Grave of Stephen Hopkins.

Ten-time Governor of Rhode Island; signer of the Declaration of Independence.

North Burial Ground, 5 Branch Avenue, Providence
(401) 331-0177

North Burial Ground

Not as well-tended as Swan Point, but not any less charming in its own unkempt way, the 110-acre North Burial Ground is the oldest surviving municipal cemetery in Providence.

During the initial settlement period in the 1600s, Providence residents buried their dead in family plots on their own properties. But around the turn of the century an expanding population and rising property values dictated the need for a common burying place that was outside the prime building areas. So in 1700 a parcel to the north of town was set aside for "a training field, burying ground, and other public uses." The cemetery got a boost in occupancy when Benefit Street, which had grown from a series of paths winding through backyards, was widened and straightened in the mid-1700s. At that time many of the family plots were moved to the North Burial Ground.

The Public Life of Stephen Hopkins

Stephen Hopkins, along with several members of his family, is one of those buried at North Burial Ground. He is perhaps most famous as one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, but there was a lot more to him than that.

Hopkins was born in Providence on March 7, 1707, into a respectable family; his great-granduncle was Benedict Arnold, the first governor of Rhode Island under the Royal Charter of 1663. He grew up in Scituate and at first seemed destined for the simple life of a farmer and surveyor, but in 1731, when Scituate Township separated from Providence, he threw himself into politics. During the following years he went from being the mediator of the first Scituate town meeting to chief justice of the Rhode Island Superior Court and a ten-time colonial governor. (At the time a term as governor lasted only a year.) He served as governor off and on from 1755 to 1767.

He was an early and articulate advocate of colonial rights. At the Albany Congress in 1754, Hopkins and Benjamin Franklin framed an early plan for colonial union that the congress passed but the colonies rejected. In December 1764 he wrote an article for the Providence Gazette and Country Journal entitled "The Rights of the Colonies Examined," which criticized parliamentary taxation and recommended colonial home rule. In 1774 he authored one of the earliest anti-slavery laws in the United States, a bill enacted by the Rhode Island legislature that prohibited the importation of slaves into the colony. He also served on the committees that prepared the Articles of Confederation and that created the Continental Navy.

Hopkins was just as busy here at home. Having moved back to Providence with his family in 1742, he was largely responsible for transforming it from a small village with muddy streets to a thriving commercial center. Under his leadership Providence paved streets, built bridges, wharves, and storehouses, and established a library, a newspaper, and educational and banking systems. He was also instrumental in establishing Rhode Island's present-day boundaries.

The Signing of the Declaration of Independence

The signing of the Declaration of Independence by most of the fifty-six members of the Continental Congress didn't actually take place until August 2, 1776. Under British law, the signing of such a document was considered a formal act of treason against the Crown. The men involved all knew they were putting their lives and fortunes on the line and that if things went badly for the colonies they would most likely be among the first to feel the hangman's noose. As Benjamin Franklin put it so succinctly, "We must indeed all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

Forty-nine-year-old William Ellery, Rhode Island's other congressional delegate, was curious to see how the other delegates would experience this grave undertaking, and he watched each of their faces carefully. Stephen Hopkins was then sixty-nine and not in the best of health. A paralytic affliction compelled him to use his left hand to guide his right as he signed, and the signature was shaky. Perhaps reacting to something he saw in Ellery's face, he remarked, "My hand trembles, but my heart does not."

Declining Years

Hopkins' ill health obliged him to retire from Congress in September 1776, one month after he had signed the Declaration of Independence. He declined subsequent re-elections to Congress, but sat in the State Legislature for a time and took part in several New England political conventions. Around 1780, Hopkins withdrew from public service completely.

On July 13, 1785, Stephen Hopkins died in Providence at the age of 78. It is said he retained full possession of his faculties to the end.

The home of Stephen Hopkins, one of the oldest buildings in Providence, can still be seen at the corner of Hopkins and Benefit Streets. He lived there from 1743 until his death.

Tangential Trivia

In 1972, actor Roy Poole depicted Hopkins as a cantankerous but wise rum-hound in the film version of the musical 1776.

Hopkins' Gravestone Inscriptions

West side
SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF
THE ILLUSTRIOUS
STEPHEN HOPKINS,
OF REVOLUTIONARY FAME,
ATTESTED BY HIS SIGNATURE
TO THE DECLARATION
OF OUR NATIONAL INDEPENDENCE.
GREAT IN COUNCIL,
FROM SAGACITY OF MIND;
MAGNANIMOUS IN SENTIMENT,
FIRM IN PURPOSE,
AND GOOD, AS GREAT,
FROM BENEVOLENCE OF HEART;
HE STOOD IN THE FRONT RANK OF
STATESMEN AND PATRIOTS.
SELF-EDUCATED,
YET AMONG THE MOST LEARNED OF MEN;
HIS VAST TREASURY OF USEFUL KNOWLEDGE,
HIS GREAT RETENTIVE
AND REFLECTIVE POWERS,
COMBINED WITH HIS SOCIAL NATURE,
MADE HIM THE MOST INTERESTING
OF COMPANIONS IN PRIVATE LIFE.

South side
HIS NAME IS ENGRAVED
ON THE IMMORTAL RECORDS
OF THE REVOLUTION,
AND CAN NEVER DIE:
HIS TITLES TO THAT DISTINCTION
ARE ENGRAVED ON THIS MONUMENT,
REARED BY
THE GRATEFUL ADMIRATION
OF HIS NATIVE STATE,
IN HONOR OF HER FAVORITE SON.

East side
HOPKINS
BORN MARCH 7, 1707
DIED JULY 13, 1785

North side
HERE lies the man in fateful hour,
Who boldly stemm'd tyrannic pow'r.
And held his hand in that decree,
Which bade America BE FREE!
—Arnold's poems

Information

Cost: free

Time required: allow ten minutes

Hours: 8am-4pm

Remember, this is a cemetery. Please be respectful.

Finding it: from Route 95 take exit 24 for Branch Avenue (take a right on Branch if exiting from 95 North, a left if from 95 South); the North Burial Ground and its entrance is on your left; once inside the cemetery bear left and then take a right onto Central Avenue; take another right onto Hopkins Avenue, just after the Bicknall family plot; Hopkins's grave is located at the end of Hopkins Avenue.

What’s nearby

Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to bridges or flag-burning phlegm. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited August 22, 2015

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