The US passed the first whistleblower law in 1777
In February 1777, two naval officers, Third Lieutenant Richard Marven and Midshipman Samuel Shaw, were growing concerned that their unruly captain was hell-bent on causing the self-destruction of their vessel, the USS Warren.
“Bastards!” Commodore Esek Hopkins yelled with impunity. The two men particularly hated the Commodore’s affinity for swearing, though they dared not speak out against their commander, breaking the chain of command.
“Weren’t our orders to not torture British prisoners?” Marven and Shaw pondered introspectively, as the ship lay anchored in the waters outside of Rhode Island.
This question posed a dilemma to the devoted men: Should they ignore their orders from John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, or defy their captain’s orders?
Perhaps mutiny was considered, but for them, the bigger concern was that the crew would desert, leaving the fledgling Continental Navy with one less fighting ship.
Grumblings among the crew were growing to a boiling point. Commodore Hopkins had appalled his men by torturing British prisoners of war, failing to attack a British frigate in their vicinity, and not moving his ship to Boston Harbor, all of which were ordered by the Continental Congress.
Given these transgressions, Marven and Shaw decided to hold an officers meeting below deck, sans Commodore Hopkins.
What came from that meeting was a petition signed by 10 brave men. Each signed their name and wrote a brief description of their complaint.
The document was then smuggled off the ship by one of the petitioners, Captain John Grannis, and delivered to the Continental Congress, 250-miles away in Philadelphia.
Much respected gentlemen, We, who present this petition, engaged on board the ship Warren [sic], with as earnest desire and fixed expectations of doing our country Some Service.”
This is where things got dicey for the “mutineers,” especially Marven and Shaw, who had no idea the magnitude of what they had just done.
Not only were there no laws to protect them from breaching the chain of command, but Commodore Hopkins was no ordinary sea captain — he was the Commander of the entire Continental Navy.
Commodore Hopkins came from one of the most prominent families in Rhode Island — influential enough for his brother to have signed the Declaration of Independence.
When the Continental Congress effectively declared war on Britain, it was Hopkins they called upon to serve.
He had been something of a hero in the early months of the American Revolution, conducting successful rais on British strongholds in the Bahamas.
Even though Hopkins’ tactics in the Bahamas were highly praised (by Continental luminaries like John Paul Jones and Benjamin Franklin), when he had trouble enlisting men for his fleet, his political opponents turned against him.
It appears he may have been the victim of a policy that encouraged would-be sailors to pass on joining the American fleet in favor of becoming privateers.
Privateers got to keep whatever they plundered from the British, whereas Navy boats, under the command of Congress, had to turn over their plunder to the government to aid in the war effort.
Hopkins blamed this policy on the fact that he had been given command of no less than eight warships but failed to recruit a crew for his fleet.
His accomplishments in the Bahamas were discredited, his swearing and poor character were becoming a problem, but when his men turned up with a formal complaint against him, Congress received the news with mixed reactions.
Sources say that John Adams gave an impassioned defense of Commodore Hopkins, but in the end, Congress felt that his actions and his character were unbecoming of a man who was supposed to command the entire fleet, and recalled his commission on Jan. 2, 1778.
Commodore Hopkins cursed the Continental Congress, “They are a pack of damned fools!” He said. “ If I should follow their direction, the whole country will be ruined.”
That’s when the commodore did something highly controversial — he had Marven and Shaw thrown in jail. The colony of Rhode Island was all too happy to lay charges on the two men who besmirched the commodore, who was so admired in their community.
By leveling a libel suit against the two men, they were subject to the full brunt of colonial law.
Congress was appalled. Marven and Shaw had acted in good faith, for the better of the country, and now they were about to be punished severely for doing the right thing.
But there was nothing in place to help them, no law to save them, and Congress had to decide if they were going to let this happen. On July 30, 1778, they acted. They passed a resolution that read:
It is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States, as well as all other inhabitants thereof, to give the earliest information to Congress or any other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states, which may come to their knowledge.”
As the US moved in the coming years to establish a government with checks and balances, and an executive branch that was not above the law like the monarchs in Europe, they established a precedent that is very much in play today, right at this very moment.
But different from today’s whistleblower that caused the current impeachment proceedings against President Trump, Marven and Shaw were not protected from the law. The spent time in Rhode Island prison, while the Continental Congress footed the bill for their legal defense.
After months of being incarcerated, and a $1,418 legal bill later, Marven and Shaw were acquitted of the charges. As for Commodore Hopkins, he returned to Rhode Island where he continued to serve in the state’s General Assembly.
To ensure they acted in good faith, the Continental Congress released all records regarding their decision to remove Commodore Hopkins from his command.
Otherwise, we would’ve never known about these events, as now we can see for ourselves, that whistleblower protection, and checks and balances, are at the heart of the principles in which the United States of America was founded.