By D. Allan Kerr
The Founding Fathers of our country are considered, collectively, one of the most remarkable assemblies of men in history. And even among this celebrated company it can be said Maine’s own Gen. William Whipple had one of the more colorful careers.
Whipple tended to be a man of action toiling among the intellectual giants of his day. Hancock and Adams (both John and Samuel) were all Harvard men; Jefferson graduated from the College of William & Mary, and Franklin founded the University of Pennsylvania.
Young William, son of a sea captain and grandson of a prominent local shipbuilder, was publicly educated in Kittery, Maine, before shipping out as a cabin boy. He grew up to become a seaman, soldier, statesman and Signer of the Declaration of Independence.
During the Revolutionary War he helped lead the fight for freedom with sword as well as pen, commanding one of two New Hampshire militia brigades as a general during several campaigns.
“War with all its horrors is preferable to an inglorious peace,” he once wrote to fellow Signer Josiah Bartlett.
Whipple seemed to have a knack for turning up during critical junctures of his era. And since both sides of the Piscataqua River’s Maine-New Hampshire Seacoast area can lay claim to the general as their own, the month of our nation’s birth presents an ideal opportunity to acknowledge this unsung Founding Father.
Born in Kittery in 1730, Whipple grew up in the house still standing at 88 Whipple Road near the back gate of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. His father, also named William, was a former brewer from Massachusetts who pursued a career at sea. His mother was Mary Cutts, daughter of the famed local shipbuilder Robert Cutts.
The mariner’s life was a pretty rugged trade in the mid-1700s, full of danger and adventure, but the younger William thrived. He was master of a vessel by the time he was 21, and sailed the West Indies-European-African trade route. Before the age of 30 he earned enough of a fortune to leave the sea behind.
He crossed the Piscataqua to settle down in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, became a successful merchant with his brother Joseph and eventually married their cousin Katherine Moffatt. The former sea captain emerged as a leader of the American Revolution there, serving on various local and provincial committees.
In January 1776 he was selected as a New Hampshire delegate to the fabled Second Continental Congress, which was meeting in Philadelphia. There he advocated for a strong American navy, and was of course among those who voted in support for and signed the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. He is the only Maine native to put his signature to this fabled document.
Housed in the Portsmouth Athenaeum in Market Square is the July 8, 1776, letter Whipple wrote from Philadelphia to fellow patriot John Langdon, a prominent shipbuilder who would go on to sign the U.S. Constitution and serve as one of New Hampshire’s first U.S. senators.
“The Declaration will no doubt give you pleasure,” he announced. “It will be published next Thursday at the Head of the Army, at New York. I am told it is to be published this day, in form, in this city.”
As a postscript, Whipple added: “I hope you’ll take care that the Declaration is properly treated.”
As much as we revere these Signers today for their act, it’s easy to forget they could have been signing their death warrants at the time. In 1776 they were in essence committing treason against the king of the most powerful country in the world.
They were nothing short of outlaws.
Whipple may have lacked the formal education of his peers but he fully grasped what he and his brethren were undertaking, and didn’t shy away in the least.
“This year, my Friend, is big with mighty events,” he wrote to Bartlett after his selection to Congress that year. “Nothing less than the fate of America depends on the virtue of her sons, and if they do not have virtue enough to support the most Glorious Cause ever human beings were engaged in, they don’t deserve the blessings of freedom.”
The letters between Whipple and Bartlett, a physician and militia colonel who also represented New Hampshire in the Continental Congress, provide a fascinating glimpse into the character of both men. Whipple’s writings in particular suggest while he was by all accounts a gentleman he also tended to be irascible, with a surprising sense of humor.
In November 1776, Whipple considered the question of what to do about Tories, or those still loyal to the King. “What think you of transporting them? This I wod [sic] like exceedingly, but then I’m puzle’d for a place bad enough to send them to. Scotland indeed might do, but the difficulty is, how to keep them there,” the old salt wrote.
His letters also show Whipple to be a passionate champion of freedom with little patience for those not committed its cause.
“You seem very desirous for peace; in that I most heartily concur with you,” he wrote to Bartlett in 1779. “But in order to obtain such a peace as will establish happiness in America, we ought to make the most Strenuous exertions for war. We ought to be United in Council & Formidable in the Field.”
And Whipple, being who he was, backed his words with the steel of his sword.
