Gov. Stephen Hopkins
b.7 Mar 1707 Providence, Providence, Rhode Island
d.13 Jul 1785 Providence, Providence, Rhode Island, United States
Facts and Events
Stephen Hopkins (1707 – 1785) was a governor of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, a Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. From a prominent Rhode Island family, Hopkins was a grandson of William Hopkins who served the colony for 40 years as Deputy, Assistant, Speaker of the House of Deputies, and Major. His great grandfather, Thomas Hopkins, was an original settler of Providence, sailing from England in 1635 with his first cousin, Benedict Arnold, who became the first governor of the Rhode Island colony under the Royal Charter of 1663.
As a child Stephen Hopkins was a voracious reader, becoming a serious student of the sciences, mathematics, and literature. He became a surveyor and astronomer, and was involved in taking measurements during the 1769 transit of Venus across the sun. Hopkins began his public service at the early age of 23 as a justice of the peace in the newly established town of Scituate, Rhode Island. He soon became a justice of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas, while also serving at times as the Speaker of the House of Deputies and President of the Scituate Town Council. While active in civic affairs, he also was part owner of an iron foundry and was a successful merchant who was portrayed in John Greenwood's 1750s satirical painting, Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam. In May 1747 Hopkins was appointed as a justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, and in 1751 became the third Chief Justice of this body. In 1755 he was elected to his first term as governor of the colony, and served a total of nine of the next 15 years in this capacity. One of the most contentious political issues of his day was the use of paper money versus hard currency. His bitter political rival, Samuel Ward championed hard currency, whereas Hopkins advocated the use of paper money. The rivalry between the two men became so heated, that Hopkins sued Ward for £40,000, but lost the case and had to pay costs. By the mid-1760s the contention between the two men became a serious distraction to the government of the colony, and realizing this they attempted to placate each other, but initially without success. Ultimately, in 1768, both agreed to not run for office, and Josias Lyndon was elected governor of the colony as a compromise candidate.
In 1770 Hopkins once again became Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, and during this tenure became a principal player in the colony's handling of the 1772 Gaspee Affair, when a group of irate Rhode Island citizens boarded a British revenue vessel, and burned it to the waterline. In 1774 he was given an additional important responsibility as one of Rhode Island's two delegates to the First Continental Congress, Samuel Ward being the other. Hopkins had become well known in the 13 colonies ten years earlier when he published a pamphlet entitled "The Rights of Colonies Examined," which was critical of British Parliament and its taxation policies. In the summer of 1776, with worsening in his hands, Hopkins signed the Declaration of Independence while holding his right hand with his left, saying, "my hand trembles, but my heart does not." He served in the Continental Congress until September 1776 when failing health forced him to resign. A strong backer of the College of the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (later named Brown University), Hopkins was one of the school's most ardent supporters, and became the institution's first chancellor. He died in Providence in 1785 at the age of 78, and is buried in the North Burial Ground there. Hopkins has been called Rhode Island's greatest statesman.