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Whipple, Williamfree

(14 January 1730–28 November 1785)
  • Frank C. Mevers

Whipple, William (14 January 1730–28 November 1785), merchant and signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born in Kittery, then part of Massachusetts (now Maine), the son of William Whipple, a farmer and maltster, and Mary Cutt. As a child in a small town at the mouth of the Piscataqua River, Whipple received an elementary education and early became well acquainted with ships in the harbor served by the larger town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on the opposite bank. At an early age he went to sea, and by his twenties he was master of his own vessel engaging in commercial trade, including the slave trade, through the port at Portsmouth. As a result, he maintained household slaves throughout his life. In 1767 he married Catherine Moffatt. Although Whipple had already accumulated his own fortune, the couple settled in a house owned by her family, overlooking the Portsmouth harbor, where they had one child, who died in infancy.

Whipple, in association with most of the influential families of Portsmouth, expressed concern about British governance of the provinces. He was elected to represent Portsmouth in New Hampshire’s extralegal Fourth Provincial Congress, which convened on 17 May 1775 and was in session when Royal Governor John Wentworth took refuge on a warship in the harbor that August. Whipple served also on the New Hampshire Committee of Safety, which effectively managed provincial government between meetings of the Congress. On 24 August 1775 the Provincial Congress commissioned Whipple colonel of its First Regiment of militia.

In January 1776 the new legislature, as established in New Hampshire’s Plan of Government (the first such written plan, or constitution, in America, adopted by the Fifth Provincial Congress on 5 Jan. 1776), selected Whipple to be one of twelve executive councillors for the state. Later that month the legislature chose him to represent New Hampshire in the Continental Congress, then meeting in Philadelphia. Although one of the less vocal members of Congress, Whipple served on the Marine Committee, the Commerce Committee, the Secret Committee, the Board of War, and other bodies of Congress as well as voting for and signing the Declaration of Independence. Consistently through 1780 he was reappointed to the Continental Congress, but his service was interrupted by duties closer to home.

In June 1777 he was promoted to major general of the militia and was simultaneously appointed to serve as a justice on the court of common pleas for Rockingham County, which included Portsmouth and was the most populous of the state’s five counties. Throughout the Revolution he held a commission as a justice of the peace and quorum throughout the state. In September 1777 General Whipple led his brigade to the vicinity of Albany, where he met with General Horatio Gates following the surrender of British forces at Saratoga. Gates appointed Whipple and General James Wilkinson to meet with General John Burgoyne’s delegates in mid-October to conclude articles of capitulation by the British army. Whipple then commanded the force that brought the British prisoners back to Winter Hill near Boston. Before returning to Congress in 1778, he served at Concord in a convention that proposed a new state constitution and again led troops, in August, to support forces around Newport, Rhode Island. Whipple sat for the last time in Congress from November 1778 through September 1779.

In December 1779 Whipple took a seat in the state house of representatives and held office until that body appointed him an associate justice of the state superior court, requiring circuit duty throughout the year. He held the position until his death. From 1782 through 1784 he acted as financial receiver for New Hampshire, a position he is said to have found frustrating because more money went into privateering than into public coffers. Whipple suffered from seizures during his last years, but died suddenly of a heart condition at his home in Portsmouth. Reputedly, Whipple freed one of his slaves, Prince, for military service during the Revolution, and his other slave, Cuffee, upon his death.

Whipple achieved lasting respect by his adopted state for his service in Congress and in the military, but his early death precluded major tributes by the state to his memory.

Bibliography

Evidence of Whipple’s public service survives within many collections that include letters or papers to or from him, many of which are being published in the multivolume Letters of Delegates to Congress, ed. Paul Smith (1976–), and are available in other published editions of papers of the period. His state service can be followed in The New Hampshire State Papers, ed. Nathaniel Bouton et al. (40 vols., 1867–1940). His probate is on file with the Rockingham County Clerk of Probate in Brentwood, N.H. His life is treated in printed papers by Dorothy M. Vaughan, “This Was a Man,” National Society of the Colonial Dames in the State of New Hampshire (26 Feb. 1964), and Joseph Foster, “William Whipple,” Granite Monthly 43 (1911): 204–19. Because he signed the Declaration of Independence very brief sketches and anecdotal items abound.