America’s First Whistleblowers were its Founding Fathers

US Naval whistleblower officers aboard the USS Warren
US Naval whistleblower officers aboard the USS Warren

America’s very first whistleblowers were not the British, but actually 10 American naval officers during the Revolutionary War.  They bravely reported improper behavior by the Continental Navy’s most powerful officer, their superior, to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.  In February 1777, those 10 men secretly gathered below deck on the USS Warren to sign a petition documenting numerous abuses by their commander, Commodore Esek Hopkins.

They understood all too well they could be branded by congress and the people as Traitors, rather than Patriots. Hopkins had been appointed the 1st Commander of the Continental Navy in 1775. And they knew he possessed powerful connections in Philadelphia. His brother Stephen was a well-known signer of the Declaration of Independence! They wrote collectively:

He is guilty of such crimes as to render him unfit for the command he now occupies.

The officers then detailed the commodore’s misconduct and poor character in personal affidavits. They worried sailors under him would quit serving their new country.  They detailed how a key British warship had eluded capture through Hopkins’ incompetence.

‘We know him to be a man of no principles, and quite unfit for the important trust given him.’

Commodore Hopkins himself held the Continental Congress in low regard and repeatedly defied its orders. 

The men accused him of cursing the Founding Fathers as ‘a pack of damned fools’ and treating British prisoners in an inhumane, barbarous manner. This was in direct violation of General George Washington’s orders that British captives be ‘well and humanely treated.

Hopkins conversation is at times so wild, and orders so unsteady, that we have thought he was not in his senses.’

So that night, Marine Captain John Grannis left his post on the Warren, which was docked at the time at Providence, RI. He rode his horse 235 miles over several days to Philadelphia to deliver the petition and affidavits directly to the new Continental Congress. It was a risky move for an officer who had basically just jumped ship.

The Continental Congress called Captain Grannis himself to testify. ‘It is generally feared on board the fleet that his commands would be so imprudent that the ships could be foolishly lost.’ Grannis reported how British prisoners had been placed in irons and held back from prisoner exchanges.

The Founding Fathers took all the accusations seriously and voted to relieve Hopkins of command.

Three of the 10 whistle-blowers felt obligated to meet with Commodore Hopkins while Grannis was away, and inform him of their petition and affidavits. Hopkins learned 3rd Lieutenant Richard Marvin had been the lead officer who organized the complaints against him. He had Marvin tried aboard his ship and court-martialed in April 1777.

Hopkins never bothered to give the Continental Congress a rebuttal to the whistleblowers’ accusations. But when he was formally dismissed from the Navy, he filed a criminal libel lawsuit against his 10 accusers, with damages set at £10,000. Only Marvin and another officer, Samuel Shaw, were arrested – the rest were still on duty at sea.

The 2 defendants turned to Congress for help as they were not wealthy men, but firmly believed they were doing their duty as naval officers. The president of Congress informed them that reasonable expenses for their defense would be providedThey also authorized the public release of records relating to Commodore Hopkin’s removal. 

The president enclosed a copy of a law just passed by Congress, the first Whistleblower Protection Act. 

Resolved, that it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States, to give the earliest information to Congress or other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by persons in the service of these States,

US Whistleblower Protection Act

It was approved unanimously in July 1778.  Marven and Shaw prevailed in court, and the Continental Congress kept their promise and paid all their legal bills.

Nearly a century later comes a second example.  During the US Civil War, the Union army relied heavily on private contractors for basic necessities like uniforms, shoes, rifles and gunpowder. Some of those contractors were unscrupulous profiteers, often cutting dangerous corners and providing substandard products.

Some contractors even went so far as to sell the army rifles that wouldn’t fire and gunpowder mixed with sawdust.

Soldiers complained about moth-eaten blankets and thin wool uniforms that would rot in the damp rain.  Corrupt defense contractors sold the Union Army spoiled rations that gave soldiers in the field scurvy and dysentery.  They provided horses that were wasted, lame, and in some cases even blind!  

Statue of Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln welcomed whistleblowers

War profiteering and outright criminal fraud crippled both the Union and Confederate armies. ‘You can sell anything to the government at any price,’ boasted one crook who made millions. During the war, the government didn’t have enough inspectors to ferret out all the fraud, so Congress came up with a novel idea. It would provide an incentive for employees to turn in their own companies.

Congress wrote the False Claims Bill in the winter of 1863. The whistleblowers, then called ‘relators,’ could sue a contractor on behalf of the US, if they had personal proof of the scam. If successful, plaintiffs were entitled to receive HALF the money recovered. The FCA’s sponsor was Senator Jacob Howard of Michigan.  He strongly believed that paying rewards to whistleblowers was the best way to uncover the largest fraudulent schemes.

President Abraham Lincoln strongly advocated passage of the False Claims Act.

It contained qui tam provisions that allowed private citizens to sue, on the government’s behalf, companies or individuals that were defrauding the federal government. Qui tam is short for a Latin phrase meaning “he who brings an action for the state as well as for himself.” Congress passed, and Lincoln signed, the FALSE CLAIMS ACT in March 1863. It proved effective at protecting US interests and hold those who stole from the US liable.

Decades later, the False Claims Act would allow whistleblowers in the defense industry to come forward. And it worked just as well against drug manufacturers, power companies, and big tobacco.  These led to the more famous, recent whistleblowers of the last few decades. These include such well-known names as:

  • Daniel Ellsberg – 1971 – leaked the Vietnam War Pentagon Papers
  • W. Mark Felt – 1972 – Watergate’s infamous Deep Throat in the FBI
  • Karen Silkwood – 1974 – Kerr McGee nuclear plant, later mysteriously killed
  • Jeffrey Wigand – 1996 – Brown and Williamson tobacco company
  • Sherron Watkins – 2002 – Enron Corporation financial scandal
  • John Kopchinski, 2009 – Pfizer Pharmaceuticals painkiller expose

And of course, the Whistleblower saga continues with today’s more modern Washington scandals, conspiracies, and ‘witch hunts,’ whether Republican or Democrat.  It takes both courage and a strong sense patriotism for such people to step forward, for regardless of their legal protection, they are rarely received well.

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LOST IN HISTORY Blog/Podcast about key forgotten history still relevant in today's world. Paul Andrews also has 5 historical adventure novels, all available on Amazon.

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