Founding Fathers Friday: Stephen Hopkins

by Derrick G. Jeter

In the delightful, if not always historical or modest, musical 1776, Stephen Hopkins was portrayed as the rum-loving, good-natured, and quick-witted Founder. His nickname, as the musical playfully points out, was “Old Grape and Guts.” “Grape” because he loved the nectar of the vine and “Guts” because he made his fellow delegates roll with laughter. John Adams wrote that “Hopkins never drank to excess, but all he drank was immediately not only converted into wit, sense, knowledge, and good humor, but inspired us with similar qualities.” Good humor was in short supply during the summer of 1776. With fifty-six men shut up in Independence Hall, it was hot, stifling, and miserable—and the weather wasn’t much better. Perhaps that’s why Adams said that Hopkins’s humor “kept us all alive.”
By the summer of 1776 Hopkins had lived long enough to collect a bushel full of stories in which to entertain his younger compatriots. At sixty-nine Hopkins wasn’t the oldest—that distinction when to Benjamin Franklin—but well advanced in years and in experience compared to the majority of signers. Hopkins came to the patriotic cause early, even before some of the others were barely past their teens. In 1754, this farmer/merchant from Providence, Rhode Island, was elected a delegate to the Albany Congress. As a representative of one of seven colonies Hopkins met with others in New York to pursue improving relations with native tribes and contend with French intervention on the borders of English America. The Indians decided they could cut a better deal with the French than with the Americans and so sided with the French. Before years end a young George Washington would strike the spark that blazed into the French and Indian War. Though the Albany Congress was deemed a failure, Hopkins befriended another future Declaration signer at that same gathering—Benjamin Franklin, who was drawing up plans to unite the colonies; a plan not dissimilar to the Constitution (which would come more than thirty years later) and one in which Hopkins heartedly approved.
But Hopkins was a fully engaged public servant well before his election to the Albany Congress. Beginning in 1732, and continuing for almost twenty unbroken years, Hopkins served as a representative in the Rhode Island General Assembly. In 1741 he was elected as Speaker of the House of Representatives and in 1751 he was appoint as Rhode Island’s Chief Justice, another post he held off and on for more than twenty years. And if this wasn’t enough, from 1755 to 1768 he served as Rhode Island’s governor on ten separate occasions.
Hopkins was a busy man. But public service wasn’t enough. As things began to heat up in the colonies over English taxation, Hopkins helped found a patriot’s paper, the Providence Gazette and County Journal. And in 1764, he published “The Rights of the Colonies Examined,” which was acclaimed throughout the colonies and scrutinized in the mother country.
In 1774, Hopkins was selected as a delegate to the Continental Congress. While still serving as a Rhode Island legislator, Hopkins introduced a bill outlawing the importation of slaves into the colony—one of the first, if not the first, antislavery laws in America. As a member of Congress, he fought for other antislavery measures, even while his brother, Esek, was in the slave trading business. Hopkins’s antislavery battles in Congress, however, would have to be fought another time, for Independence was the issue of the day.
Hopkins signed his shaky name on August 2, 1776. He suffered from what many consider a form of palsy, a paralysis or loss of sensation accompanied by shaking. Taking his turn with the quill and ink, the elderly patriot said before scratching out his name: “My hand trembles, but my heart does not!”
Now that’s something we could all raise our glasses and toast! Hip-hip hooray for Stephen Hopkins and his steadfast heart.