John Whipple (1784-1866) of Providence was a leader of the early 19th century Rhode Island Bar, the state’s foremost trial attorney, and Rhode Island’s most prominent constitutional lawyer. Daniel Webster,Whipple’s co-counsel in the landmark Rhode Island case of Luther v. Borden (1849) regarded Whipple and Jeremiah Mason of New Hampshire as the two most formidable attorneys that he had encountered during his four decades of U.S. Supreme Court advocacy. Whipple, who presided over the apprenticeship of many Rhode Island lawyers (including Thomas Wilson Dorr), was a staunch political conservative and a spokesman for the Whig party.
According to the historians of the nineteenth century bar, Whipple “had a powerful mind, fully conscious of its own strength, and, when speaking, secured the close attention of court, jury, and audience . . .. Almost always there was a large attendance of spectators in court, and when it was known that Mr. Whipple…was to speak, the courthouse would be crowded.”
Whipple made several appearances before the United States Supreme Court, two of which were notable for his successful defense of the Rhode Island system of government established by the royal charter of 1663.
In Wilkinson v. Leland (1829) he successfully protected the Rhode Island’s legislature’s vast power. Pitted against Daniel Webster, he persuaded the high court that the federal guarantee to each state of a republican form of government did not apply to the issue of separated powers (which did not exist in Rhode Island). Twenty years later, in the case of Luther v. Borden, he joined with Webster in defense of the regularly constituted governments of Rhode Island, both under the charter and under the Law and Order constitution which replaced it. Long arguments on “The Rhode Island Question” by Whipple and Webster on one side and Benjamin Hallett and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Nathan Clifford on the other, attended this landmark decision. The Court developed the doctrine of “political question” in avoiding a ruling on the claim to legitimacy of the People’s government under Thomas Dorr. In effect, the Court’s decision was a victory for the duo of Whipple and Webster and a vindication of Whipple’s conservative political philosophy.
Shortly after his great victory, Whipple retired from the practice of law. According to a colleague to whom Whipple announced his decision, it was “a mistake” because he was “in the full possession of his powers.” That same colleague also observed that “Mr. Whipple had faculties not required in the ordinary work of his profession. He was a student of History, a profound thinker on all social, moral , and political questions.”