Stephen Hopkins (March 7, 1707 – July 13, 1785) was a governor of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, a Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
He was from a prominent Rhode Island family, the grandson of William Hopkins who served the colony for 40 years as Deputy, Assistant, Speaker of the House of Deputies, and Major.
His great grandfather Thomas Hopkins was an original settler of Providence Plantation, sailing from England in 1635 with his cousin Benedict Arnold who became the first governor of the Rhode Island colony under the Royal Charter of 1663.
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.
He began his public service at age 23 as a justice of the peace in the newly established town of Scituate, Rhode Island.
He soon became a justice of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas, while also serving at times as the Speaker of the House of Deputies and President of the Scituate Town Council.
While active in civic affairs, he also was part owner of an iron foundry and was a successful merchant who was portrayed in John Greenwood's 1750s satirical painting Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam.
In May 1747, Hopkins was appointed as a justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, and he became the third Chief Justice of this body in 1751.
In 1755, he was elected to his first term as governor of the colony, and he served in this capacity for nine out of the next 15 years.
One of the most contentious political issues of his day was the use of paper money versus hard currency.
His bitter political rival Samuel Ward championed hard currency, whereas Hopkins advocated the use of paper money.
The rivalry between the two men became so heated that Hopkins sued Ward for £40,000, but he lost the case and had to pay costs.
By the mid-1760s, the contention between the two men became a serious distraction to the government of the colony and, realizing this, they attempted to placate each other—initially without success.
Ultimately, both agreed to not run for office in 1768, and Josias Lyndon was elected governor of the colony as a compromise candidate.
In 1770, Hopkins once again became Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court and, during this tenure, became a principal player in the colony's handling of the 1772 Gaspee Affair, when a group of irate Rhode Island citizens boarded a British revenue vessel and burned it to the waterline.
In 1774, he was given an additional important responsibility as one of Rhode Island's two delegates to the First Continental Congress—his former rival Samuel Ward being the other.
Hopkins had become well known in the thirteen colonies ten years earlier when he published a pamphlet entitled The Rights of Colonies Examined which was critical of British Parliament and its taxation policies.
Hopkins signed the Declaration of Independence in the summer of 1776 with worsening palsy in his hands.
He signed it by holding his right hand with his left and saying, "My hand trembles, but my heart does not." He served in the Continental Congress until September 1776, when failing health forced him to resign.
He was a strong backer of the College of the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (later named Brown University) and became the institution's first chancellor.
He died in Providence in 1785 at the age of 78, and is buried in the North Burial Ground there.
Hopkins has been called Rhode Island's greatest statesman.