KITTERY — During the 55 years he lived, William Whipple traveled the seas, fought for freedom from England and joined the Founding Fathers at Independence Hall to sign the Declaration of Independence.

Gen. William Whipple, the only native of what is now Maine to sign the Declaration of Independence, is being recognized this Fourth of July with renewed interest in the town where he was born and raised.

“To me, he’s a distinctly Maine character,” said D. Allan Kerr, a Kittery resident and author who has spearheaded the effort to highlight one of Kittery’s more notable historical figures. “He was very well-spoken and eloquent, but compared to the Founding Fathers he was a man of action.”

Whipple also was the product of a complicated period in U.S. history, having owned a slave before the war for independence and later expressing his support for emancipation. As many as 41 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, those representing both northern and southern colonies, owned slaves.

Whipple’s evolving view on slavery and emancipation feature prominently in the story of his life and is not shied away from on a new historical marker in Kittery documenting his role in the nation’s birth.

The historical marker was placed last month in Howell’s Park on Whipple Road, just down the street from the house where Whipple was born and raised. It supplements a memorial for Whipple donated by the Kittery Trading Post and installed in the Circle of Honor behind Town Hall in 2015. Both markers were funded with donations made to the Kittery Maine Improvement Foundation.

A portrait of Gen. William Whipple, who led regiments in several campaigns during the Revolutionary War, hangs in council chambers at Kittery Town Hall. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

A portrait of Whipple is displayed at Town Hall, thanks to a donation from Kerr, who spent years looking for the portrait before finding one on eBay. It hangs in council chambers next to a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence.

‘THERE IS AMAZING HISTORY HERE’

The memorials for Whipple were installed with little fanfare, although locals who learn of Whipple’s adventures find him to be an interesting and complex character, Kerr said.

“I was just flabbergasted there was all this history here that wasn’t being promoted,” he said. “There is amazing history here that people need to know.”

Although Whipple was perhaps best known for his presence among men of intellect at the Continental Congress, he was more a man of action. An unassuming person who never sought the spotlight, he was known to be constant in his friendships and thoughtful in the letters he penned to friends.

Whipple was born in Kittery in 1730, the son of a local ship’s captain named William and his wife, Mary Cutt, the daughter of a renowned Kittery shipbuilder. The young Whipple grew up in the house at 88 Whipple Road that today bears a plaque noting it as his birthplace. He and his brothers played in an old shipyard and watched the ships coming and going on the Piscataqua River, according to a biography of Whipple written by Dorothy Mansfield Vaughan.

Whipple attended local schools before heading out to sea as a cabin boy. By age 21 he was a sea captain, sailing a route that included Europe and the West Indies. His ships carried wood, rum and, on at least one occasion, slaves.

OWNING SLAVE, PURSUING FREEDOM

Whipple’s career as a captain of a merchant ship is not well-documented, but he is known to have brought at least one ship filled with slaves to the country, said historian Kenneth C. Davis, author of “America’s Hidden History” and “Don’t Know Much About History.” It also is widely recognized that Whipple owned a slave known by the name Prince, whom he later freed.

“In helping lead the fight for his own freedom, he came to realize the hypocrisy of owning a slave,” Kerr said.

Davis said Whipple is an example of the great contradiction that existed at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, one that still complicates how the founders are remembered today. Founders from all 13 colonies, not just the South, owned slaves at the time they were building the new nation on the basis of freedom.

“It’s the notion that these men who were absolutely risking everything when they signed their names to that document, and they were, but many of them were completely dependent on the institution of slavery for their wealth and their well-being,” Davis said. “It was a contradiction they were aware of at the time.”

Whipple was among those who later renounced slavery, although many did not. In fact, five of the first seven U.S. presidents were slave owners while in office, Davis said.

MERCHANT DURING BRITISH RULE

Whipple left his seafaring days behind him before he was 30 and settled across the Piscataqua River from Kittery, where he established himself as a merchant in Portsmouth. He married his first cousin, Katharine Moffatt, and moved into a large house on Market Street that is now known as the Moffatt-Ladd House, a National Historic Landmark that is open to the public.

