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Stephen Hopkins

Born in northern Providence (now Scituate) on March 7, 1707, Stephen Hopkins' story helps us to understand how the diverse American colonies came together to revolt against the British Empire in the 1770s. Self-educated, Hopkins started young in politics, representing Scituate and then Providence in the General Assembly during the 1730s. Eventually he would be elected speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, serve nine contentious terms as governor, and eleven years as chief justice. A successful merchant, he also represented Rhode Island at both Continental Congresses of the 1770s and signed the Declaration of Independence.

In 1764, after the British had imposed newly oppressive laws on the colonies, Governor Hopkins argued that the colonies themselves were better suited to raise revenues through taxation. He concluded that parliament’s “supreme and overruling authority” was limited to regulation of the British Empire and did not extend into the colonies’ internal affairs. However, despite his arguments for freedom, Hopkins, like many of his generation, refused to free his family’s slaves.

Hopkins served as chairman of the Continental Congress's Naval Committee. Hopkins had developed palsy, and said as he signed the Declaration in 1776, “My hand trembles but my heart does not.” After independence, Hopkins helped draft the nation’s first constitution: the Articles of Confederation.

Limited by illness during the war, Hopkins hosted General Washington when he came to Rhode Island to plan the war’s final campaign with Count Rochambeau. His gravestone affirms his inclusion in the “first rank of statesmen and patriots.”


Erik Christiansen, PhD, Rhode Island College