Never too late: Declaration signers being honored
The New Hampshire merchant is one of the lesser-known signers of the Declaration of Independence. This year, there are plans for Whipple and 11 others to be honored for their place in history with a small bronze plaque at their gravesites or homes, thanks to a group of descendants of the Founding Fathers.
Whipple, one of three men from New Hampshire who signed the famous document — the others were Josiah Bartlett and Matthew Thornton — had no direct descendants. His only child, a boy, died as an infant and is buried near him at the Old North Cemetery in Portsmouth. Whipple, who also commanded troops during the Revolutionary War and served as a state judge and legislator, died in 1785 at age 55.
It's about time he was honored, said Blaine Whipple in Portland, Ore., a distant relative who has researched and published several volumes on 15 generations of the Whipple family in America.
"He was one of the workhorses of the Continental Congress," Whipple said. "He's never been given the credits that he earned." Whipple was chairman of the marine, foreign relations and quartermaster committees and served on another committee that gathered intelligence on the British, he said.
Whipple's gravesite mentions he was a member of the Continental Congress when America declared its freedom from Great Britain, but doesn't spell out his famous moment in time. The 104-year-old Society of the Descendants of the Declaration of Independence wants to change that for Whipple and the other signers, "to honor their memory and their great deed."
"We try to do as many as we can, but it's a long process," said Grace Staller of West Chester, Pa., who heads the project for the nonprofit group. She's a ninth-generation descendant of signer John Hart from New Jersey, whose plaque is at the Old Baptist Meeting House in Hopewell.
The Portsmouth City Council recently approved the request. The city owns the cemetery.
Other plaque recipients — some better known than others — this year are John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Robert Treat Paine, Massachusetts; Charles Carroll, Maryland; Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Nelson, Virginia; Thomas Lynch and Arthur Middleton, South Carolina; James Smith, Pennsylvania; and Richard Stockton, New Jersey.
Some of the 56 signers, like Whipple, have no direct descendants. For others, it's not clear where they're buried. Some cemeteries don't allow the plaques. In addition to the 45 who will end up with plaques, there are 11 signers who won't be getting them; they will be honored at the historic Congressional Cemetery in Washington.
The bronze plaque quotes from the last sentence of the 1776 document, saying for the support of the declaration, "we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."
"I've always been proud to be related to a signer of the Declaration of Independence. It's almost like a royal family," said Jeffrey Saurman of Portsmouth, a direct descendant of Thornton, whose memorial in Merrimack received one of the plaques last August. He said he was happy to share the moment with his children.
His son Josh, he said, recently completed a report on Thornton, a doctor, state representative and judge, for his sixth-grade class. The youngster took a photo of himself in period clothes next to a portrait of Thornton. "You could see some resemblance," his father said.
Saurman, who works at a family plumbing and heating business, said he was shocked and surprised that the plaques hadn't been made years earlier. "You would think something like that would've already been done."
William Whipple, who was born in Kittery, Maine, was a merchant in Portsmouth, a busy seaport and shipbuilding city. During the Revolutionary War, he was brigadier general of the New Hampshire Militia and was one of the negotiators of the surrender of British Gen. John Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga, a major turning point in the war.
Whipple kept a diary from that time, musing about how long it took for preparations to bring back Burgoyne so he could be sent back to Britain.
"He talks about Burgoyne holding them all up, and he wouldn't leave because he had to get his whole entourage together," said Barbara McLean Ward, curator of the Moffatt-Ladd House in Portsmouth, Whipple's home. The weather was fine, but when they finally left Saratoga, "it rained the entire time back ... It's all about sort of being miserable," she said.
Whipple freed his slave, Prince Whipple, who had fought with him in the war and was one of a group of slaves who had petitioned the Legislature for their freedom. Prince Whipple also is buried in the Old North Cemetery.
The Moffatt-Ladd House, a Georgian mansion built in 1763, is a national historic landmark that's open to the public. It has a portrait of Whipple, as well as some personal items, such as a sword. Outside the house is a 235-year-old horse chestnut tree, which he had planted after signing the Declaration of Independence, Ward said. The seeds were brought back from Philadelphia.