By D. Allan Kerr
William Whipple was a Revolutionary War general, a member of the Continental Congress, and one of the 56 bold patriots who signed the Declaration of Independence.
He was also an early advocate for a strong American navy. Which is fitting, since the Seacoast region he called home continues to be a strong Navy community nearly two-and-a-half centuries later as home to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
Whipple served on several key committees during his tenure in the Second Continental Congress, and among the most vital was his service on the Marine Committee.
In the early days of the American Revolution, these members essentially performed the duties of what would later be established as the Navy Department.
“I wish more attention was paid to Naval affairs,” he wrote to fellow New Hampshire delegate and Declaration of Independence signer Josiah Bartlett in September 1777. “A great number of prizes (captured ships) have been retaken which its probable would not have been the case if proper attention had been given to the Naval Department in season.”
Perhaps more than any other member of that fabled Congress, Whipple understood the importance of naval power. He was himself a man of the sea, a former cabin boy who eventually retired as a ship’s captain.
Born in Kittery in 1730, Whipple was the son of a seaman and grandson of a renowned shipbuilder. At an age when most of his compatriots in Congress were pursuing higher learning in the classroom, he chose a life of adventure on the high seas.
By the age of 30 he had earned enough of a fortune to leave the sea behind and settle down in Portsmouth. He married his first cousin Katherine Moffatt and went into business with two brothers as a successful merchant.
He also became an early leader of the revolution, eventually serving as one of New Hampshire’s delegates to the Second Continental Congress from 1776 to 1779. He was still referred to as Capt. Whipple, and listed as such in documents of the day.
Later, due to his appointment as head of the local militia, he became known as Colonel Whipple. Upon receiving his commission in 1777 to head one of New Hampshire’s two militia brigades, he was referred to as General Whipple.
His advocacy for an American fleet sometimes proved a frustrating experience. As if scrounging for cannons and suitable officers for the fledgling navy wasn’t struggle enough, he also had to convince colleagues the effort was even worthwhile.
“Initially, there were a lot of questions about whether it made sense to have a regular navy,” University of Hampshire history professor Eliga Gould said recently. “Navies were expensive, and Congress was already worried about raising funds to pay the Continental Army. Many people preferred to wage maritime war with privateers and state warships.”
As a former merchant seaman, Whipple wasn’t a fan of privateers, who he likened to pirates.
“Those who are actively in it soon lose every idea of right and wrong,” he once wrote to Bartlett, “and for want of an opportunity of gratifying their insatiable avarice with the properties of the enemies of their country, will without the least compunction, seize properties of their friends.”
Ultimately, champions like Whipple and his good friend John Adams persevered in making America a sea power.
One task which fell to the former cabin boy was the appointment of officers to the locally-built warship the Ranger.
It was Whipple who delivered to John Paul Jones his commission to command this famed vessel, and in fact he interacted often with the legendary Father of the American Navy.
“My particular thanks are due to you Sir, as one of the four Members of the Honorable Committee to whose generous intention, and approbation I more immediately owe this great and unsolicited Obligation,” Jones wrote to Whipple in December 1777.
Dealing with Jones could be a task in itself, as the famous warrior could be as petty and irascible as he was brilliant and daring.
In this same letter he devoted several lines to complaints about the small “four Oar’d Boat” attached to the Ranger, only to conclude his diatribe by stating:
“I mention this matter to you in confidence as a Friend, declaring on the Honor of a Gentleman that I wish on my part to give it to Oblivion.”
On the other hand, Jones also promised to “endeavor to procure” some items Whipple’s wife had asked him to purchase while in France – several gloves and some black cloth for making cloaks and dresses.
Some committee members used their position to increase their own profits during the war, according to Gould, but Whipple’s letters suggest a man of high principle.
Discussing the hiring of officers with Portsmouth shipbuilder and patriot John Langdon, he wrote, “We must be very careful that no consideration but real merit influence our recommendations.”
In one telling episode, Langdon expressed his intent to step down from his own seat in Congress when he was told he could not be awarded contracts to build ships while serving.
“If my advice can have any weight with you, you certainly will not,” Whipple wrote. “Such a step would have an avaricious appearance and on the other hand there cannot be a greater evidence of patriotism than preferring the public good to one’s private interest.”
While Founding Fathers such as Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams and Madison are still lionized today, it’s worth remembering this 4th of July there were many other brave patriots who toiled for our independence.
Some who made selfless sacrifices are all but forgotten today.
In the Maine-New Hampshire Seacoast region, Whipple is finally getting his due.
On June 29, the general was the focus of an inaugural Independence Day celebration in Kittery, the town where he was born.
A reenactor portraying Whipple gave a public reading of the Declaration of Independence he signed in 1776, following an introduction from a staffer at the Moffatt-Ladd House, an historic national landmark he called home in Portsmouth.
In addition, Whipple is one of the heroes being honored along the Pathway of the Patriots being planned for the nation’s upcoming 250th birthday in 2026.
According to local legend, when Whipple returned from signing the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, he brought home a horse chestnut from that city which he planted in his yard.
Today that chestnut has grown into a majestic tree towering over the Moffatt-Ladd House. Now plans are underway for a chestnut from Whipple’s tree to be returned to Pennsylvania and planted in his honor by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
The planting will take place along their 25-mile Pathway of the Patriots, which will connect Bartram’s Garden – the oldest botanical garden in the country – along the Schuylkill River to Valley Forge National Park.
Many of Whipple’s letters are still held at the Moffatt-Ladd House, as is the sword he carried into battle as a Revolutionary War general. The sword was left to him by his father, and bears an inscription in French.
Loosely translated, the inscription states: “Men make war, God gives the victory.”
(July 3, 2019)
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