The Kittery native was still serving in the Continental Congress when he was commissioned a brigadier general of New Hampshire’s militia in 1777. He was placed in command of one brigade while the formidable Gen. John Stark – like Whipple, an underappreciated hero of the American Revolution – headed the other.
Whipple led his regiments during campaigns into Vermont, New York and Rhode Island during the war. He took part in the pivotal victory at the Battle of Saratoga, and then helped negotiate British Gen. John Burgoyne’s terms of surrender.
He was also given the honor of escorting Burgoyne and his army back to the Boston area, where the haughty British commander was placed aboard a ship and sent back home to England.
The significance of the victory at Saratoga was immense. It proved to the world ragged Colonial forces could defeat the mighty British army on the field of battle, ultimately compelling France to lend its support to the American upstarts.
According to some accounts, Whipple was the man who shared news of the victory with the great naval hero John Paul Jones after bringing the defeated British outside Boston. (Whipple and Jones were well acquainted after the Scotsman’s time in Portsmouth awaiting construction of his ship, the Ranger, to be completed.)
Jones then sailed across the Atlantic to Paris where he delivered word to Benjamin Franklin, who channeled the victory into a formal alliance with France.
“Peace to be sure is desireable but in my Opinion a secondary Object,” Whipple would later write to Bartlett. “I hope we shall never consent to such a peace as will involve posterity in greater evils then we have suffered.”
Whipple was also a particular chum of future President John Adams, who addressed the general as “my old friend” in their correspondence.
One of the more fascinating aspects of Whipple’s biography is his grappling with the issue of slavery.
History suggests he on at least one occasion brought slaves back to the colonies during his days as a sea captain, and the Whipple brothers owned a slave ship as well. Whipple also owned a slave named Prince, who figures in Portsmouth history almost as prominently as the old general himself.
According to popular Seacoast folklore, Whipple and his slave were preparing to depart for a military campaign on one occasion when the general exclaimed, “Hurry up Prince, we’ve got to go and fight for our freedom.”
The slave replied, “But I have no freedom to fight for.”
Whipple, it is said, looked right into the young fellow’s eyes and proclaimed, “From this moment on you are a free man, Prince. Hurry up now and we will fight for our freedom together.”
Prince was officially issued his manumission papers in the early 1780s. The general apparently recognized the hypocrisy of holding others in bondage even as he helped lead the young country’s fight for its own independence.
His evolution is further reflected in a 1779 letter to his colleague Bartlett, regarding actions proposed in South Carolina.
“A recommendation is gone thither for raising some regiments of Blacks,” Whipple reported. “This will I suppose lay a foundation for the emancipation of those poor wreches [sic] in that Country, & I hope be the means of dispensing the Blessings of freedom to all the Human Race in America.”
Enough stories about Prince Whipple have lasted thru the generations to warrant a separate profile of his own, including a long-lasting but unlikely rumor he is the black soldier depicted in the famous Emmanuel Leutze painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware River.
He also helped his owner plant a horse chestnut Whipple brought home from Philadelphia in 1776 to commemorate the Declaration he had just signed.
That chestnut has grown into a majestic tree now towering over Market Street beside the Moffatt-Ladd House, which Whipple called home throughout the Revolution until his death in 1785. The home is now open to the public, and a popular tourist attraction in Portsmouth.
America has justifiably lionized Signers such as Jefferson, Franklin and John Adams. Hancock has long been a cultural reference primarily by virtue of his flamboyant signature, and the legacy of Samuel Adams has been assured through the popular beer brand bearing his name.
But there were other brave patriots who risked much by putting their names to the historic document. For instance, Richard Stockton of New Jersey lost his home and his health after he was imprisoned by the British, and died before the end of the war.
Whipple stepped down from his military and congressional duties due to ill health but was serving as a justice of New Hampshire’s Superior Court when he died of heart failure in 1785. He is buried in Portsmouth’s North Cemetery.
Recent steps in Kittery have been taken to make sure Whipple’s efforts to ensure America’s independence are not forgotten in his hometown. These include the installation of an interpretive historical marker on Whipple Road, just down the street from where he was born and raised, and a portrait now hanging in Town Hall alongside a copy of the Declaration which he signed.
Perhaps more importantly, schoolkids from both sides of the river should know they have a direct connection to our annual 4th of July celebration, as they walk the same streets where one of the Signers called home. The guy deserves to be, at the very least, a Seacoast folk hero.
(July 16, 2017)