This Was a Man

A Biography of General William Whipple
by Dorothy Mansfield Vaughan

(Read by the author at a meeting of The National Society of The Colonial Dames in the State of New Hampshire, February 26, 1964.)

MOST BIOGRAPHIES begin with the date of birth; but this one is going to be different in many ways, and will begin with the notice of the death of one of New Hampshire's--yes, the nation's--most esteemed and beloved men, General William Whipple.

In the days when local news sheets gave very trite notices of the passing of a local citizen, it is remarkable and impressive to find a notice a quarter of a page long. Surely this man must have made an impression on the editor of the New Hampshire Gazette, and as we unfold the events of his life we shall see that all the notice says was true, and that this man Whipple in his fifty-five years accomplished more for his state and country than most men achieve in a much longer life span.

On December 9, 1785, the New Hampshire Gazette noted, "On Monday the 28th of November, died, universally lamented, the Hon. Gen. William Whipple, Judge of the Superior Court of New Hampshire.

"In him concentrated every principle that exalts the dignity of man. His disinterested patriotism and public services are now known to all. And when newspaper encomiums are lost in oblivion, the pen of the historian shall preserve the remembrance of his virtue in the breast of succeeding generations. During the long course of unequaled sufferings, he endured his lot with a firmness correspondent to the greatness of his mind.

"He viewed his approaching dissolution with a heroic fortitude, in full confidence, that He who made him knew best how to dispose of him. In his extremest agonies, his mind was still revolving schemes for the happiness of mankind, and those sentiments of benevolence which distinguished him while living, were the last that died in him. He was generous and humane, and the elements so mixed in him that nature might rise up and say 'THIS WAS A MAN'."

William Whipple was the son of Captain William and Mary (Cutt) Whipple of Kittery Point, Maine. He was born in the old Cutt garrison, still standing at Cutt's Cove, now called Locke's Cove, near the second gate to the Navy Yard.

He was born January 14, 1730, one of five children. There was Mary, who was older, Hannah, Robert Cutt and Joseph, who were younger. His sister Mary, who married Robert Traill, became the grandmother of James Russell Lowell.

The old garrison house was left to his mother by her father Robert Cutt, the noted shipbuilder, whose yard was near by. He was the nephew of John Cutt, President of the Province of New Hampshire. By Robert Cutt's will he left Mary Whipple "My land or farm at Crooked Lane, with dwelling house and other buildings thereon."

William Whipple's father was a seagoing man, who had been born in Ipswich, Massachusetts, having been reared as a brewer, then called a maltster. However, his love for the sea was stronger than his love for brewing beer, and he became a sea captain and landed in Kittery, Maine.

William Whipple and his brothers, Robert Cutt and Joseph, were educated in the common schools of Kittery and tutored by Robert Elliot Gerrish, their mother's cousin, who was a Harvard graduate. The boys played in the old shipyard and became well acquainted with the building of a vessel. Often they watched the ships coming and going on the Piscataqua. Some headed for Portsmouth wharves with their wonderful cargoes of foreign goods, others headed for sea with dry fish, pipe staves and clapboards.

No doubt they often longed for the day when they, too, could sail away to foreign ports. William was about fourteen when the New Hampshire contingent of the Louisburg Expedition sailed out of the harbor. He probably watched the flotilla leave and wished that he might be aboard to take part in the attack on the French fortress.

It is interesting to note in passing that while this boy watched on the Kittery shore, an older man, gouty Benning Wentworth, Governor of New Hampshire, watched on the New Hampshire shore and wished that he could be taking part in the affair. He had hoped to be in command of the land forces, but William Shirley, Governor of Massachusetts, had been selected because he had not been eating too many goodies and was not afflicted with the gout.

Also on board the Abigail of Portsmouth was Captain John Tufton Mason of Portsmouth with his independent command. Fate plays strange tricks sometimes, for it happens that Colonel Mason's daughter, Sarah, was to marry Captain John Moffatt's son, Samuel, and William Whipple was to marry Captain Moffatt's daughter, Catherine [i.e. Katharine].

As soon as William was old enough he went to sea in one of his father's ships and by the time he was twenty-one he had command of a ship of his own. His father died in 1751, the year William became of age, and he probably took over his father's command. By his father's will he was left part of the real estate, but in addition "My silver hilted sword and my watch, to my son William."

