William Whipple, Constitution Day, and “All Men are Created Equal”

This post is a bit delayed (Constitution Day was September 17), but following is an essay written for Constitution Day on the theme, “My Favorite Founding Father.” It won a USMC unit award.

There are many candidates one can choose from to select a favorite founding father: George Washington, of course, our first president, a military genius and exceptional leader of men; Benjamin Franklin, inventor, philosopher, and writer, who was instrumental in writing the Declaration of Independence, who signed both the Declaration and the Constitution, and was nicknamed “The First American;” the young Thomas Jefferson and draftsman superb, who wrote the Declaration of Independence; James Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; Thomas Paine, the author of “Common Sense,” which roused the colonies to rebellion against oppression; our own naval commander John Paul Jones, famous for his oft-quoted “I have not yet begun to fight,” shouted from the Bonhomme Richard as it was foundering, and who then captured the British ship Serapis.

One could argue that all these men were born to greatness; that within them the personality and character existed which confirmed them as extraordinary men when the opportunity presented itself, and that many such opportunities came their way in the early days of the birth and formation of these United States of America. But I would like to examine the life of one little-known man who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was born and educated in ordinary circumstances. He began his career humbly and became successful as a merchant. By his character, he obtained the respect of his community. But without the Revolution, and one particular, singular act that he performed, he would have remained a successful, but ordinary, man until he died.

William Whipple was born January 14, 1730 at Kittery, Maine. He was educated in a “common school,” and then went off to sea, by some accounts as a cabin boy, hoping to have command of his own ship one day. He was successful in trading in the West Indies, and became a Ship’s Master by the age of 23.

Whipple left the seafaring life to establish himself as a merchant, in partnership with his brother, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He continued to show his acumen at business, becoming successful, while also gaining the respect of his community. He was elected to represent his town at the Provincial Congress in 1775; was elected to the New Hampshire Executive Council when the royal government was dissolved and a House of Representatives elected; became a member of the Committee of Safety, in control of the local militias and acting as the provisional government; and was eventually elected to the Continental Congress, where he put his business experience to work and served as a superintendent of the commissary’s and quartermaster’s departments.

As a signer of the Declaration of Independence, his biographer, the Rev. Charles A. Goodrich (Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, 1856) describes him:

“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. 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.”

In other words, still a somewhat ordinary man.

Whipple rose to the challenge of the Revolution by raising a brigade from several militias, and was appointed a general officer without significant military experience–a true citizen-soldier. Eventually, through his dedicated success on the field, Whipple was delegated to accept the surrender of the British general Burgoyne.

Yet despite his history, who has heard of William Whipple? Who reveres his name? What extraordinary act did he accomplish? Why is he my favorite founding father?

The words “all men are created equal,” are arguably the most famous and influential in American history. But while creating a great democratic principle for the world, most of our founding fathers did not live up to that principle in one obvious respect: slavery.

William Whipple is the only known signer of the Declaration of Independence to free his only (and therefore all) slave, Prince Whipple, believing he could not fight for liberty and own a slave. Whipple, unlike other founders in this respect, proved himself an extraordinary man.

According to his biographer, this occurred while Whipple, accompanied by Prince Whipple as his slave, was proceeding to the expected surrender of General Burgoyne. “Prince,” said the general, “we may be called into action, in which case, I trust you will behave like a man of courage, and fight bravely for the country.” “Sir,” replied Prince, in a manly tone “I have no wish to fight and no inducement, but had I my liberty, I would fight in defence of the country to the last drop of my blood.” “Well,’ said the general, ‘Prince, from this moment you are free.”

And so he was; and so the two men, created equal, went on their way, prepared to fight beside each other to the death if necessary, and to live, if God willed it, as free and equal men. Together, as equals, they accepted the surrender of General Burgoyne.

And that is why William Whipple is my favorite founding father.

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