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This Day in History: “My hand trembles, but my heart does not!”

On this day in 1707, a signer of the Declaration of Independence is born. You probably don’t recognize his name, but maybe you remember seeing his shaky signature on the Declaration?


Stephen Hopkins was 69 years old when he signed the Declaration, and he was afflicted with a palsy (maybe Parkinson’s) that caused his hand to quiver as he wrote. Legend has it that, as he signed the Declaration, he asserted: “My hand trembles, but my heart does not!”

As a delegate to the Continental Congress, Hopkins served on the Naval Committee, and he served on other, various committees to put the militia in order or to help obtain military supplies. However, he was much more than just a delegate to the Continental Congress. Historian Thomas Williams Bicknell notes that Hopkins became to Rhode Island what Samuel Adams is to Massachusetts or what Thomas Jefferson is to Virginia.


He was a nine-term Governor of Rhode Island. He was a successful businessman who may have sacrificed a fortune because of his involvement in political matters. He was an early Patriot leader who authored a 1764 pamphlet, “The Rights of the Colonies Examined.” That pamphlet criticized parliamentary taxation and was widely circulated throughout America and Great Britain.


Hopkins was a Quaker, but that apparently didn’t affect his determination that a Revolution would be necessary. Paul Revere recollected an evening in 1774 with Hopkins and others. They were discussing the probable repeal of the Intolerable Acts. According to Revere, Hopkins was doubtful that such a repeal would be enough.


“[T]hose of you who indulge this opinion,” Hopkins said, “I think deceive yourselves. Powder and ball will decide this question. The gun and bayonet alone will finish the contest in which we are engaged, and any of you who cannot bring your minds to this mode of adjusting the question, had better retire in time, as it will not, perhaps, be in your power, after the first blood shall have been shed.”


Interestingly, Hopkins was also Chief Justice during the Gaspee Affair: the “first blow” of the Revolution, in which Rhode Island colonists set fire to a British ship. Hopkins refused to cooperate with British attempts to transport the alleged participants to England for a trial: “[F]or the purpose of transportation for trial,” he said, “I will neither apprehend any person by my own order, nor suffer any executive officer in the Colony to do it.”


Perhaps we would know more of Hopkins but for one unfortunate incident. A former President of the Rhode Island Historical Society notes that Hopkins “left a large trunk of papers connected with the transactions of his public life. . . . [But in] the great storm of September, 1815, the tide swept through the house where they were lodged, and they were carried off and lost in the multitude of waters.”


Too bad! Hopkins was well-respected and well-remembered—at least for a time. A city in Rhode Island was named after him, as was a U.S. Liberty ship during World War II. In fact, many years after Hopkins death, the SS Stephen Hopkins was the only U.S. merchant vessel to sink a German raider during that war.


What a coincidence! Hopkins defended the colonists who sank the British schooner, the Gaspee. A little over 170 years later, a ship named after him sank a German raider. Somehow, I think Hopkins would have liked that.

Primary Sources & Further Reading:

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