William Whipple of New Hampshire: Ship Captain, and Signer of the Declaration of Independence
In 1776, 13 British colonies existed in America. Ask someone about the American Revolutionary era today and some colonies easily come to mind – Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York. The role of some colonies in the Revolution is not as well known.
New Hampshire is one of those less-well-known colonies. Almost everyone will agree that the American Revolution began on the greens of Lexington and Concord in April 1776, when British troops marched from Boston to find and destroy military supplies hidden there. Americans love the story of Paul Revere’s ride to warn the patriots there that “the Regulars are coming.”
Yet, just a few months earlier, in December 1775, Revere took a more perilous ride in deep snow to the New Hampshire coast to alert patriots that British troops and ships were coming to secure British military supplies there that were guarded by only a half-dozen British troops. Hundreds of patriot militiamen mustered quickly, attacked the supply depot, captured and removed the munitions before a stronger British military contingent could arrive. Thus, New Hampshire citizens, whose state motto is “Live Free or Die,” might argue that the Revolutionary War began there and not in Lexington and Concord.
By the time of Revere’s more famous ride in April 1776, New Hampshire’s militias were as ready for war as those of Massachusetts. As word spread far and wide of the British march and attack on Lexington and Concord, militiamen of New Hampshire mustered and hurried to support their patriot comrades in Massachusetts. New Hampshire Regiments were formed in May 1775 and in 1776. All or parts of the Regiments fought with distinction in major battles during the war to include the Boston Siege, Saratoga, Quebec, Trenton, among others. They were particularly effective in holding the line at Saratoga which became the major victory of the Northern Campaign.
William Whipple Jr. could not have anticipated his role in the colonies’ revolution and quest for independence. He was born in 1730 to a seagoing family. His father was a sea captain and his mother was the daughter of a distinguished ship-builder. Both families had become wealthy in their sea-related businesses.
Young William attended public schools and, unlike some of the more famous signers of the Declaration of Independence, did not attend college at Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. Rather, he followed his father to the sea, where ships, including the Whipple’s, often engaged in the profitable Triangle Trade, which delivered commodities from the American colonies and the West Indies to Europe, where the ships were loaded with manufactured goods for delivery to Africa and the American colonies. In Africa, slaves were often brought aboard the ships for delivery to the West Indies and the American colonies.
By the age of 21, young William commanded his own ship. The same year, his father died. While both his mother and father were wealthy from their families’ businesses, William, Jr., became wealthy in his own right as a ship’s Captain. In 1759, at the age of 29, William had amassed a fortune that had enabled him to retire from the sea. He then went into the merchant business with two brothers, where William, with his foreign trade experience on the sea, was able to expand his wealth in that business. Two slave boys worked for the Whipple’s business. One of them, Prince, would remain with William through all that followed.
William married in 1767, at the age of 37, Catherine Moffatt, daughter of a ship Captain. They had only one son, who died in 1773, about a year after his birth.
With the outbreak of the Revolution, William Whipple began his long career as a public servant. In June 1774 he was on a Committee to prevent the landing of tea in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He became a member of the Committee of Safety and was a member of the Provincial Convention held at Exeter.
In 1776, Whipple was sent by New Hampshire as one of its three delegates to the Continental Congress. With his seafaring experience and his family’s ship building experience, he was appointed to the Marine Committee. To run the British Navy’s blockades, the new country would need more ships and experienced ship Captains; Whipple’s background prepared him well for leading that effort. He also served as a superintendent of the commissary and quartermaster departments, attempting to bring efficiency to departments that seemed to have great difficulty supplying General George Washington’s forces with what they needed to fight the war.
Whipple was present in Congress during the drafting and editing of the Declaration of Independence and signed the Declaration, thereby putting his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor at great risk. He remained a member of Congress through 1779.
As the British military strategy evolved and threatened to end the revolution by cutting off New England from the rest of America, Whipple was appointed a General by New Hampshire’s Convention in 1777. He immediately set off for New York where British General John Burgoyne was moving troops south from Canada to isolate New England. He expected that his slave, Prince, would join his Brigade in the fight. But Prince retorted that a slave had no freedom for which to fight. Whipple is said to have immediately informed Prince that he was a free man, whereupon Prince joined his former master and fought the British throughout the war. Legend has it that, in Emanuel Leutze’s famous 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, Leutze symbolically identified Prince as the young black soldier sitting in front of Washington on the boat.
At the decisive battle of Saratoga, a significant turning point in the war, General Whipple’s New Hampshire troops fought valiantly and Whipple was appointed by General Horatio Gates to deliver the terms of surrender to General Burgoyne. Whipple was then directed to deliver General Burgoyne to Cambridge where Burgoyne would board a ship bound for England.
General Whipple fought the next year, 1778, with General Sullivan in Rhode Island, where he was almost killed as a British artillery round exploded near him. Having released his own slave, Prince, from bondage, Whipple expressed hope that, as the Revolutionary War moved south, southern slaveholders would also free their slaves, enabling the blessings of liberty in the Declaration that he signed to be accorded to all Americans.
In 1780, General Whipple was elected to the New Hampshire Legislature; in 1782, he was appointed as a Superior Court judge. He had heart problems, which continued to affect his health, leading to his death in 1785 at the age of 55. He is buried with his family, as well as Prince, his former slave, in North Cemetery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Ron Meier is a West Point graduate and Vietnam War veteran. He is a student of American history, with a focus on our nation’s founding principles and culture, the Revolutionary War, and the challenges facing America’s Constitutional Republic in the 20th and 21st centuries. Ron won Constituting America’s Senior Essay contest in 2014 and is author of Common Sense Rekindled: A Rejuvenation of the American Experiment, featured on Constituting America’s Recommended Reading List.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn.
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Concise and well written. I am reminded of the huge sacrifices of the “56.” Ron Meier is a modern day version of Jorge Santayana who also reminded us we should not forget history .. or else. Thank you for the time to write this Ron.
Thanks for the kind words, Lynn