By D. Allan Kerr
Usually around this time of year, I tend to write stories about Gen. William Whipple, the Kittery, Maine-born seaman turned Portsmouth, New Hampshire-based Founding Father of the American Revolution.
This time, it would seem recognition is due to another fascinating patriot from the era – his slave, Prince Whipple.
While the good general seems to be reclaiming appreciation in recent years, historic mentions of Prince – which are not infrequent – tend to be vague.
As with his owner, over the centuries so many stories have been associated with Prince it has become difficult to sort the reality from the legends.
For instance, at one time it was accepted by many that Prince Whipple was the dark-skinned fellow featured in famous paintings of George Washington crossing the Delaware River in 1776. This does not appear to be the case.
Another story – my personal favorite – describes an episode in which Prince, while carrying a large sum of money for his owner, was ambushed by a couple of outlaws near Newburyport, Massachusetts. A formidable sort – described in some accounts as Gen. Whipple’s bodyguard – Prince promptly shot one of the attackers and laid into the other with a loaded whip, protecting the money of the man he called his master.
Again, we can’t know for sure if this actually happened or might be just another popular Seacoast folktale.
What we do know for certain is in 1779, while his owner and other patriots were fighting for their independence, Prince was one of 20 Portsmouth slaves who requested their freedom in a petition to New Hampshire legislators.
The request was ignored, but its words still resonate today, poetic in their eloquence and poignant in their plea for nothing more than basic humanity.
There are some who believe Prince not only signed this remarkable document but may have actually authored it as well. Like so many other aspects of his life, however, we don’t know for certain.
Prince is said to have been around ten years old when he was purchased by William Whipple, a retired sea captain and prosperous Portsmouth merchant. According to 19th-century author William Cooper Nell – who also passed along the previous anecdote of Prince’s bloody encounter with overeager thieves – the youngster was the son of wealthy parents in Ghana who sent him to America with another family member for his education.
“The captain who brought the two boys over proved to be a treacherous villain, and carried them to Baltimore, where he exposed them for sale,” Nell wrote.
Prince eventually wound up in the household of William Whipple. The other lad, known as Cuffee Whipple, was either Prince’s brother or cousin, depending on the account you happen to read. He was purchased by William’s brother and business partner, Joseph.
William eventually married his first cousin, Katharine Moffatt, and along with Prince moved into the spectacular home she shared with her wealthy but ailing father, John Moffatt. Today, that home on Portsmouth’s Market Street – known as the Moffatt-Ladd House – is one of the city’s most celebrated tourist attractions. William’s sword and other household items are on display there.
William went on to become a leader of Revolution activities in Portsmouth, serving on the committee of safety and as colonel of the local militia. In 1776, he was appointed one of New Hampshire’s delegates to the Second Continental Congress, and – along with Prince – journeyed to Philadelphia to meet with other members. There, he joined the other 55 delegates in signing the Declaration of Independence.
According to local legend, upon their return from Portsmouth, William and Prince planted in the yard of their home a horse chestnut they brought back from Philadelphia. The tree that reportedly sprang from that seed now towers over the Moffatt-Ladd House.
Somehow, over the course of history, many people came to believe Prince was with George Washington during the American general’s historic crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night, 1776. This maneuver, part of a surprise attack against Hessian troops in Trenton, New Jersey, is one of the most iconic moments of the Revolutionary War.
Prince’s supposed participation in the crossing appears to stem from a famous 1851 painting by Emanuel Leutze and a lesser-known work of art completed by Thomas Sully in 1819. Both paintings feature a soldier who appears to be African-American, and for some reason a few folks believed this to be Prince. It seems more likely this individual was Washington’s invaluable valet, William Lee, who served beside the future President’s side throughout the war.
For one thing, Prince died in 1796, long before either painting was even considered. But more importantly, there’s no record of either Prince or William Whipple journeying south to serve with Washington in battle during the Revolutionary War.
But they did make their way onto the battlefield. William was appointed a brigadier general of the New Hampshire militia in 1777, and in this capacity both the general and his slave made their way to the Battle of Saratoga that fall.
It is likely during this time that, according to Seacoast folklore, a famous conversation occurred between the two men. In this tale, Gen. Whipple is said to have told Prince something along the lines of:
“Hurry up Prince, we’ve got to go and fight for our freedom.”
