Continuing series on the signers of the Declaration of Independence
Stephen Hopkins was a cousin to Benedict Arnold and was born March 7, 1707, in Scituate, Rhode Island. Schools were scarce in the area, but Stephen had access to his parent’s and grandparents’ libraries. He was a voracious reader and largely taught himself. His father William was a farmer, his mother Ruth a Quaker – Quakers were under some amount of persecution at the time. His mother’s influence told in his life, as Stephen adopted the plain black dress of the Quakers, and subscribed to many of their beliefs.
At age nineteen, he married Sarah Scott, daughter of a neighboring farmer. It is recorded that she was “a kindly, industrious, and frugal woman, a good mother and an affectionate wife.”
Stephen lived simply, and for many of his initial adult years, he farmed. His father gave him seventy acres of land, and his grandfather an additional ninety acres. Eventually, as he gained the respect of his peers, he was elected town clerk, and then elected to the assembly for the colony of Rhode Island. His influence in these duties led to his appointment as speaker of that body, and then a justice of the colony supreme court.
1742 saw Stephen selling his farm, and moving to town. In Providence, he became a merchant and part-owner of an ironworks.
In 1765, he attracted attention for his pamphlet The Rights of Colonies Examined that was critical of Parliament and the Crown. It has been referred to as “the most remarkable document that was issued during the period preceding the War of the Revolution,” and secured his place among the leaders of those advocating revolution.
Stephen became more and more convinced of the evils of slavery, and in 1773, freed all his slaves. He then introduced to the assembly a bill outlawing slavery, but it did not pass.
He contracted cerebral palsy and had difficulty writing – a contrast to his earlier precise, neat penmanship. In 1774, he was elected to the Continental Congress for Rhode Island, and in 1776, signed the Declaration after supporting it all the way through. He had to hold his right hand with his left to steady it, to sign the document. Reportedly, he said, “My hand trembles, but my heart does not.”
Following the signing, Stephen was forced to resign and move back to Rhode Island by failing health. He still exerted some influence, helping to form the new Continental Navy – but also sponsored the unfortunate appointment of his brother as naval commander in chief.
Mr. Hopkins lived to the 13th of July, 1785, when he closed his long, and honorable and useful life, at the advanced age of 78. His last illness was long, but to the period of his dissolution, he retained the full possession of his faculties. A vast assemblage of persons, consisting of judges of the courts, the president, professors and students of the college, together with the citizens of the town, and inhabitants of the state, followed the remains of this eminent man to his resting place in the grave.