Robert Whitehill was born July 21, 1738, the son of Ulster immigrant and blacksmith James and Rachel (Cresswell) Whitehill of Pequa, Lancaster County.[i] Robert’s father worshipped as a “New Sides” Presbyterian during the Philadelphia-New York Synod schism of 1738-1758, enrolling Robert at the Pequa Creek (Lancaster) Academy, where he studied under Robert Smith, one of the few graduates of Gilbert Tennett’s Neshaminy Log College.[ii] In addition to Smith, Robert’s instructors included the Reverend Francis Alison. He married Eleanor Reed in 1765, the daughter of Adam Reed of Western Pennsylvania. Whitehill moved to Cumberland County before 1776, where he and his wife settled a 440-acre tract of proprietorial land at Lowther Manor (Camp Hill).
Whitehill pursued politics as a backcountry, “anti-Philadelphia” civil rights advocate, later acting as a key framer (with George Bryan) of the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution and the state and nation’s Bill of Rights. The future Speaker of the Senate emerged as a radical frontier patriot, individualist, adamant critic of central banking and the supreme-court system, and patrician government. He served as a key member of the 1774 Cumberland County Committee and became one of the first (of 13) Pennsylvania assemblymen, pursuing a path toward the populist radical movement that launched the “Spirit of ‘76” – the match that lit the fire of the Revolution and the dissolution of political ties with the Crown.[iii] He quickly gained a reputation as the trans-Susquehanna champion of the people, and later, an ardent supporter of Jeffersonian state sovereignty.
Robert served the Pennsylvania legislature through 1805, intermittently serving on the 1777 Council of Safety and the 1779 Executive Council. As a member of the 1787 Federal Constitution Ratification Committee in Philadelphia, Whitehill assumed the sentiment of Richard Henry Lee, teaming with John Smylie and William Findley to delay the charter’s adoption, insistent on allowing frontier neighbors ample time to consider the document.
Among his many criticisms of the federal constitution, Whitehill adamantly asserted the addition of a “bill of personal rights.” Robert’s presentation of 15 amendments on the final days of debate catapulted the Camp Hill anti-Federalist to national prominence, marching at the vanguard of the cause of constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties as a means to repress tyranny. While the Bill of Rights would not appear in the federal charter until 1790, its eventual inclusion resulted as much from Whitehill’s efforts, as it did George Mason’s. Notwithstanding the eventual addition of seven of Robert’s 15 original amendments, Whitehill refused to sign the ratification resolution, noting that the proposed constitution remained “too undemocratic.”[iv] To that end, he perceived the quality of safeguards against tyranny incorporated through the state and federal charters as dubious, especially concerning overly powerful executive and independent judiciary departments. As son-in-law Richard Craine once shared with the civil rights champion: “He that does support the court, He does uphold the Devil’s cause.”[v]
The senator’s adherence to democratic radicalism bordered on spiritualism, and Whitehill’s conviction quickly became a standard for other radical Jeffersonian Republicans. Historian Robert Christ noted that particularly zealous Democratic-Republicans of the period appeared “as staunch as Whitehill.”[vi] Robert’s adamant stand for democratic principle evolved so narrowly focused, that many of his contemporaries perceived him as obsessive – to the point where his passion left the impression of vindictiveness. Fellow Democratic-Republican Senator Jonathan Roberts recounted Robert as a “mean-selfish” man,[vii] and noted economist Matthew Carey observed:
“even were an angel from Heaven sent with proper arguments to convince him of his error, it would make no alteration with him.”[viii]
Whitehill served in the state House, 1797-99; the state Senate, 1801-05, and championed judicial reform and acted as Judge during the Senate impeachment hearings of the state Supreme Court Justices. He capped a brilliant political career by serving four successive terms in Congress, 1805-1813, advocating reform of federal judicial terms and liberalization of the impeachment process. Senator Whitehill died at Lowther Manor (Camp Hill) on April 8, 1813, interred at the old Silver Spring Presbyterian Church near Mechanicsburg.[ix] Sadly, there is no known image of one of America’s greatest champions of individual rights.
[i] Robert Christ, Robert Whitehill and the Struggle for Civil Rights (Lemoyne, Pennsylvania: Lemoyne Trust Company for the Hamilton Library and Historical Association of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 1958), 7; also: Dumas Malone, ed., Dictionary of American Biography, vol. X (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964), 131; also: Joseph Cress, (Carlisle) Sentinel, www.cumberlink.com, August 3, 2001.
[iii] Malone, 131.
[v] “Mr. Richard Craine, Harrisburg to Robert Whitehill, August 21, 1810,” Whitehill Collection, Cumberland County Historical Society, Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
[vi] Christ, 14.
[vii] Jonathan Roberts, “Memoirs of a Senator from Pennsylvania,” PHMB 62 (January 1938):1: 64-97.
[viii] Malone, 132.
[ix] Pennsylvania Biographical Dictionary (Wilmington, Delaware: American Historical Publications, Inc., 1989), 412-13; also The Harrisburg Republican, April 13, 1813, notes Whitehill died April 6, 1813.