Teen-ager William Whipple went to sea to seek his fortune. He became an able seaman who by 21 years of age earned the rank of Ship’s Master (Captain). After a successful career at sea, he became a prosperous merchant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In 1775 Whipple retired from business to devote his time to the American Revolution. He served in Congress, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and commanded New Hampshire militia in two major campaigns of the Revolutionary War. William Whipple definitely met all the requirements to be called a patriot and a true American hero.
William Whipple was born on 14 January 1730 at Kittery, Maine. He was the eldest of five children of Captain William Whipple Sr. and Mary Cutt Whipple. The Whipples were descendants of Samuel Appleton, an early settler of Ipswich, Massachusetts. Young William was educated at a local common school until his early teens when he went to sea to seek his fortune.
By the age of 21, able seaman Whipple earned the position of Ship’s Master. He worked hard at his profession making a great deal of money. In 1759 he left the sea and partnered with his brother Joseph to found a mercantile firm in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Portsmouth is directly across the Piscataqua River from Kittery, Maine.
William Whipple was a successful merchant who added to his fortune and became a leading citizen of Portsmouth. In 1767 he married his cousin Catherine Moffat whose father was a wealthy merchant sea captain. The couple moved to the Moffat-Ladd House in Portsmouth in 1769. They only had one child, William Whipple III, who died in infancy.
In 1775, his fortune firmly established, Whipple left business to participate in public affairs and to support the developing Revolution by first serving in the provincial congress. The next year New Hampshire dissolved the Royal government and established a House of Representatives and an Executive Council and made Whipple a Council member. He was also a member of the Committee of Safety, and was elected to the upper house of the State Legislature. He then was elected to the Continental Congress.
In January 1776, Whipple wrote to fellow New Hampshire delegate, Josiah Bartlett, about the approaching Congress:
“This year, my Friend, is big with mighty events. Nothing less than the fate of America depends on the virtue of her sons, and if they do not have virtue enough to support the most Glorious Cause ever human beings were engaged in, they don’t deserve the blessings of freedom.”
Whipple and Bartlett voted for and signed the Declaration of Independence becoming founding fathers.
William Whipple served in Congress until 1779 concerning himself mainly with military, marine, and financial matters. He was a tough-minded independent person who favored aggressive military operations in the Revolutionary War. He did not favor diplomacy and pushed for severe punishment of Loyalists and speculators. He displayed the toughness developed during his years at sea (a hard, dangerous, and unforgiving profession) and in business.
Then, as now, many in congress were lawyers and tended to speak at great length. Whipple’s reaction to this was both interesting and insightful:
“I am sorry to say that sometimes matters of very small importance waste a good deal of precious time, by the long and repeated speeches and chicanery of gentlemen who will not wholly throw off the lawyer even in Congress.”
Whipple’s Congressional service was interrupted intermittently by militia duty. He was commissioned in the New Hampshire Militia at the rank of Brigadier General in 1777. He was placed in command of a brigade of four regiments and participated in the successful encirclement and siege of the British at Saratoga, New York.
As a result of their meritorious service in the Battle of Saratoga, Whipple and Colonel James Wilkinson were selected by Major General Horatio Gates to negotiate the terms of surrender with British General John Burgoyne’s representatives. Whipple signed the Convention of Saratoga, the formal surrender of Burgoyne and his army. He was then one of the officers selected to escort Burgoyne and his Army to winter quarters at Somerville, Massachusetts to await transport back to England.
Whipple passed the news of the Saratoga victory to American Navy Captain John Paul Jones who then passed the news to Benjamin Franklin in Paris. Franklin was negotiating an alliance with France and news of this victory strengthened the American position.
In 1778, Whipple commanded three regiments under General John Sullivan in the Rhode Island campaign to recapture Newport. The Battle of Rhode Island resulted in an American defeat, and General Sullivan ordered a full retreat.
After the Revolutionary War, Whipple served in the state legislature from 1780 to 1784. In 1782 he was appointed an associate justice of the New Hampshire Superior Court, a position he held until his death. He was also president of a 1782 commission to settle the Wyoming Valley land dispute between Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
William Whipple suffered from heart problems his last few years of life. On 28 November 1785 while riding his court circuit at Portsmouth, his heart gave out on him. He fell from his horse and died at age 55. He was buried in what is now the North Cemetery in Portsmouth. His wife Catherine survived him.
Except for a portrait in the town hall at Kittery, Maine, I have found no evidence of William Whipple memorials or monuments. I know his gravestone was replaced in 1976 in conjunction with the United States Bicentennial, and in 2011 a bronze plaque was placed on the stone by the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. This organization hopes to place a plaque on all the signers’ graves.
The name William Whipple is virtually unknown to most Americans, but he was one of the patriots that put his life and fortune at risk by signing the Declaration of Independence. He was physically and mentally tough and the story of his life illustrates the American dream that still motivates Americans today: With hard work and determination, you can go wherever your talents take you.
William Whipple deserves to be recognized along with the better-known signers of the Declaration and I hope this short biography will be a small step in that direction. He was a true patriot and an American hero.