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U.S. Whistleblowers First Got Government Protection in 1777

September 26, 2019 in History

By Christopher Klein

The Founding Fathers passed the country’s first whistleblower protection law just seven months after signing the Declaration of Independence. The government even footed the legal bills.

The U.S. government has long made protecting whistleblowers a priority. In fact, just seven months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress passed what Allison Stanger, author of Whistleblowers: Honesty in America from Washington to Trump, called the “world’s first whistleblower protection law.”

The whistleblowers who sought protection were 10 American sailors and marines who had reported improper behavior by the Continental Navy’s most powerful man.

Having already answered the call of the new nation to take up arms against Great Britain, the officers gathered below the deck of the USS Warren on February 19, 1777 to sign a petition to the Continental Congress documenting abuses by their commander, Commodore Esek Hopkins. Lacking any legal protections for speaking out, the men understood that they could be branded as traitors for denouncing the highest-ranking American naval officer in the midst of war.

The brother of a former Rhode Island governor and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Hopkins had been appointed as the first commander in chief of the Continental Navy in December 1775. Although his brother was a member of the Continental Congress, Hopkins held the body in low regard and repeatedly defied its orders and blamed others for his failings.

“He has been guilty of such crimes as render him quite unfit for the public department he now occupies,” wrote the 10 petitioners, who worried that sailors would quit in service of their country if Hopkins remained in power. In addition to the petition, sailors detailed the commodore’s quick temper, misconduct and poor character in signed personal affidavits.

“I know him to be a man of no principles, and quite unfit for the important trust reposed in him,” wrote James Sellers, who accused Hopkins of cursing the marine committee of the Continental Congress as “a pack of damned fools” and treating “prisoners in a very unbecoming barbarous manner” in violation of orders that British captives be “well and humanely treated.” Chaplain John Reed echoed the complaints of “inhuman” treatment of prisoners and added that Hopkins was “remarkably addicted to profane swearing” and set “a most irreligious and impious example.”

United States Naval Admiral Esek Hopkins.

The Continental Congress Backs the Whistleblowers

Driven by what he …read more


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