Founding Fathers Friday: William Whipple

by Derrick G. Jeter

William Whipple wasn’t the only hypocritical Founding Father, but he is the only who literally took his hypocrisy to the battlefield with him.
Whipple was born in Maine and set out to sea as young boy. He must have been an able-bodied seaman because he rose quickly, becoming a captain of his own ship at the age of twenty-one. As a sea captain, Whipple apparently engaged in slaving side of the triangle trade: African slaves shipped to the West Indies to work on sugar cane plantations, which was shipped to New England to be made into rum, which was shipped to Old England taverns.
Though the details of his slaving days are foggy, they must have been lucrative for Whipple gave up the sea only after captaining his own vessel for eight years. In 1759, Whipple stepped off his ship for good and partnered with his brother in a mercantile business. By 1775, Whipple could retire from business pursuits altogether and pursue public service full time. He was forty-one.
Upon his retirement, Whipple was elected to the Provincial Congress of New Hampshire. He was also appointed a Brigadier General in the New Hampshire Militia along with John Stark, one of the heros of Saratoga who, according to legend, is said to have coined New Hampshire’s state motto: “Live Free or Die.” In January 1776, when New Hampshire made the first overtures for independence, Whipple was sent to Philadelphia to attend the Second Continental Congress.
On July 2, 1776, with Josiah Bartlett, Whipple cast his vote in the affirmative on the Lee resolution, which called for complete and irrevocable independence from the king of England. (The third member of the New Hampshire delegates, Matthew Thornton, did not join Congress until September of that year.) A few days after the language of the Declaration of Independence was approved, Whipple wrote a friend: “The Declaration will no doubt give you pleasure. . . . I cannot forbare communicating the Pleasure I know You will enjoy upon Receipt of the enclosed Declaration.” And as did the majority, Whippled signed the “engrossed” document on August 2, 1776.
In June 1777, this “spirited patriot” presented orders to Captain John Paul Jones, informing him that he was in command of the eighteen-gun warship Ranger. Whipple also found himself in one of the most decisive battles of the American Revolution—Saratoga. The defeat of General John Burgoyne and the surrender of his 9,000 British troops convinced the French to ally themselves with the American cause.
It was also at Saratoga where Whipple’s hypocrisy was on full display, for Whipple wetn to war—fighting for freedom—with Prince, his slave. Separate stories have spread about Prince—that he was the back man in the front of George Washington’s boat in the famous painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze. Untrue. But it was another story—a conversation—that really exposed the Whipple’s hypocrisy.
Prince: “Where are we going, sir?”
Whipple: “To fight for our freedom!”
Prince: “I have no freedom to fight for, sir.”
Whipple: “From this moment on, you are free! Now hurry! We shall fight for our freedom together!”
This is a touching story, but sadly also untrue.
Prince’s participation as a soldier in the American Revolution was not uncommon. Washington, later in the war, recruited free blacks to fight for the American cause, while the British let it be known that freedom would be granted to any slaves who fought for the crown. The British offer opened up the floodgates. More slaves ran away from their masters during the years of the American Revolution than ever ran away during the American Civil War.
After the war, Whipple became a judge. He didn’t serve in that post for long, however, because in 1785, while holding court he suffered a heart attack. By late November of that year, Whipple died, but before his death he requested an autopsy be performed to determine the cause of his chest pains. Whipple died of what used to be called ossification of the heart—hardening of the arteries. Whipple was fifty-five and was buried in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Prince, Whipple’s soldier-slave, received his freedom in 1784. And when Prince passed away, he was buried in the same cemetery as his former master. His grave is adorned with a metal marker identifying him as a veteran of the American Revolution.
Whipple may have taken his hypocrisy with him to the battlefield, but he didn’t take it to his grave. And for that, we can be grateful.