Stephen Hopkins/Samuel Ward Lawsuit

Samuel Ward was a farmer, Supreme Court Justice, and governor of the Rhode Island colony. His counterpart, Stephen Hopkins, was also a Supreme Court Justice, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and governor of the colony of Rhode Island. The two men took turns governing Rhode Island and were contentious adversaries. The debate in the colony over whether to use paper currency versus specie—hard money—led to the rivals once again butting political heads, with Ward supporting specie and Hopkins in favor of paper currency. In the end, Hopkins sued Ward for £40,000 but lost the case and was forced to compensate the legal expenses.

I did not find this story anywhere on American Historical Newspapers. American newspapers apparently did not have anything to say regarding this lawsuit, and the only thing I can deduce is because, since it was a local story, there was no reason to cover it. Rhode Island had four newspapers: The American Journal and General Advertiser, Providence Gazette, Newport Mercury, and the Gazette Francoise. According to Paul Starr, “In the colonial era, the papers continued to publish a preponderance of national and world news and little news about their local communities.” Starr added that an analysis of New York newspapers found printers did not feel that their “readers would pay for information which they could secure by word of mouth from their neighbors.”[1] While the exchange of information came from letters, newspapers, pamphlets, and books, a lot of news was also spread through meetings, speeches, and informal conversations at local bars and taverns. This was certainly a local story that Rhode Islanders could easily hear from citizens in the community and was not worth the ink to print. This story did not generate any news coverage and therefore did not produce subsequent types of news stories.

I had to look to other sources just to find out what Hopkins sued Ward for. A book by William Eaton Foster entitled Stephen Hopkins, a Rhode Island Statesman: A Study in the Political History of the Eighteenth Century, Part 1 provided the answer. According to Foster, Hopkins printed a pamphlet during the race for governor in 1757 and challenged Ward in the publication. Ward responded with a brochure of his own, prompting Hopkins to sue him for libel. This action resonated throughout the colony as “neighbor was arrayed against neighbor, and family against family, in an irreconcilable feud.”[2] This exemplifies how word of mouth was still a viable means of communication during the colonial period even during the era of printing and newspapers. An article I found on JSTOR makes no mention of the lawsuit and instead focuses on the fact that “from 1755 to I770 the colony of Rhode Island was torn by an internal political struggle.” Hopkins’ supporters in the north clashed with Ward’s in the south, and the colony was divided along political boundaries long before the Revolutionary War commenced. Hopkins “led the fight for currency reform” and was able to “push through the assembly the first bill to regulate currency in the history of the colony.”[3] The omission of the lawsuit in a scholarly journal article is further testament to how small this story was at the time.

[1] Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 87.

[2] William Eaton Foster, Stephen Hopkins, a Rhode Island Statesman: A Study in the Political History of the Eighteenth Century, Part 1, Google Books, accessed October 1, 2016, https://books.google.com/books?id=K5RuAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Stephen+Hopkins,+a+Rhode+Island+Statesman:+A+Study+in+the+Political+History+of+the+Eighteenth+Century,+Part+1%E2%80%AC,&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjL9Ju9rrvPAhXF2R4KHVY_B5UQ6AEIHjAA#v=onepage&q=Who%20was%20Ward%3F&f=false, 21–22.

[3] Mack E. Thompson, “The Ward-Hopkins Controversy and the American Revolution in Rhode Island: An Interpretation,” The William and Mary Quarterly 16, No. 3 (1959), 363-375.

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2 thoughts on “Stephen Hopkins/Samuel Ward Lawsuit

  1. You did a good job here to explain how you followed the trail, even if it didn’t lead you where you wanted to go. As I mentioned in class, I suspect that there was newspaper coverage of the larger feud between Ward and Hopkins, but that may be difficult to find in the space of an assignment such as this.

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    • Thanks, Dr. Adelman. It was definitely frustrating following it to a dead end, but I guess that happens more often in history than I am aware.

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