Religious Convictions of America's Founders: William Hooper
"And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
William Hooper has often been called the "Prophet of Independence." His prophetic observation was recorded in a letter of 26 April 1774 to his friend James Iredell, stating: “The Colonies are striding fast to independence, and ere long will build an empire upon the ruins of Great Britain; will adopt its Constitution, purged of its impurities, and from an experience of its defects, will guard against those evils which have wasted its vigor”.
An Episcopalian, Hooper was born on June 17, 1742 in Boston, Massachusetts. He was the oldest of five children of the Reverend William Hooper and Mary Dennie Hooper. Rev. Hooper was originally a Congregational minister, educated at Edinburgh University, who immigrated to America in 1734,. He became an Episcopalian, was ordained in London by the Church of England, returning to Boston to become the second Rector of Trinity Church.
The Rev. Hooper wanted his son, William, to follow in his ministerial footsteps, but the eventual Signer of the Declaration of Independence decided, upon graduating from Harvard College in 1760, to study law. His father allowed him to pursue his legal education from famed, fiery for colonial rights James Otis, Jr.
In 1764, he settled temporarily in Wilmington, North Carolina. Hooper's legal work required him to travel on horseback 150 miles and more to backcountry courts in all seasons and weather. It was during this time that his health began to suffer. Yet, he earned the confidence and respect of his fellow citizens and his colleagues at the bar. He became a Circuit Court Lawyer. By June 1766 he was unanimously elected recorder of the borough, and in 1767, he married Miss Ann Clark.
In 1769 British Governor William Tyron appointed Hooper Deputy Attorney General for the King in the Salisbury District Court and inevitably ran afoul of the Regulators, incurring their lasting enmity. A 1768 incident in Anson County was followed by another at the Hillsborough riots of September 1770, when Hooper reportedly was dragged through the streets by the Regulators.
Like many of America's Founders, William Hooper not only possessed unusual intellect and determination, but he also took many risks and made many sacrifices in the cause of independence.
Political Life as a Revolutionary Patriot Begins
On January 25, 1773, he sat for the first time in the Provincial Congress Assembly as a representative for the Scots settlement of Cambelltown (later Fayetteville).
During this time, Hooper took the lead in strenuous opposition to a clause in a bill brought forward by advocates of the British government. It was intended to exempt from attachment all species of property in North Carolina which belonged to non-residents.
“Personally to Mr. Hooper, the issue of this business was highly injurious, since he was thus deprived of the practice of his profession, upon which he depended for his support. Conscious, however, of having discharged his duty, he bowed in submission to the pecuniary sacrifices to which he was thus called, preferring honorable poverty to the greatest pecuniary acquisitions, if the latter must he made at the expense of principle..“ Founding Father Biographies
The selection of delegates to the First Continental Congress, which was to meet in Philadelphia, was the most important action of the Provincial Congress Assembly. Hooper was the first selection along with John Penn and Joseph Hewes, to represent North Carolina in the Continental Congress.
Traveling on horseback over 450 miles of strength-taxing roads, Hooper and Hewes arrived in Philadelphia on September 12, 1774. At age 32, one of the youngest members of Congress, Hooper’s primary concern was the protection of colonial rights. All thirteen colonies were represented except for Georgia whose governor had prevented the election of delegates.
On November 23, 1774 the voters of Wilmington met and elected a committee “to carry more effectively into Execution the resolves of the Late Congress held at Philadelphia.” This was the origin of the Wilmington Committee of Safety. William Hooper was among eight others on this Committee.
In May 1775, with Redcoats storming Boston, the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia. Again, William Hooper served, and he also chaired several committees, one to prepare a resolution for a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer to be observed throughout the Colonies.
The Execrable Design of Spreading Slavery
It was during this time that Mr. Hooper drafted an address to the inhabitants of Jamaica, expressing his disgust toward the British who imported slaves to America:
…” it has caused the treasure and blood of Britons (formerly shed and expended for far other ends) to be spilt and wasted in the execrable design of spreading slavery over British America: it will not, however, accomplish its aim; in the worst of contingencies, a choice will still be left, which it never can prevent us from making." Founding Father Biographies
Washington and his army had retreated across New Jersey, crossing the Delaware River. Congress fearing a British attack on Philadelphia, fled to Baltimore. The Third Meeting of Congress was held in Baltimore Dec. 20, 1776. Hooper was concerned with committees for the regulation of the post office, the treasury, secret correspondence, admiralty courts, laws of capture, and the like.
Before the close of 1776 Hooper had attended three Continental Congresses, five Provincial Congresses, and Four Provincial Assemblies. Although Hooper was absent when independence was actually voted and declared on 4 July 1776, he, like most of the other delegates, affixed his name to the amended Declaration on 2 August.
Illness, Fugitive, and Burning of his Home
Early in 1777, Hooper and numerous other delegates were stricken with malaria. On April 29, he formally resigned his seat in the U.S. Congress. “The situation of my own private affairs . . . did not leave me a moment in suspense whether I should decline the honor intended me,” he wrote to Robert Morris. He was succeeded by Cornelius Harnett and never again appeared on the national scene.
Hooper resumed his residence at Finian and his law practice in the newly opened courts, again riding the circuits with his friend Iredell as he had done before the Revolution. He attended the General Assemblies of 1777, 1778, 1779, 1780, and 1781 as member for the borough of Wilmington, serving on numerous committees.
When it appeared that Finian would not be safe from British men-of-war in Masonboro Sound, Hooper moved his family into the town. He himself, at times suffering from malaria and a badly injured arm, became a fugitive from the British, going from friend’s house to friend’s house in the Windsor-Edenton area. On January 29, 1781 Major James H. Craig’s men took Wilmington. The Hooper house in Wilmington was burned, and the then ailing Mrs. Hooper and two of her children were forced to flee by wagon to Hillsborough where her brother, General Clark, found shelter for them. Finally, on April 10, 1782, the reunited Hooper’s purchased General Francis Nash’s former home on West Tryon Street, in Hillsborough. The house was named a National Historic Landmark in 1972. Hooper’s preserved Memorandum book, 1780-1783, provides valuable records of this period.
Hooper’s law practice was still a considerable one, owing to steady litigation concerning Loyalists’ estates, confiscated lands, treason, and all the legal backwash of the Revolution. Like Iredell and other conservative men, Hooper lamented unreasonable severity and vengefulness against Loyalists and absentees and urged moderation in their treatment. In consequence, he found himself at painful odds with some of his old friends and acquaintances
On Oct. 14, 1790, William Hooper died after five months of complications associated with his previous health problems. In 1829, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich wrote: "He never desponded; but trusting to the justice of his country's cause, he had an unshaken confidence that heaven would protect and deliver her." See Founding Father Biographies and The Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence.