Stephen Hopkins, Surveyor, Astronomer, and Signer of the Declaration of Independence

searchStephen Hopkins was born on 7 March 1707 in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of William Hopkins and Ruth (Wilkinson) Hopkins. He was a colonial governor, educator, judge, merchant ship owner, surveyor, patriot and cousin to Benedict Arnold. “Hopkins’ great grandfather, Thomas Hopkins, was born in 1616 and came to Providence in 1641, having followed Roger Williams there from Plymouth, England. In 1651 he moved to Newport and was appointed a member of the town committee in 1661. His mother, Ruth Wilkinson, was the granddaughter of Lawrence Wilkinson, a lieutenant in the army of Charles I, who was taken prisoner October 22, 1644 by the Scots and parliamentary troops at the surrender of Newcastle-on-Tyne. Deprived of his property, he came to New England sometime between 1645 and 1647 and was at Providence in 1652. He became a freeman in 1658, was chosen deputy to the General Court, was a soldier in the Indian wars, and became a member of the Colonial Assembly in 1659.” (The Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence)

Growing up in Scituate, Rhode Island, Hopkins had little formal education and his mother taught him his first lessons. His grandfather and uncle instructed him in elementary mathematics, and he read the English classics in his grandfather’s small but well-selected library. 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. (Stephen Hopkins) Hopkins married Sarah Scott on October 9, 1726, when they were both just 19, and they had five sons and two daughters. Sarah was the youngest daughter of Major Sylvanus Scott and Joanna Jenks.” (SDSDI)

“Besides reading, Hopkins also gained skills in surveying from his grandfather, Samuel Wilkinson. He used his surveying skills to revise the streets and create a map of Scituate, and later did the same for Providence. Because of his responsibility as a youth, at the age of 19 Hopkins was given 70 acres (28 ha) of land by his father, after which his grandfather Hopkins bestowed an additional 90 acres (36 ha) upon him. Hopkins’ interest in surveying spilled over into an interest in astronomy and other scientific endeavors as well, which was illustrated by an event when he was much older. Before the American Revolutionary War, on June 3, 1769, Hopkins was involved in the observation of a rare astronomical event, the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. This event was used to determine the distance of the earth from the sun, and also in this case to improve the measure of the latitude of Providence. Joseph Brown noted for his scientific accomplishments as well as his commercial enterprise, was able to obtain a complete set of necessary instruments, including a reflecting telescope, a micrometer, and a sextant.  An observatory was erected on a hill in Providence where a street, later named ‘Transit Street’ in honor of the event, was laid out. Brown was assisted by a group of individuals, including Hopkins, Dr. Benjamin West, and others who were also interested in science. The observation was able to very accurately determine the latitude of Providence (to the nearest second of arc), after which the longitude was determined by comparing observations of the moons of Jupiter with similar observations made in Cambridge, England.” (Stephen Hopkins)

At age 24, Hopkins became a surveyor. In 1732 he became the Scituate town clerk. Later, he president of the Town Council. In 1742, he was named Speaker of the Rhode Island General Assembly. He joined his brother Esek Hopkins in shipping firm and moved to Providence in 1742. They built and fit out vessels. Stephen served in the General Assembly from 1744 to 1751, was assistant justice of the Rhode Island Superior Court from 1747 to 1749, and became Chief Justice in 1751.

Stephen_Hopkins_House_2014 (Governor Stephens Hopkins House, 15 Hopkins Street, Providence, via Wikipedia) “Hopkins was largely responsible for transforming Providence from a small village with muddy streets to a thriving commercial center. He was also instrumental in establishing Rhode Island’s present day boundaries. Besides his political and civic interest, Hopkins had interested in education and science. About 1754 he was influential in establishing a public subscription library, and he was the first chancellor of Rhode Island College, which was to become Brown University. He helped found the Providence Gazette and Country Journal in 1762, held membership in the American Philosophical Society of Newport, and was involved in erecting a telescope in Providence for observing the transit of Venus, which occurred in June 1769.

“Stephen Hopkins won the governorship of Rhode Island in 1755, and was governor several times through 1766, competing with Samuel Ward for the annual election for the governorship. Hopkins attended the Albany Congress of 1754 where he first met Benjamin Franklin, who promoted the Albany Plan for uniting the colonies. The plan failed, but Stephen and Benjamin became friends and were to become the two most elderly signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

RightsColoniesExamined.cropped ( image via Stephen Hopkins) “After the passage of the hated Stamp Act by Parliament, Hopkins wrote The Rights of Colonies Examined, published in 1764, a pamphlet in which he attacked the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act, stating: ‘British subjects are to be governed only agreeable to laws which they themselves have in some way consented.’ It predated John Dickinson’s more widely distributed Letters from a Farmer by three years.” (The Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence)

“Stephen Hopkins voted to approve the Declaration of Independence on July 4 and signed the engrossed copy on August 2. He suffered from the “shaking palsy” which caused his signature on the Declaration to appear unsteady, and he used his left hand to steady his right. He stated at the signing, ‘My hand trembles, but my heart does not.’ Hopkins’ palsy affliction was of long standing, causing him to rely upon a clerk to write for him in his businesses and public life.

“In June of the same year Hopkins was appointed to the 13 member committee (one from each state) to draft the country’s first constitution, The Articles of Confederation. His health failing, he returned to Rhode Island soon thereafter.

“Hopkins died on July 13, 1785 and is buried in the North Burying Ground at Providence. An extensive cortege and assembly of notable persons followed the funeral procession of Hopkins to the cemetery, including court judges, the President, professors and students of the College, citizens of the town and inhabitants of the state. The Rhode Island legislature dedicated a special monument at his gravesite in his honor, and it provides an elaborate testimony to the life of the patriot.

“On the west side the inscription says, ‘Sacred to the memory of the illustrious Stephen Hopkins, of revolutionary fame, attested by his signature to the Declaration of our National Independence, Great in Council from sagacity of mind; Magnanimous in sentiment, firm in purpose, and good, as great, from benevolence of heart; He stood in the front rank of statesmen and patriots. Self-educated, yet among the most learned of men; His vast treasury of useful knowledge, his great retentive and reflective powers, combined with his social nature, made him the most interesting of companions in private life.

“On the south side the inscription continues: ‘His name is engraved on the immortal records of the Revolution, and can never die: His titles to that distinction are engraved on this monument, reared by the grateful admiration of his native state, in honor of her favorite son.’

“And on the east side: ‘Hopkins, born March 7, 1707, Died July 13, 1785.’

“And on the north side: ‘Here lies the man in fateful hour,
Who boldly stemm’d tyrannic pow’r,
And held his hand in the decree,
which bade America BE FREE!'” (The Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence)


Stephen_Hopkins_signatureThe signature of Mr. Hopkins is remarkable, and appears as if written by one greatly agitated by fear. But fea was no part of Mr. Hopkins’ character. The cause of the tremulous appearance of his signature, was a bodily infirmity, called “shaking palsy,” with which he had been afflicted many years, and which obliged him to employ an amanuensis to do his writing… (Adherents)


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in American History, British history, buildings and structures, commerce, Declaration of Independence, Great Britain, history, real life tales and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.