“But I have no freedom to fight for,” the slave replied
Gen. Whipple, it is said, looked right into the younger 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.”
It seems evident, however, Prince still considered himself an enslaved person when he joined other Portsmouth slaves in challenging this institution in 1779.
In November of that year, these individuals prepared and submitted a petition of freedom to the New Hampshire legislature, which was meeting in Exeter at the time.
They described themselves as “natives of Africa, now forcibly detained in slavery in said State,” and sought to “sheweth that the God of Nature gave them Life and Freedom upon the terms of the most perfect Equality with other men.”
In their petition, Prince and 19 other slaves asserted, in part, the following;
“that Freedom is an inherent right of the human species not to be surrendered, but by consent, for the sake of social life;
that private or public tyranny and slavery are alike detestable to minds conscious of the equal dignity of human nature;
that in power and authority of individuals derived solely from a principle of coercion against the will of individuals and to dispose of their persons and properties consists the completest idea of private and political slavery.”
And finally, “that through ignorance and brutish violence of their countrymen, and by the sinister designs of others (who ought, to have taught them better) and by the avarice of both, they, while but children and incapable of self-defense, whose infancy might have prompted protection, were seized, imprisoned and transported from their native country where (though ignorance and un-Christianity prevailed) they were born free, to a country where (though knowledge, Christianity and freedom, are their boast) they are compelled and their unhappy posterity to drag on their lives in miserable servitude!
“Thus, often is the parent’s cheek wet for the loss of a child torn by the cruel hand of violence from her aching bosom! “
But what really gets me is the following passage – take a moment to really ingest these words:
“Though fortune hath dealt out our portions with rugged hand, yet hath she smiled in the disposal of our persons to those who claim us as their property; of them, as masters, we do not complain, but from what authority they assume the power to dispose of our lives, freedom and property we would wish to know.
Is it from the sacred volumes of Christianity? There we believe it is not to be found but here hath the cruel hand of slavery made us incompetent judges, hence knowledge is hid from our minds!
Is it from the volumes of the law? Of these also, slaves can not be judges but those, we are told, are founded in reason and justice. It cannot be found there!
Is it from the volumes of Nature? No! Here we can read with others, of this knowledge slavery can not wholly deprive us. Here we know that we ought to be free agents! Here we feel the dignity of human nature. Here we feel the passions and desires of men, though checked by the rod of slavery. Here we feel a just equality. Here, we know that the God of Nature made us free!
Is their authority assumed from custom? if so, let that custom be abolished which is not founded in nature, reason nor religion.”
I mean – wow.
There has been speculation Prince, having accompanied his owner to Philadelphia where the Declaration of Independence was being hammered out, would be familiar with the language and argument employed in such documents.
The website of the Moffatt-Ladd House proclaims Prince “is believed to have written the Petition.” Windsor Moffatt, the slave of William’s father-in-law, was another of the signers.
And yet, despite the stirring rhetoric of these men desperate for the freedom to which they should have been entitled, the state’s lawmakers postponed any action on the petition, and then never followed up. Essentially, it went nowhere.
Keep in mind that by November 1779, Prince had actually put his life on the line for the Revolutionary cause at Saratoga, one of the most pivotal battles of the war, and likely served at his owner’s side during the Rhode Island campaign of 1778 as well.
He married a free woman, Dinah Chase, in 1781 and, according to some reports, he was freed that day. The Moffatt-Ladd House site says he was officially handed his manumission papers in February 1784, documenting his status as a free man.
William died the following year, and Prince continued to work for the general’s widow, Katharine. She purchased some neighboring property where Prince and his kinsman Cuffee were able to build a home to share for their families. Their wives – Dinah and Rebecca, respectively – started the African Ladies Charitable School there.
Prince died in 1796 and is buried in the Old North Cemetery – the same burial ground as his owner. Local veterans placed a headstone at Prince’s grave site in 1908, replacing a wooden cross to mark his service during the Revolutionary War.
Gen. William Whipple is now featured in an annual Independence Day event in Kittery, where he was born and raised, in which he returns to his hometown to read the Declaration he signed in 1776. This year’s celebration was held in Memorial Park, next to Kittery Town Hall.
D. Allan Kerr is a local history buff residing in Kittery, Maine.