For the tenth year in a row, the United States Senate has unanimously passed a resolution urging every executive department of the federal government to honor July 30 as National Whistleblower Appreciation Day.
Why? As with so many other great movements where human rights and civil liberties were vindicated, protected whistleblowing began with a small band of people who stood up for justice, made their voices heard, and changed history.
During the winter of 1777, 10 sailors and marines aboard the USS Warren blew the whistle on abuses by the commander of the U.S. Navy despite the lack of any existing legal protection. Their spokesman, without leave, jumped ship in Providence, Rhode Island, and made way for the Continental Congress, where he presented 10 petitions in the interest of the Revolution. On July 30, 1778, the sailors finally had their fate sealed.
For these 10 men, the stakes could not have been higher. Their punishment would not be a slap on the wrist — they were subject to military law and could have been disciplined at the hands of the very commander they were trying to take down.
Their first effort to report the wrongdoing was a letter to Robert Treat Paine, the lawyer who prosecuted the British soldiers tried for killing innocent civilians in the Boston massacre. In early February 1777, the whistleblowers asked Paine, a member of the Continental Congress, for his support. Their letter provides insight, not to how the elite in the Continental Congress were viewing the Revolution, but to how everyday sailors and marines explained what “sacrifices” they were willing to make for their “ravish’d, bleeding, injur’d country’s cause.”
The 10 men did not want corrupt leaders to betray the Revolution and demanded their constitutional liberty to expose wrongdoing. Eight days later, Marine Captain John Grannis jumped ship in the Providence Harbor and, without authorization, traveled to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia to present the signed petitions.
He presented the whistleblowers’ petitions setting forth their reasons why the First Commander of the U.S. Navy, Esek Hopkins, should be removed from his position. The man pointed to serious misconduct including the harsh mistreatment of British prisoners, but perhaps their most significant allegation was the threat to their belief in the Revolutionary cause. They explained how Hopkins had told the men, who were risking their lives to create a republic where all men were created equal, that his governing philosophy was that “all mankind” could be bought with money and for the lust of money they would perform “any action whatsoever.” The whistleblowers fundamentally rejected this view of humanity and feared his leadership would undermine the mission of the Revolution.
What unfolded in the winter of 1777 was a classic whistleblower exposure that would go on to be repeated throughout American history. We still see persons today, in service of the country, report misconduct committed at the highest levels of government. But what followed Grannis’s courageous testimony is even more remarkable because it set a precedent for how our nation would respond to these whistleblower reports going forward.
After reviewing the petitions, Congress initiated a series of actions that should inspire every American committed to the ideals of the Revolution of 1776 to rethink their opinions of whistleblowing. Instead of retaliating against the whistleblowers, Congress suspended Commander Hopkins, gave him the opportunity to rebut the claims, and later terminated his service when no defense was made.
Hopkins then turned around and engaged in the types of retaliation that even today’s whistleblowers all too often face. Of the 10 men, he tracked down two — Third Lieutenant Richard Marven and midshipmen Samuel Shaw — and had them arrested for criminal libel in his home state of Rhode Island, holding the men to high bail. From their Providence jail cell, the two captured whistleblowers wrote a letter to Congress pleading for help. Congress met again to consider the appropriate actions to take in response to the pleas of the jailed men.
On July 30, 1778, without any noted dissent, the Continental Congress sent a message that must resonate in today’s White House, Congress and courts. They passed what could very well be the world’s first explicit whistleblower law, and they did not stop there. They voted to release all of the petitions signed by the whistleblowers, many of which included information that was embarrassing to the U.S.