Stephen Hopkins (1707-1785), first chancellor of the College, was born in Providence on March 7, 1707. He moved to Scituate as a child and engaged in farming there until he returned to live in Providence in 1742. He began his life of public service in Scituate in 1730 at the age of 23, when he was chosen Town Moderator when Scituate was set off from Providence. He served as town clerk from 1732 to 1741 and president of the town council from 1735 to 1742. He was a member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives from 1732 to 1752 and from 1770 to 1775. He was chief justice of the court of common pleas and chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, and was elected nine times as governor of Rhode Island between 1755 and 1768. His terms as governor alternated with those of Samuel Ward, the two men continuously vying for the office as representatives of their respective cities, Providence and Newport, both of which served as capital cities of the colony. Hopkins was a delegate to the Colonial Congress in Albany in 1754, the Colonial Congress in Boston in 1757, a member of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1776, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He has been quoted as stating decisively that the time had come “when the strongest arm and the longest sword must decide the contest, and those members who were not prepared for action had better go home.” John Adams, who served with Hopkins on the naval committee, remembered him thus in his autobiography:
“... when the business of the evening was over he kept us in conversation until 11 or sometimes 12 o’clock. His custom was to drink nothing all day, not till 8 o’clock in the evening, and then his beverage was Jamaica spirits and water. It gave him wit, humor, anecdotes, science and learning. He had read Greek, Roman and British history, and was familiar with British poetry, particularly Pope, Thomson and Milton, and the flow of his soul made all of his reading our own, and seemed to bring to recollection in all of us all we had ever read.”In 1742 Hopkins built a small unpretentious house on Town Street (later South Main Street) at the corner of Bank Lane. The house still stands, having been moved in 1809 up the hill on Bank Lane, which was renamed Hopkins Street. Legend has it that when George Washington was passing through Providence on his way from Cambridge to Long Island, he was expected to stop at the home of Hopkins, who was away attending Congress. Neighbors offered Hopkins’ daughter-in-law Ruth, who was at home, fine china and silver with which to entertain Washington, but she declined with the remark that what was good enough for Stephen Hopkins was surely good enough for General Washington.
Hopkins became a Quaker at the time of his second marriage in 1755. He engaged in the surveying of land all his life, and was one of the gentlemen, including Joseph Brown and Benjamin West, who observed the transit of Venus on June 3, 1769. He died in Providence on July 13, 1785, and is memorialized by a monument which notes his personal qualities:
Yet among the most learned of men;
His vast treasures of useful knowledge;
His great retentive and reflective powers;
Combined with his social nature, made him
the most interesting of companions in private life.