Rhode Island Reading Room

Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence

by Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, R.G.H. Huntington, 1841



Stephen Hopkins was a native of that part of Providence which is now called Scituate, where he was born on the 7th of March, 1707. His parentage was very respectable, being a descendant of Benedict Arnold, the first governor of Rhode Island.

His early education was limited, being confined to the instruction imparted in the common schools of the country. Yet it is recorded of him, that he excelled in a knowledge of penmanship, and in the practical branches of mathematics, particularly surveying.

For several years he followed the profession of a farmer. At an early period, he was elected town clerk of Scituate, and some time after was chosen a representative from that town to the general assembly. He was subsequently appointed a justice of the peace, and a justice of one of the courts of common pleas. In 1733, he became chief justice of that court.

In 1742, he disposed of his estate in Scituate, and removed to Providence, where he erected a house, in which he continued to reside till his death. In this latter place he entered into mercantile business, and was extensively engaged in building and fitting out vessels.

When a representative from Scituate, he was elected speaker of the house of representatives. To this latter once he was again chosen after his removal to Providence, and continued to occupy the station for several successive years, being a representative from the latter town. In 1751, he was chosen chief justice of the superior court, in which office he continued till the year 1754.

In this latter year he was appointed a commissioner from Rhode Island, to the celebrated convention which met at Albany; which had for its object the securing of the friendship of the five nations of Indians, in the approaching French war, and an union between the several colonies of America.

In 1756, he was elected chief magistrate of the colony of Rhode Island, which office he continued to hold, with but fear intervals, until the year 1767. In the discharge of the duties of this responsible station, he acted with dignity and decision. The prosperity of his country lay near his heart, nor did he hesitate to propose and support the measures, which, appeared the best calculated to promote the interests of the colonies in opposition to the encroachments of British power.

At an early period of the difficulties between the colonies and Great Britain, he took an active and decided part in favour of the former. In a pamphlet, entitled, "The rights of colonies examined," he exposed the injustice of the stamp act, and various other acts of the British government. This pamphlet was published by order of the general assembly, in 1765.

The siege of fort William Henry, by the Marquis de Montcalm, 1757, and its surrender to the force under that general, with the subsequent cruel outrages and murders committed by the savages of the French army, are too well known to need a recital in this place. It is necessary only to state, that the greatest excitement prevailed throughout all the colonies. In this excitement, the inhabitants of Rhode Island largely participated. An agreement was entered into by a volunteer corps, couched in the following terms:

"Whereas the British colonies in America are invaded by a large army of French and Indian enemies, who have already possessed themselves of fort William Henry, and are now on their march to penetrate further into the country, and from whom we have nothing to expect, should they succeed in their enterprise, but death and devastation; and as his majesty’s principal officers in the parts invaded, have in the most pressing and moving manner, called on all his majesty's faithful subjects, for assistance to defend the country: – Therefore, we, whose names are underwritten, thinking it our duty to do every thing in our power, for the defence of our liberties, families, and property, are willing, and have agreed to enter voluntarily into the service of our country, and go in a warlike manner against the common enemy; and hereby call upon and invite all our neighbors, who have families and property to defend, to join with us in this undertaking, promising to march as soon as we are two hundred and fifty in number, recommending ourselves and our cause to the favourable protection of Almighty God."

To this agreement, Mr. Hopkins was the first to affix his name, and was chosen to command the company thus raised, which consisted of some of the most distinguished men in Providence. Preparations for a speedy departure for the field of action were made, but on the eve of their march, intelligence arrived, that their services were no longer necessary, as the progress of hostilities towards the south was not to be expected.

In 1774, Mr. Hopkins received the appointment of a delegate from Rhode Island to the celebrated congress, which met at Philadelphia that year. In this assembly he took his seat on the first day of the session, where he became one of the most zealous advocates of the measures adopted by that illustrious body of men.

In the year 1775 and 1776, he again represented Rhode Island in the continental congress. In this latter year he had the honour of affixing his name to the imperishable instrument, which declared the colonies to be free, sovereign, and independent states. He recorded his name with a trembling hand, the only instance in which a tremulous hand is visible among the fifty-six patriots who then wrote their names. But it was in this case only that the flesh was weak. Mr. Hopkins had for some time been afflicted with a paralytic affection, which compelled him, when he wrote, to guide his right hand with his left. The spirit of the man knew no fear, in a case where life and liberty were at hazard.

In 1778, Mr. Hopkins was a delegate to congress for the last time. But in several subsequent years, he was a member of the general assembly of Rhode Island. The last year in which he thus served, was that of 1779, at which time he was seventy-two years of age.

