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September 18, 2017

Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull. Hopkins wears a hat and stands in the back near the door on the left.

Rhode Island’s signators to the Declaration of Independence


Rhode Island’s two signators to the Declaration of Independence, could not, in many ways, be more different.

One, Stephen Hopkins, was brought up in the agricultural community of Scituate, son of a farmer. He was self-educated, became a farmer himself, was a slave owner, a businessman and later, a politician.  

William Ellery was brought up in Newport, the son of a Harvard graduate and businessman. Ellery also attended Harvard, graduating at the age of 20. He was a merchant turned lawyer and politician, and was an abolitionist, supporting Rufus King’s attempts to abolish slavery.

What united the two was the Continental Congress, and their shared belief that America’s 13 colonies needed to declare independence from Great Britain, joining 54 others as signators of the Declaration of Independence.

Here’s a snapshot of both men.

Stephen Hopkins | From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

Stephen Hopkins, while self-educated, was recognized by the Rev. Ezra Stiles, who would become president of Yale University, as a “genius … cunning, intriguing and enterprising.”

He inherited his father’s farm in Scituate, but primarily worked as a land surveyor. When Scituate separated from Providence, Hopkins turned to politics, serving in local offices, served in the General Assembly and as Speaker of the House. He sold the family farm in Scituate and moved to Providence in 1742, and was a leader in developing much of Providence’s infrastructure – paved streets,  bridges and wharves.

In 1743, he purchased a home in Providence, now at Benefit and Hopkins Streets, and where George Washington is said to have visited.

He eventually served as governor under the Royal Charter, from 1758 to 1762. Later he became Chief Justice of the Superior Court and was credited with advising Deputy Gov. Darius Sessions in March 1772 that he felt the commander of the Gaspee was probably involved in illegal activities. The result, was the famous Burning of the Gaspee, celebrated each year in the village of Pawtuxet in Warwick.

Hopkins married when he was 19 to Sarah Scott. They had seven children, with one son dying in Spain of smallpox, another killed by Indians in Nova Scotia.  Sarah died in 1753, and Hopkins married Ann Smith in 1755.

He would die at the age of 78.

William Ellery of Newport was a merchant, working alongside his father. He’s described as moving from one position to another, becoming Clerk of the Court in 1750, a position he held for 13 years.

He was an advocate for educator co-founding Rhode Island College in 1764.

It wasn’t until 1770, at the age of 43, that he passed the bar, becoming a lawyer. Meanwhile, he was active in patriotic groups, including the Sons of Liberty, and strongly favored independence.

He wasn’t originally selected to represent Rhode Island in the Continental Congress of 1776, but was elected by the state legislature to the position to replace Samuel Ward, who was ill with smallpox. Some nine years later he became known as a strong abolitionist in a town, Newport, that was at the center of the region’s slave trade.

Ellery married Ann Remington in 1750, and together they had seven children, five of whom survived to adulthood. After Ann died in 1764, Ellery remarried three years later to Abigail Cary, and together they had 10 children, many of whom did not survive to adulthood.

He died at the age of 92 on Feb. 15,1820. Among his descendants was the preacher, William Ellery Channing.

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