As a merchant, he was a victim of British trade restrictions in the 1760s and became involved with the rebel cause in the city.

Whipple sensed the increased sentiment for freedom and penned a letter to his friend Josiah Bartlett on Jan. 7, 1776, according to the Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. Bartlett was a New Hampshire physician and statesman whose signature sits above Whipple’s on the declaration.

“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 wrote.

In 1776, he was appointed as a New Hampshire delegate to the Continental Congress and traveled to Philadelphia to meet with the other 55 delegates.

Whipple voted for independence on July 2, the Declaration of Independence on July 4, and signed the declaration on Aug. 2. His signature sits between Bartlett’s and those of famous Massachusetts patriots Sam Adams and John Adams.

CABIN BOY TO DECLARATION SIGNER

“The memorable day which gave birth to the Declaration of Independence afforded, in the case of William Whipple, a striking example of the uncertainty of human affairs, and the triumphs of perseverance,” an unnamed writer observed, according to the society of descendants. “The cabin boy, who thirty years before had looked forward to a command of a vessel as the consummation of all his hopes and wishes, now stood amidst the congress of 1776, 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.”

After signing the declaration in Philadelphia, Whipple returned to his home in Portsmouth with a handful of chestnuts and planted one in his yard to commemorate his participation in the event. The tree still stands 241 years later.

Once the declaration was signed, Whipple put down his pen and took up his sword.

“He had buffeted the waves as a seaman; he had pursued the peaceful occupations of a merchant; and he had distinguished himself as a legislator and a statesman; but he was now called on to undergo the severer personal duties, and to gather the more conspicuous laurels of a soldier,” Joseph Foster, a paymaster in the Navy, said during a 1892 speech in Portsmouth.

DURING WAR, NEW VIEW Of SLAVERY

Whipple was commissioned as a brigadier general of the New Hampshire militia and took part in several campaigns during the Revolutionary War. He led his regiments into Vermont, New York and Rhode Island.

At the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, Whipple helped negotiate the terms of surrender of Gen. John Burgoyne and his army. Whipple was given the honor of escorting the British back to the Boston area to be sent back to England.

During his time at war, a statement by the slave Prince greatly influenced Whipple’s view on slavery, according to stories about Whipple that have circulated since at least the 1890s.

“On his way to the army, he told (Prince) that if they should be called into action, he expected that he would behave like a man of courage, and fight bravely for his country. Prince replied, ‘Sir, I have no inducement to fight; but if I had my liberty, I would endeavor to defend it to the last drop of my blood.’ The General manumitted (freed) him on the spot,” Foster said during his speech in Portsmouth.

Although many accounts of the interaction say Prince was freed on the spot, Whipple granted Prince the rights of a free man on Feb. 22, 1781, which was Prince’s wedding day, according to Portsmouth town records. Whipple signed Prince’s official papers of manumission, or freedom, in February 1784.

Whipple later wrote a letter to Bartlett, his friend and declaration co-signer, about the groundwork being laid for emancipation throughout the country.

“I hope it will be the means of dispensing the blessings of Freedom to the human race in America,” he wrote after freeing Prince.

‘A FIRM AND ARDENT PATRIOTISM’

Eve A. Raimon, a professor of English at the University of Southern Maine, said Whipple’s abolitionist stance at the time marks him as unique.

“He may have supported emancipation in part because Prince was one of 20 New Hampshire slaves to petition for their freedom,” she said in an email. “The petition was rejected, but its historical importance cannot be underestimated.”

The language in the petition – many believe it was written by Prince – is engraved in the African Burying Ground Memorial Park in Portsmouth.

Whipple resigned his military appointment on June 20, 1782, and the same day was appointed as a supreme court judge in New Hampshire. He died of heart disease three years later at age 55 and was buried in the North Cemetery in Portsmouth next to his only son, William, who died at age 1.

Whipple’s simple epitaph reads, in part: “He was often elected and thrice attended the Continental Congress for the State of New Hampshire, particularly in the memorable year in which America declared itself independent of Great Britain. … In him a firm and ardent patriotism was united with universal benevolence and every social virtue.”

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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