By the time he had reached the age of twenty-nine William Whipple had amassed a fortune enough to enable him to retire from the sea, and he went in business with his brother Robert Cutt Whipple and his other brother, Joseph, on Bow Street, on Spring Hill in Portsmouth. A year later, Robert Cutt Whipple died at the age of twenty-five and was mentioned as a merchant.

Joseph had been educated in the counting house of Nathaniel Carter of Newburyport and was well able to take over the business of the firm, while William was expert in the foreign trade. In 1763 Joseph was married to Miss Hannah Billings of Boston, and the newspaper account was precise as usual and noted that Miss Billings was "a Boston lady of refinement." The Joseph Whipples went to live in a handsome town house on State Street, corner of Chestnut, still standing and called the Colonel Whipple House.

About this time William must have been thinking of finding a wife and establishing a home. He was "all set" now financially. He became attracted to his pretty cousin, Mehitable Odiorne, daughter of the affluent Honorable Jothan Odiorne, whose fine mansion sat on Market Square, on the site of the Athenaeum.

So he went a-courting, and finally asked for her hand. Her father gave his blessing and Hetty seemed very much pleased with the whole idea. The wedding day was set; the plans were carefully made; the invitations were out; the trousseau was ready. The evening came, the guests had arrived; Reverend Samuel, gowned and with Bible in hand, stood at the foot of the stairs. The dining table groaned with good food and drink and all was in order. The groom arrived and was greeted by Father Odiorne, who shook his hand warmly. Close behind Mr. Whipple were his two slave boys, Prince and Cuffee, who went everywhere their master went. Tonight they were dressed almost as elegantly as the groom and their black faces glowed in the candlelight.

A quietness stole over the assembled guests; there seemed to be something wrong. It was the bride, of course. She had not yet appeared and it was long past the hour set for the nuptials. Her mother was upstairs with the bridesmaids. After some time Father Odiorne went up to see what was going on. Finally the groom followed and there he found the pert Miss Odiorne rocking away merrily in her little rocking chair.

She had not dressed; the wedding finery was laid out on the bed, and nothing could induce her to get dressed. She simply said she was not being married that evening. Nothing could change her mind. Mr. Whipple finally showed that he had a mind of his own, too. He just told her they were going to be married then, or never. It turned out to be never, and so he walked out, Prince and Cuffee following at his heels.

This matrimonial setback was hard for Mr. Whipple to take, but he devoted his time to his business and apparently let the fair sex entirely alone for some years. Finally we find that in 1767 he thought it might be worth another try; his cousin, Catherine [Katharine] Moffatt, daughter of Captain John Moffatt, proved to be an attractive person, and evidently she found him attractive. And so they were married, she being thirty-five at the time and William Whipple two years older. As for Cousin Hetty Odiorne, she evidently found that she could love William Treadwell well enough to marry him, and that was a match.

About the time of this marriage, Mrs. Whipple's brother, Samuel, for whom the beautiful Moffatt house was built, failed in business and went to the West Indies to recoup his fortune. So the Whipples moved into the mansion with the elder Moffatts and Mary Tufton Moffatt, Samuel's daughter, who was left behind with her grandparents and the Whipples. Mr. and Mrs. Whipple thought of her as their own child, being very fond of youngsters. In 1769 Mrs. Moffatt died at the age of seventy, and her daughter and her husband became the host and hostess of the great mansion, father Moffatt being a feeble old man by this time.

It is said that the Whipples had several children, but the records show only one little boy, William, who was baptized at the Old North Church, May 24, 1772. This little boy whom they loved so dearly was taken from them less than a year later and buried in the North Cemetery, close to the burial place of father, who died some thirteen years later.

With the outbreak of the Revolution William Whipple began his long career as a public servant. In June 1774 he was on a Committee to prevent the landing of tea in Portsmouth. It arrived in the town but was quickly reshipped to Halifax. He became a member of the Committee of Safety and was a member of the Provincial Convention held at Exeter.

In 1776 Whipple and Josiah Bartlett of Kingston and John Langdon of Portsmouth were sent as delegates to the Continental Congress. While in Philadelphia Mr. Whipple took lodgings at Captain Robert Duncan's on the south side of Walnut Street, where John Adams was also a lodger. From 1776 to 1779 Whipple was constantly in Congress, making many, many trips from Portsmouth to Philadelphia. He was ever active in debates, and served on such committers as Marine, Secret Correspondence, Commerce, Claims and others relating to military affairs and finance. He served with Josiah Bartlett, John Langdon and Matthew Thornton.

