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Untangling the Prince Whipple Legend

An African American Revolutionary

Thanks to the unstoppable Internet, the Prince Whipple legend is now more deeply embedded in history than ever. His appearance in "Washington Crossing the Delaware" is noted in scholarly papers, on history web sites, in Wikipedia and on PBS. Often I am listed as the source of the information and often the articles note definitively that Prince Whipple is the man in the painting.

This is, after all, how history works. We study all the facts we can lay our hands on, then we take a flying leap at the truth. One historian relies on the work of another, then the next generation feeds on the work of the former. The real professionals track the story back to its roots. But most historians and journalists take the story as fact, recycle it, and move on. The Internet merely speeds up the process.

As a black abolitionist before the Civil War, William C. Nell was fighting to remind Americans, black and white, that African Americans had participated in the Revolution. We now know they also fought in the French and Indian War, even before the nation was founded. They died in great numbers in the Civil War. Nell was working in his book just when the hugely popular painting by Leutze went on display in 1851. More than 50,000 visitors paid to see the work in New York late that same year. It was sold for $10,000, an enormous sum at the time, and exhibited in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC. A lot of people think big 19th century paintings are history. They aren’t. These grand, emotional, often corny and inaccurate paintings are art first, history second. To Nell’s joy, this powerful image contained one figure of a black man – a very visible symbol of the point he was making.

Nell was wrong, it seems, on this small forgivable detail. Emmanuel Leutze was not painting Prince Whipple. Historians point out that the artist also got the details of the longboats wrong. And the flag is not precisely correct, nor is Washington’s outfit. But Leutze would probably tell you that his goals were much grander. He was tapping into the patriotic spirit of America, a nation not yet a century old when "Washington Crossing the Delaware" went on display.

I saw the painting for the first time recently. I stood shockingly close, then walked backwards to take it all in, then moved up close again. The black figure in the boat rows nearly at eye level. Everyone except Washington strains at their oars. He is steady, fixed on the upcoming shore. Nothing here is real. Washington is really America. The men in the boats are Americans. The black man represents black America, struggling just to stay alive, overshadowed but present. He is every colored patriot who fought in the Revolution. And so, in a way, he really is Prince Whipple. The man in the painting is not Prince with the forensic accuracy required to place him in your school’s history textbook. But he is Prince in a simpler purer way that every human heart can understand.

Copyright © 2006 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is editor and owner of and a trustee of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail.

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