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

Rhode Island
Stephen Hopkins
Stephen Hopkins

This signer, the second oldest next to Benjamin Franklin, is noted for his tremulous signature. Aged 69 and afflicted with palsy, according to tradition he declared, "My hand trembles, but my heart does not!" Before, during, and after a comparatively brief stretch of congressional service, he occupied Rhode Island's highest offices and fostered the cultural and economic growth of Providence.

Hopkins attained success purely by his own efforts. Born in 1707 at Providence and equipped with but a modicum of basic education, he grew up in the adjacent agricultural community of Scituate, earned his living as a farmer and surveyor, and married at the age of 19. Five years later, in 1731, when Scituate Township separated from Providence, he plunged into politics. During the next decade, he held the following elective or appointive offices: moderator of the first town meeting, town clerk, president of the town council, justice of the peace, justice and clerk of the Providence County court of common pleas, legislator, and speaker of the house.

In 1742, about 2 years after he and his brother Esek founded a mercantile-shipping firm, Stephen moved back to Providence. For the next three decades, he built up his business and would probably have acquired a fortune had he not at the same time supported a variety of civic enterprises and broadened his political activities. He continued in the legislature, served as assistant and chief justice of the Superior Court and ten-time Governor, and represented Rhode Island at various intercolonial meetings. At the Albany Congress (1754), he cultivated a friendship with Franklin and assisted him in framing a plan of colonial union that the congress passed but the Colonies rejected. The next year, 2 years after the demise of his first wife, who had given birth to five sons and two daughters, he remarried.

About this time, Hopkins took over leadership of the colony's radical faction, supported by Providence merchants. For more than a decade, it bitterly fought for political supremacy in Rhode Island with a conservative group in Newport, led by Samuel Ward, a political enemy of Hopkins.

Hopkins was a man of broad interests, including humanitarianism, education, and science, and exerted his talents in many fields. About 1754 he helped set up a public subscription library in Providence. He acted as first chancellor of Rhode Island College (later Brown University), founded in 1764 at Warren, and 6 years later was instrumental in relocating it to Providence. He also held membership in the Philosophical Society of Newport. Strongly opposing slavery, in 1774 he authored a bill enacted by the Rhode Island legislature that prohibited the importation of slaves into the colony—one of the earliest antislavery laws in the United States.

Long before, Hopkins had sided with the Revolutionaries. In 1762 he helped found the influential Providence Gazette and Country Journal. Two years later, he contributed to it an article entitled "The Rights of the Colonies Examined," which criticized parliamentary taxation and recommended colonial home rule. Issued as a pamphlet the next year, it circulated widely throughout the Colonies and Great Britain and established Hopkins as one of the earliest of the patriot leaders. He also sat on the Rhode Island committee of correspondence and carried on with his duties in the legislature and Superior Court while a Member of the Continental Congress (1774-76). He served on the committees that prepared the Articles of Confederation and that created the Continental Navy and appointed Esek Hopkins as its commander in chief. Ill health compelled Stephen to retire in September 1776, a month after he signed the Declaration.

Hopkins declined subsequent reelections to Congress, but sat in the State legislature for a time and took part in several New England political conventions. He withdrew from public service about 1780 and died 5 years later in Providence at the age of 78. He was interred in the North Burial Ground.

Drawing: Oil, 1873, by James R. Lambdin, after John Trumbull, Independence National Historical Park. According to one authority, Trumbull based his likeness on the features of Hopkins' eldest son, Rufus, who bore a close resemblance to his father.

Previous Next
Last Updated: 04-Jul-2004