Mr. Hopkins lived to the 13th of July, 1785, when he closed his long, and honourable 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.

Although the early education of Mr. Hopkins was limited, as has already been observed, the vigour of his understanding enabled him to surmount his early deficiencies, and an assiduous application to the pursuit of knowledge, at length, placed him among the distinguished literary characters of the day. He delighted in literature and science. He was attentive to books, and a close observer of mankind; thus he went on improving, until the period of his death. As a public speaker, he was always clear, precise, pertinent, and powerful.

As a mathematician, Mr. Hopkins greatly excelled. Till in advanced age, he was extensively employed in surveying lands. He was distinguished for great exactness in his calculations, and an unusual knowledge of his business.

As a statesman and a patriot, he was not less distinguished. He was well instructed in the science of politics; had an extensive knowledge of the rights of his country, and proved himself, through a longer life than falls to the lot of most men, an unshaken friend of his country, and an enemy to civil and religious intolerance. He event to his grave honoured as a skilfull legislator, a righteous judge, an able representative, a dignified and upright governor. Charity was an inmate of his habitation. To the cry of suffering his ear was ever open, and in the relief of affliction he ever delighted.



William Ellery, the son of a gentleman of the same name, was born at Newport, on the 22d day of December, 1727. His ancestors were originally from Bristol, in England, whence they emigrated to America during the latter part of the seventeenth century, and took up their residence at Newport, in Rhode Island.

The early education of the subject of this memoir, was received almost exclusively from his father, who was a graduate of Harvard university; and who although extensively engaged in mercantile pursuits, found leisure personally to cultivate the mind of his son. At the age of sixteen, he was qualified for admission to the university, of which his father had been a member before him. In his twentieth year, he left the university, having sustained, during his collegiate course, the character of a faithful and devoted student. In a knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages, he is said to have particularly excelled, and through the whole bustle of his active life, until the very hour of dissolution, he retained his fondness for them.

On his return to Newport, he commenced the study of the law, and after the usual preparatory course, he entered upon the practice, which for twenty years he pursued with great zeal. During this period, no other particulars have been recorded of him, than that he succeeded in acquiring a competent fortune, and receiving the esteem and confidence of his fellow citizens.

At an early period of the controversy between Great Britain and the colonies, Rhode Island strongly enlisted herself in the patriotic cause. She was not backward in expressing her disapprobation of the arbitrary measures of the parent country. Indeed, it is doubtful whether Rhode Island is not equally entitled, with Virginia and Massachusetts, to the honour which they claim, of being earliest in the measures leading to the revolution. Among the great scenes which led the way to actual resistance, two occurred in Narragansset bay. The first of these was an attack by the people of Rhode Island, upon the armed revenue sloop, Liberty, in the harbour of Newport, June 17th, 1769. The second was the memorable affair of the Gaspee, June 9th, 1772, and in which it may be said, was shed the first blood in the revolution. This latter occurrence excited an unusual alarm among the royal party in the provinces, and gave occasion to Governor Hutchinson to address the following letter to Commodore Gambier: " Our last ships carried you the news of the burning of the Gaspee schooner, at Providence. I hope, if there should be another like attempt, some concerned in it may be taken prisoners, and carried directly to England. A few punished at execution dock, would be the only effectual preventive of any further attempts."

By other acts did the people of Rhode Island, at an early period, evince their opposition to the royal government. On the arrival in the year 1774 of the royal proclamation prohibiting the importation of fire arms from England, they dismantled the fort at Newport, and took possession of forty pieces of cannon. Again, on the occurrence of the battle of Lexington, they simultaneously roused to the defence of their fellow citizens, in the province of Massachusetts. Within three days after that memorable event, a large number of her militia were in the neighbourhood of Boston, ready to cooperate in measures either of hostility or defence. In the same year she sent twelve hundred regular troops into the service, and afterwards furnished three state regiments to serve during the war.

No sooner was the formation of a continental congress suggested, than Rhode Island took measures to be represented in that body, and elected as delegates two of her most distinguished citizens, Governor Hopkins and Mr. Ward.

During these movements in Rhode Island, Mr. Ellery, the subject of this notice, was by no means an idle spectator. The particular history of the part which he took in these transactions is, indeed, not recorded; but the tradition is, that he was not behind his contemporaries either in spirit or action.

