William Whipple began his career at sea, traveling the world only to settle back home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire where he began his political life. From the outbreak of the American Revolution, he served his state and his country unceasingly until his health became unstable, and it was physically impossible for him to travel. He demanded freedom for the United States when he signed the Declaration of Independence, fought in the field in the New Hampshire State Militia, and after peace was declared, helped stabilize an uneven young nation through his public service.
By Elisabeth A. Wilson
William Whipple was born in Kittery, Maine on January 14, 1730. His father, William, was a brewer married to a wealthy ship-builder’s daughter. Young William was educated at a local school and then left home for the open sea at an early age. He worked as a merchantman, and at the age of 21, became a captain. He made his fortune from the wood, rum, and slaves he transported around the world to exotic locations such as the West Indies, Africa, and then home to Portsmouth.
In 1759, he settled in Portsmouth to life as a land-lubbing merchant in partnership with his brother Joseph. Establishing himself further, Whipple married his cousin Catharine Moffatt of Portsmouth, and they resided in her father’s riverside mansion. Together they had one child, a little girl, who died in infancy.
In 1775, Whipple was elected to the Committee of Safety for Portsmouth and New Hampshire, and in 1776, he was designated as a delegate to the Continental Congress. Representing his native state of New Hampshire, he voted for independence from Great Britain and put his name to the Declaration of Independence.
In 1777, Whipple was made a brigadier general by the New Hampshire Legislature. The state militia followed his able generalship in the Battle of Stillwater and the Battle of Saratoga. After the latter victory for the Continental Army, Whipple was asked to help negotiate the surrender of British General John Burgoyne and his forces.
History proposes Whipple’s slave, Prince Whipple, was promised his freedom for his valor in serving his master and the war effort during these campaigns. When informed that he would be fighting for independence along side Whipple, Prince remarked that he had no liberty to fight for. Whipple was so moved by Prince’s declaration that he freed his slave, though whether at the time or several years later is not agreed upon by historians.
In 1778, Whipple and his militia headed south to aid General John Sullivan in his ultimately unsuccessful and unexecuted attempt to capture Rhode Island.
In 1780, Whipple was elected to the New Hampshire State Legislature, in which he was to serve many terms.
In May of 1782, Whipple was selected by Robert Morris, Superintendent of Finance, to serve as the tax collector of New Hampshire. Whipple resigned his military commission the next month on June 20. The same year he served as president of a five member committee that shaped the Decree of Trenton, settling the Wyoming Valley land dispute.
Whipple continued to serve as New Hampshire’s tax collector, on the state legislature, and as a judge of the Superior Court until his weak heart prompted his resignation in 1785. During the lengthy rides around the circuit courts Whipple would often faint while still on horseback, tumbling off his galloping steed.
Ailing, Whipple returned to Portsmouth where he died at the age of 55 on November 28, 1785.
William Whipple served his native state and his fledgling nation unceasingly, to the damage of his personal health. His was a quietly determined war effort, fought not only on the battle field, but in the strained courts and congresses. He was a man of his time, and lived in an era when respectable men could own other men and use them as chattel. Unlike other founding fathers, Whipple carried the great ideals of the Declaration of Independence further to his own slave, Prince. Whipple’s efforts helped secure the independence and establish the democratic structure of the young United States of America.