When he took his seat for the first time, February 29, 1776, he had with him a copy of the Constitution of New Hampshire. It is thought that the national constitution was based upon the one from New Hampshire. One of the first appointments he received was a seat on the Marine Committee, a forerunner of the Navy Department. While on this commission, John Langdon asked him to get him appointed Continental Agent for the building of ships in New Hampshire. Mr. Whipple soon found that this was not going to be easy, for Congress did not want to give appointments to members of Congress. He found that the members of the Congress felt that it was not fitting to create remunerative offices for members of its own body, which led to the motion "That no member of Congress shall hold any lucrative office."

He wrote this to his young friend in Portsmouth, and Mr. Langdon promptly replied that he would give up his seat in Congress in order to be the Continental Agent. This bothered Mr. Whipple, because he was Mr. Whipple. Taking his pen in hand he wrote Mr. Langdon; "You say you will resign your seat in Congress rather than not have the Agency. If my advice can have any weight with you, you certainly will not. Such a step would have an avaricious appearance and on the other hand there cannot be a greater evidence of patriotism than preferring the public good to one's private interest." Mr. Langdon resigned his seat just the same, but perhaps he redeemed himself when he made a famous speech in Exeter in 1777, which will be recorded later.

On July 4, 1776, Mr. Whipple proudly penned his signature on the Declaration of Independence, and when he came back to Portsmouth he planted a horse chestnut in the side yard, which has flourished into the beautiful tree which we admire so much today.

During the summer of 1776 Mr. Whipple heard that his friend Langdon was getting married. Langdon had been disappointed in love just as Mr. Whipple had been. He had hoped to marry charming Sally Sherburne, only to find that she was in love with his brother Woodbury. When Mr. Whipple heard of this love affair in faraway Philadelphia, he sat down and wrote Mr. Langdon a bit of advice.

"How goes the courtship?" he inquired. "Have you well considered the matter? I would beg leave to remind you of the observations of one of the philosophers of the age; that a man who is thinking of marrying a woman twenty years younger than himself, ought to consider who is to be her husband twenty years hence. I hope you won't think by this hint that I have any objections--so far from it you may be assured, my dear sir, that whatever contributes to your happiness, will be an addition to mine."

On November 16, 1776, Mr. Whipple wrote Langdon again: "I have been about two months and six days from Portsmouth and have received one short letter from my Professed Friend, J. Langdon, Esq. Pray Sir, do you know that gentleman?" Probably J. Langdon was busy courting Betsy Sherburne and had no time for letter writing! The records show that the couple were married February 2, 1777, in the North Church in Portsmouth. Betsy Sherburne was Mrs. Whipple's niece, so now our friend John Langdon became Mr. Whipple's nephew by law.

Writing from Philadelphia on January 7, 1776, Mr. Whipple informed Mr. Josiah Bartlett; "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 have not virtue enough to support the most Glorious Cause ever human beings were engaged in, they don't deserve the blessings of Freedom."

The Marine Committee, of which Whipple was an active member, on June 18, 1777, appointed John Paul Jones to command the Ranger in Portsmouth. Mr. Whipple was to be the bearer of the appointment to Jones, who was then in Boston waiting orders from Congress. The letter also said that Whipple, Langdon and Jones were to appoint officers and Jones was to equip the Ranger and get to sea as soon as possible. The fact was, Jones did not get to sea until November 1, after the news of the Battle of Saratoga.

While the New Hampshire Convention was in session in the summer of 1777, it became evident that the British were intent on cutting New England off from the rest of the country. It was at this time that John Langdon, Speaker of the House, rose in his seat and made the following speech; "I have $3000 in hard money, I will pledge my plate for $3000 more. I have seventy hogsheads of Tobago rum which shall be sold for the most they will bring. These are at the service of the State. If we succeed in defending our firesides and homes, I will be remunerated; if we do not, the property will be of no value to me. Our good friend Stark, who so nobly sustained the honor of New Hampshire at Bunker Hill may be safely entrusted with the conduct of the enterprise, and we will check the progress of Burgoyne." The militia of New Hampshire was formed into two brigades. The first was placed under the command of General William Whipple, and the second under General John Stark, who set out immediately. Whipple followed shortly after with John Langdon and his Independent Company made up of shipbuilders from the Langdon shipyard.

Before he left, General Whipple entertained Reverend Ezra Stiles of the North Church one evening for dinner and Mr. Stiles wrote in his diary that he had just seen the first draft of the Articles of Confederation which Mr. Whipple had brought home from Congress.

