This Day in History: Esek & Stephen Hopkins, two brothers who served the Patriot cause
On this day in 1718, Esek Hopkins is born. He would become the first Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy. But Esek wasn’t the only Hopkins brother to serve the Patriot cause during the American Revolution. His brother, Stephen, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
You might remember Stephen because of his shaky signature on that document. He was then 69 years old and afflicted with some type of palsy (maybe Parkinson’s). Legend has it that, as he signed the Declaration, he asserted: “My hand trembles, but my heart does not!”
Both brothers served memorably, but perhaps Esek wished his time in the Navy had gone a bit better?
In mid-February 1776, Esek was ordered to take his fleet first to Virginia, then to the Carolinas. Americans on the coast were being harassed by British ships. Inexplicably, Esek didn’t do that! Instead, he went on a mission to the Bahamas.
No one is quite sure what prompted Esek’s choice. Perhaps he was worried about the size of the British fleet in Virginia? A single clause in his orders gave him discretion to “follow such Courses as your best Judgment shall suggest,” so Esek sailed right by the destination that Congress had intended.
“It was a bad decision,” historian James Bradford has written. “Hopkins was behaving more like a privateersman . . . . By completely bypassing the southern coasts he displayed a callous disregard for southern interests and reinforced southern suspicions about a Yankee navy.”
Regardless, Esek had some success in the Bahamas. Americans completed a daring raid on Nassau, and they seized a huge stash of ammunition. On the trip home, they captured two small British ships. Unfortunately, the trip ended with embarrassment when HMS Glasgow singlehandedly got the best of Esek’s fleet.
Esek never bounced back. He handled his job poorly, was short-tempered, and generally made things worse. His ships seemed to be always in port! Why wasn’t he off chasing danger like John Paul Jones? Congress got fed up, and it launched an investigation into the “frequent Neglect or Disobedience of Orders” by naval leadership. The inquiry soon focused on Esek. By January 1778, Esek had been cut loose, with Congress stating that it had “no further occasion for the service of Esek Hopkins.”
But if Esek’s reputation suffered, Stephen’s did the opposite. His stature in Rhode Island has even been compared to Samuel Adams’s in Massachusetts or Thomas Jefferson’s in Virginia.
Stephen was an important political leader in those years. He was a former Governor and the author of important political pamphlets. He’d memorably served as Chief Justice when Rhode Island colonists set fire to a British ship in 1772. The British were furious, and they wanted to transport the alleged participants to England for trial. Stephen refused to allow it.
As the war started, Stephen was serving in the Continental Congress. He helped with the Navy, with militia, and with military supplies. He risked his life by signing the Declaration. He seems to have lost much of his fortune during those years.
In short, Stephen was an important man who served in many unglamorous roles, behind the scenes. He was appreciated at the time, but he’s been too-often forgotten since.
Interestingly, both brothers would have naval or merchant ships named for them after their deaths. During World War II, SS Stephen Hopkins would be the only U.S. merchant vessel to sink a German raider during that war.
Surely both brothers would have appreciated that.
Edgar Mayhew Bacon, Narragansett Bay: Its Historic and Romantic Associations and Picturesque Setting (1904)
Edwin Martin Stone, The Life and Recollections of John Howland: Late President of the Rhode Island Historical Society (1857)
James C. Bradford, Command Under Sail: Makers of the American Naval Tradition, 1775-1850 (1985)
James Fenimore Cooper, History of the Navy of the United States of America (1847)
Rory Raven, Burning the Gaspee: Revolution in Rhode Island (2012)
Samuel Greene Arnold, History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations: 1701-1790 (1899) (Vol. 2)
Thomas Williams Bicknell, The History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (1920) (Vol. 2)
The Gaspee Affair of 1772 (Warwick, Rhode Island Digital History Project)
William E. Foster, Stephen Hopkins, a Rhode Island statesman (1884)