In the election for delegates to the congress of 1776, Mr. Ellery was a successful candidate, and in that body took his seat, on the seventeenth of May. Here, he soon became an active and influential member, and rendered important services to his country, by his indefatigable attention to duties assigned him, on several committees. During this session, he had the honour of affixing his name to the declaration of independence. Of this transaction he frequently spoke, and of the notice he took of the members of congress when they signed that instrument. He placed himself beside secretary Thompson, that he might see how they looked, as they put their names to their death warrant. But while all appeared to feel the solemnity of the occasion, and their countenances bespoke their awe, it was unmingled with fear. They recorded their names as patriots, who were ready, should occasion require, to lead the way to martyrdom.

In the year 1777, the marine committee of congress, of which Mr. Ellery was a member, recommended the plan, and it is supposed, at his suggestion, of preparing fire ships, and sending them out from the state of Rhode Island. Of this plan, the journals of congress speak in the following terms:

"If upon due consideration, jointly had by the navy board for the eastern department, and the governor and council of war for the state of Rhode Island, and for which purpose the said navy board are directed to attend upon the said governor and council of war, the preparing fire ships be judged practicable, expedient, and advisable, the said navy board immediately purchase, upon as reasonable terms as possible, six ships, or square rigged vessels, at Providence, in the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, the best calculated for fire ships, with all possible expedition; that the said navy board provide proper materials for the same, and employ a proper captain or commander, one lieutenant, and a suitable number of men for each of the said ships, or vessels, of approved courage and prudence; and that notice be given to all the commanders of the continental ships and vessels in the port of Providence, to be in readiness to sail at a moment’s warning: that as soon as the said fire ships are well prepared, the first favourable wind be embraced to attack the British ships and navy in the rivers and bays of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations: that the officers of the continental navy there, favour, as much as possible, the design, and use their utmost efforts to get out to sea, and proceed to such cruise, or to such ports, as the said navy board, or the marine committee, shall appoint or order."

During the year that the British army under General Piggot took possession of Newport, where they fortified themselves, and continued their head quarters for some time, the inhabitants sustained much injury in their property. Mr. Ellery shared in the common loss, his dwelling house being burned, and other destruction of property occasioned.

Mr. Ellery continued a member of congress until the year 1785, and indeed, through that year, when he retired to his native state. Soon after, however, he was elected by congress, a commissioner of the continental loan office, to which was subsequently added, by the citizens of Rhode Island, the office of chief justice of their superior court, a station which he did not continue to hold long. On the organization of the federal government, he received from General Washington the appointment of collector of the customs for the town of Newport, an once which he retained during the remainder of his life.

On the 15th of February, 1820, this venerable man – venerable for his age, which had been prolonged to ninety-two years, and. venerable for the services which he had rendered his country, was summoned to his account. His death was in unison with his life. He wasted gradually and almost imperceptibly, until the powers of nature were literally worn out by use. On the day on which his death occurred, he had risen, as usual, and rested in his old flag bottomed chair, the relict of half a century; he had employed himself in reading Tully’s offices in Latin.

While thus engaged, his family physician called to see him. On feeling his pulse, he found that it had ceased to beat. A draught of wine and water quickened it into life, however, again, and being placed and supported on the bed, he continued reading, until the lamp of life, in a moment of which his friends were ignorant, was extinguished.

"Of no distemper, of no blast he died,
But fell like autumn fruit that mellowed long,
E’en wonder’d at because he falls no sooner.
Fate seem’d to wind him up for fourscore years,
Yet freshly ran he on twelve winters more:
Till, like a clock worn out with eating time,
The wheels of weary life at last stood still"
In the character of Mr. Ellery there was much to admire. He was, indeed, thought by some to have been too tenacious of his opinion, and not always free from asperity to others. But years mellowed down these unpleasant traits of his character, and showed that he had exercised a watchfulness over himself, not entirely in vain. He manifested an uncommon disregard of the applause of men. It was often upon his lips: "humility rather than pride becomes such creatures as we are." He looked upon the world and its convulsions with religious serenity, and in times of public danger, and of public difficulty, he comforted himself and others, with the pious reflection of the psalmist, " The Lord reigneth."

In conversation, Mr. Ellery was at once interesting and instructive. His advice was often sought, and his opinions regarded with great reverence. In letter writing he excelled, as he did in fine penmanship, which latter would be inferred from his signature to the declaration of independence. In stature, he was of middling height, and carried in his person the indications of a sound frame and an easy mind. In the courtesies of life, he kept pace with the improvements of the age; but his conversation. and dress, and habits of life, plainly showed that he belonged to a more primitive generation.

This document is made available to the public for non-commercial purposes.

Mail    e-mail