The day that General Whipple was leaving for Bennington he noticed that his slave boy, Prince, was hanging around the stable yard watching the preparations for the General's departure. Suddenly the General said to the boy "Hurry up Prince, we've got to go and fight for our freedom." The young boy looked his master squarely in the eye and said, "But I have no freedom to fight for, suh." This stirred the older man considerably and he replied quickly, "From this moment on you are a free man, Prince, hurry up now and we will fight for our freedom together." Prince Whipple served with General Whipple throughout the war and was with Washington when he crossed the Delaware. [See related article on this site.]

On September 27, 1777, Brigadier General William Whipple commenced his duty in command of the New Hampshire Troops in the Vermont and New York campaigns, which ended with the Battle of Saratoga, the turning point of the American Revolution. This marked the surrender of Burgoyne, and General Whipple and Colonel Wilkinson were chosen by General Schuyler to present the British General with the terms of surrender.

Captain John Langdon was chosen to carry the news of the surrender to Boston and he set ahead of the defeated army, with which General Whipple stayed to be the personal escort of Gentleman John Burgoyne. Langdon must have swelled with pride to feel in his waistcoat pocket the dispatches which told of the surrender of the British, as he rode over the rocky roads from Saratoga to Boston. He had helped so much financially in getting the New Hampshire troops over to Bennington.

It would be of interest to know more about that trip from Albany to Cambridge, via the Berkshires, when Whipple escorted the beaten and haughty British general to the port of embarkation. There are no letters, diaries or news accounts of the trip, which took about twelve days on horseback over slippery, snowy roads, the last of October in 1777.

On November 1 the Ranger sailed for France with the news of Burgoyne's surrender for Benjamin Franklin in Paris.

Jones had been ready for days, knowing the word would soon come through. He had a special commission to perform for General Whipple. It seems that the General asked him to do a little shopping for him in Paris. The instructions which Jones received read, "Purchase in France for Madame Whipple several pairs of gloves, and enough black cloth to make several cloaks and dresses."

Soon after his return to Portsmouth after having handed Burgoyne over to the authorities in Boston, Mr. Whipple entertained his good friend, John Adams, along with the preacher, Ezra Stiles, who was soon to become President of Yale. The clergyman noted in his famous diary "Spent the evening with General Whipple in company with John Adams." There's no doubt they all heard plenty about Mr. Burgoyne that evening! A little later the Reverend Stiles dined again at Whipple's, and this time the company included General Clover of Marblehead, who had had the pleasure of escorting the remains of the straggling British army back to Boston. He must have had many a tale to tell of his troubles with the unpredictable Hessians.

Whipple bitterly opposed privateering and all its ramifications, and in a letter to Dr. Bartlett made this comment: "Those who are actively in it [privateering] soon lose every idea of right and wrong, and for want of an opportunity of gratifying their insatiable avarice with the properties of the enemies of their country, will without the least compunction, seize properties of their friends."

General Whipple found himself in the field of battle again in August of 1778. This time he was at Newport, Rhode Island, with General John Sullivan and took part in the Battle of Quaker Hill. He was on active duty this time from August 8 until September 5.

Having freed his own slaves during the Revolution, Mr. Whipple wrote this letter to his friend Josiah Bartlett: "The last accounts from South Carolina were favorable. A recommendation is gone thither for raising some regiments of Blacks. This, I suppose will lay a foundation for the emancipation of those wretches in that country. I hope it will be the means of dispensing the blessings of Freedom to all the human race in America."

In 1780, as the war was drawing to a close, William Whipple was appointed to the Board of Admiralty, which he declined. He had had enough and wanted to go home. After the war he represented Portsmouth in the New Hampshire legislature. On June 20, 1782, he resigned his military appointment, and on the same day received his appointment as Judge of the Superior Court of New Hampshire, an office he held until his death. He was also made Superintendent of Finances in 1782 and served until 1784. And from 1782 to 1785 he was an Associate Judge of the Superior Court.

His mother died in 1782 and was buried in the North Cemetery near his infant son. His father and brother, Robert Cutt Whipple, lie in the cemetery at Kittery Point, near the church.

On November 28, 1785, William Whipple died after a painful and lingering illness. He planned to help his fellow men after his death, just as he had in his active life. It was his wish that an autopsy be performed to see what had caused his terrible agony, and it was performed by his brother-in-law Dr. Joshua Brackett. The answer was the hardening of the arteries leading to his heart. And so our William Whipple gave his all to his country, even his heart.

This was a man.

© 1964 by Dorothy Mansfield Vaughan