This Day in History: William Whipple, signer of the Declaration of Independence
On this day in 1785, a signer of the Declaration of Independence passes away. William Whipple started life as a cabin boy, but he ended it as a respected Founder and a state Superior Court Justice.
He was also another of our Founders who hoped to end the institution of slavery.
As a young boy, Whipple was focused on a life at sea, and he went to work aboard ships when he was still a teenager. He worked his way up through the ranks, and he earned the position of ship’s master by the time he was 21. He became a successful trader, but when he was about 29 years old, he retired from the sea and started a mercantile business with his brother in New Hampshire.
In 1775, he found a good reason to quit that, too. He closed his business and instead focused on the political issues gripping the country. He was a member of the Provincial Congress and a local Committee of Safety. He was elected to the Continental Congress, where he cast his vote for independence in July 1776.
One historian summarizes the events of that day: “The cabin-boy, who, thirty years before, had looked forward to the command of a vessel as the consummation of all his hopes and wishes, now stood amid the congress of ‘76, and looked around upon a conclave of patriots such as the world had never witnessed. He, whose ambition once centered in inscribing his name as commander upon a crew-list, now affixed his signature to a document which has embalmed it for posterity.”
Whipple split his time between Congress and the military effort. In 1777, he was named a brigadier general of the New Hampshire militia. He led a unit of men at the Battle of Saratoga, and he was one of the officers present at the surrender of Burgoyne. He helped to escort that defeated British army to an encampment near Boston, where they waited to return to England.
Whipple’s experiences during the Revolution are notable for one other reason: He came to see the conflict between the Revolution he was fighting and the institution of slavery. In 1779, he wrote to Josiah Bartlett: “A recommendation is gone thither for raising some regiments of Blacks. This will I suppose lay a foundation for the emancipation of those poor wreches in that Country, & I hope be the means of dispensing the Blessings of freedom to all the Human Race in America.”
Before the Revolution, Whipple was a trader, including (most likely) the slave trade. His perspective changed, and he ended up freeing his slaves (although probably not in the dramatic fashion suggested by legend).
After the war, Whipple continued to hold a variety of public positions, but his health was deteriorating. His final job was as an associate justice for the New Hampshire Superior Court. This wasn’t exactly easy on his health, particularly since he was expected to ride the circuit. He was finally forced to return home because of his health in 1785. He passed away not too long afterwards.
Another Founder who spent much of his life in public service, but who is too often forgotten today.
B.B. Edwards, Biography of self-taught men: with an introductory essay (1859)
Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress (William Whipple)
Charles A. Goodrich, Lives of the signers to the Declaration of Independence (1832)
Dennis Brindell Fradin, The Signers: The 56 Stories Behind the Declaration of Independence (2003)
Robert Waln, Jr., William Whipple (Maine Historical & Genealogical Recorder; July 1895) (Volume 8)
The Papers of Josiah Bartlett (Frank C. Mevers ed. 1979)