NPS Logo

Historical Background

Biographical Sketches

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

Text and History of Declaration

Suggested Reading

Signers of the Declaration
Biographical Sketches

North Carolina
William Hooper
William Hooper

The ambivalence of William Hooper's convictions prevented him from ever carving a solid niche in the field of politics. His youthful choice of occupation and political affiliation brought estrangement from his family and emigration from Massachusetts to far-off North Carolina. Motivated sometimes by self-interest and sometimes by intense patriotism, he flourished in law and politics. He originally supported the royal government, but became a Whig leader during the Revolution. After the war, his aristocratic leanings caused him to lose favor among the electorate.

Hooper was born in Boston, Mass., in 1742, the first child of William Hooper, a Scotch immigrant and Congregationalist clergy man who 5 years later was to transfer to the Anglican Church. Groomed for the ministry in his youth, Hooper undertook 7 years of preparatory education at Boston Latin School. This qualified him in 1757 to enter Harvard College in the sophomore class. He graduated 3 years later, but much to the chagrin of his father rejected the ministry as a profession. The next year, he further alienated his Loyalist father and isolated himself from his family by taking up the study of law under James Otis, a brilliant but radical lawyer.

Partly to ameliorate family strife and partly to better his legal opportunities, about 1764 Hooper sought his fortune at Wilmington, N.C. Three years later, he married the daughter of an early settler, by whom he was to have two sons and a daughter. He resided either in Wilmington or at his nearby estate, Finian, about 8 miles away on Masonboro Sound, rode the circuit from court to court, and built up a clientele among the wealthy planters of the lower Cape Fear region. Ambitious, he harbored political aspirations and by 1770-71 had obtained the position of deputy attorney general of North Carolina.

In this capacity, protecting his own economic interests and political goals, Hooper sided with Royal Governor William Tryon in a conflict between the government and a group of North Carolina frontiersmen known as the Regulators. They were rebelling against governmental corruption and oppression and high legal and other fees. Hooper urged the use of force to quell the rebellion, and in 1771 accompanied the government forces that defeated the rebels in the Battle of Alamance.

Within a few years, Hooper's allegiance to the royal government waned. At the time of his election to the colonial assembly (1773-75), the act providing for the colony's court system was about to expire. The assembly attempted to attach to the new court act a clause by which the colony could confiscate American property owned by foreign debtors, including inhabitants of Great Britain. When the Royal Governor blocked the bill, a 4-year struggle for control of the colony ensued. Hooper, though deprived of a source of income as a lawyer and dependent upon his wife's small fortune for subsistence, championed the cause of the assembly.

Hooper rose to a position of leadership among the Whigs, though he disapproved of extremism. In a letter dated April 1774 to his friend James Iredell, he prophesized the Colonies' break with Great Britain—the earliest known prediction of independence, which won for Hooper the epithet "Prophet of Independence." In the summer, after the Royal Governor had dissolved the colonial assembly, he helped organize and presided over an extralegal conference at Wilmington. It voted to convene a provincial assembly, which met in August at New Bern and elected Delegates, one of whom was Hooper, to the Continental Congress. Later that same year, he became a member of the committee of correspondence.

During the period 1774-77, Hooper divided his time between Congress, where he gained a reputation as an orator, and the North Carolina provincial assembly, in which he labored to set up a State government. In 1777, however, the financial difficulties with his law practice and a desire to be near his family prompted him to resign from Congress and return to Wilmington. He was immediately elected to the State legislature and served there almost continuously until 1786.

In 1780 the British invaded North Carolina. Hooper moved his family from Finian into Wilmington for safety, but in January 1781, while he was away on business, the city fell to the enemy. Separated from his loved ones for more than 10 months and often destitute, he depended upon friends in Edenton and vicinity for shelter and food. On one occasion, taken violently ill with malaria, he was nursed back to health by Iredell's wife. Upon the British evacuation of the Wilmington area, in November, Hooper returned to find most of his property, including Finian, in ruins. Shortly thereafter he rejoined his wife and children, who had fled to Hillsborough, which he made his home for the rest of his life.

During the aftermath of the Revolution, Hooper, despite continuing political aspirations, lost favor with the public. Unable to adjust to the rise of republicanism in the State, he adopted a conservative stance. His aristocratic pretensions, forgiving attitude toward Loyalists, and lack of faith in the common people undermined his popularity. In 1788 he strenuously campaigned for State ratification of the Federal Constitution, which occurred early the next year. By this time, he was in ill health and despondent, but lingered on for nearly 2 years. He died in 1790 in his late forties. His remains, moved from the Hillsborough town cemetery in 1894, rest today at Guilford Courthouse National Military Park near Greensboro.

Drawing: Oil, 1873, by James R. Lambdin, after John Trumbull, Independence National Historical Park.

Previous Next
Last Updated: 04-Jul-2004