The William Whiting Award for Judicial Courage

About Dr. William Whiting
The Whiting Judicial Courage Award is named in honor of Dr. William Whiting who sat as Presiding Justice of the Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington from 1782 to 1787. Dr. Whiting was one of the leading figures in western Massachusetts during the Revolution, and, at great personal risk, publicly opposed efforts of local leaders who, in a document known as the “Berkshire Resolves,” urged the citizens from the western counties of Massachusetts to separate from the Commonwealth during the Revolutionary War. Whiting, who had served as the Regimental Surgeon with the Massachusetts Line under Washington during the siege of Boston, condemned the separatists, many of whom were personal friends, and successfully convinced the citizens to support the government during the darkest days of the Revolution.

Following the Revolution, Dr. Whiting, who was not a lawyer, was appointed Chief Judge of the Court of Common Pleas, a seat he held for almost 7 years. During his tenure, the courts became frequent targets of dissent and the “Regulators” who objected to what they saw as an increasingly distant and diffident power structure in Eastern Massachusetts. The Regulators frequently attempted to shut down the local courts rather than allow the judges to sit and enforce laws seen as unjust and unfair.

Tensions between the eastern political elite and the people from the western counties came to a head over the issue of paper notes given by Massachusetts to soldiers who had served in the Revolution in lieu of specie. The notes depreciated dramatically, and eastern speculators, many of whom were members of the legislature, bought them up at drastically devalued rates, from the former soldiers who were cash strapped and needed money to pay the increasing taxes. Subsequently, the Legislature passed a law redeeming the devalued notes in specie at par value, meaning the legislator-speculators made a substantial profit at the expense of the soldiers, many of whom faced foreclosures on their farms, Protest developed into an armed rebellion in 1786. Many of the opposition leaders, including Daniel Shays, were decorated Revolutionary War veterans, and their movement had substantial support in the western counties and in Vermont, where their movement was backed by Ethan Allen and his famous Green Mountain Boys.

After Shays’s Rebellion collapsed following the unsuccessful assault on the Springfield arsenal in January of 1787 and the Battle of Petersham, Governor James Bowdoin urged revenge on both the leaders and the supporters of the movement. Dr, Whiting, now sitting as Presiding Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, came to their defense in an open letter he wrote to one of the leaders of the bar, Theodore Sedgwick, Writing under the pen name Gracchus, Judge Whiting pointed out that the farmers and merchants who rose with Shays (it was not a revolt of indebted farmers as commonly believed) had good cause for their grievances, which had been ignored by the power elite in Boston, and he urged leniency and reason in dealing with the rebels. Dr. Whiting’s choice of the pen name was telling. Gracchus was a First Century Roman Senator who was assassinated on the floor of the Senate after sponsoring a law that distributed some of the wealth from Roman military conquests to the plebeians who had done the fighting.

As a result of his support of the Regulators, Judge Whiting was removed from the bench and charged with, and convicted of, seditious libel. He was found guilty, even though all he had written was true. Truth was not a defense to libel at the time. Any publication that cast the government in an unfavorable light constituted seditious libel, which Judge Whiting surely must have known. He came to the defense of Shays and his followers because it was right, even though he knew he would lose much, Judge Whiting was imprisoned for 7 months and assessed a fine of 100 pounds, a substantial sum at the time, and fell into obscurity thereafter.

Judge Whiting’s words and his courage should not be forgotten. Although he attacked the power elite for ignoring the plight of the farmers and merchants west of Boston, and for adopting laws that unfairly enriched a few speculators at the expense of many who had fought in the Revolution, he was equally critical of the citizenry for not paying diligent attention to events that impacted their freedom, “The people at large,” he said, had an “indispensable duty to watch and guard their liberties, and to crush the very first appearances of encroachments upon it.”

William Whiting Award Chronology

2009 – Hon. John M. Greaney
2010 – Hon. Reginald C. Lindsay
2012 – Hon. Levin Campbell
2013 – Hon. Mark L. Wolf
2014 – Hon. Robert J. Cordy
2015 – Hon. Rya W. Zobel
2017 – Hon. Dennis Curran