following Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island.
His mother, Ruth Wilkinson, was the granddaughter of Lawrence Wilkinson who arrived in Providence in 1652. Stephen grew up on a farm in what is now the town of Scituate (it broke off from Providence in 1731) receiving virtually no formal schooling. Instead, he read all the classics and was instructed by his mother and other relatives in subjects such as mathematics and surveying. By all accounts, Hopkins was very bright.
In 1726, Stephen married Sarah Scott with whom he had seven children. Hopkins became a surveyor and was soon a leading citizen in Scituate and, in 1735, at the age of 28, was named president of the town council. He also represented Scituate in the Rhode Island General Assembly from 1732 to 1741 and was named its Speaker in 1742.
Stephen moved to Providence in 1742 where his brother Esek lived and together they began a prosperous mercantile-shipping firm, including building and outfitting ships. His business acumen was largely responsible for transforming Providence into a thriving commercial center.
While growing his business, Hopkins was also growing his influence in state affairs. He served in the Provincial Assembly from 1744-1751 and became the Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Superior Court in 1751. In 1755, Hopkins was elected to the Governorship of Rhode Island, a position he held for nine of the next thirteen years.
In 1754, at the start of the French and Indian War, colonial leaders met at the Albany Congress to discuss how to best organize their efforts against the French. Rhode Island selected Hopkins to represent their interests at this conference.
At this meeting, Hopkins met Benjamin Franklin who introduced the so-called “Albany Plan,” the first effort to unify the energies and resources of the various colonies. Hopkins strongly supported this proposal, but it was not approved by the King’s officials because the governors of the separate colonies and the Ministry back in England feared losing their power.
As the years moved forward and the relationship between the Mother Country and her colonies worsened, Hopkins became an outspoken proponent of the rights of American colonists. In 1764, Hopkins published a pamphlet called The Rights of the Colonies Examined which detailed those rights. He stated, “British subjects are to be governed only agreeable to laws by which they themselves have in some way consented.” The paper was widely disseminated and praised throughout the colonies.
Ten years later, in 1774, Hopkins was named as a representative to the First Continental Congress where he strongly advocated separation from England. At this meeting, Hopkins stated, “…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.”
Hopkins was also selected to attend the Second Continental Congress in 1775. Other than his long-time friend Ben Franklin, Hopkins was the oldest delegate there. He suffered from “shaking palsy” and when he proudly signed the Declaration of Independence, his signature appeared unsteady. However, Hopkins declared, “My hand trembles, but my heart does not.”
Soon thereafter, Hopkins, whose health was failing, returned home. He lived long enough to see his country finally attain its independence from England. When Hopkins passed away on July 13, 1785, America had lost one of her truest Patriots.
WHY IT MATTERS: So why should Stephen Hopkins and what he did for America matter to us today?
Stephen Hopkins was a man who devoted much of his life to helping his local community, colony/state, and country become a better place to live. Although he was self-educated, he attained the highest offices in Rhode Island, serving as that state’s Speaker of the General Assembly, Chief Justice of the Superior Court, Governor, and representative to both the First and Second Continental Congress.
Stephen Hopkins did all in his power to help create this great country of ours. We owe him our respect and gratitude for his efforts.
SUGGESTED READING: The Rights of Colonies Examined written by Stephen Hopkins in 1764 was one of the finest political pamphlets published in pre-Revolutionary America. It is an excellent read and recent reprints can be found online.
PLACES TO VISIT: The Governor Stephen Hopkins House is a museum and National Historic Landmark in Providence, Rhode Island. Originally built in 1707, Stephen Hopkins bought the house in 1742 and lived there for over forty years.
Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae,” Love of country leads me.
Tom Hand is creator and publisher of Americana Corner. Tom is a West Point graduate, and serves on the board of trustees for the American Battlefield Trust as well as the National Council for the National Park Foundation. Click Here to Like Tom’s Facebook Page Americana Corner. Click Here to follow Tom’s Instagram Account.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn.
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