A Brief History of Whistleblowing Law

Whistleblowers may feel like modern heroes, but the laws that protect them are as old as the United States.

The very first American whistleblower law was passed on July 30th, 1778 — during the height of the American Revolution. Just months after the Declaration of Independence was signed, ten members of the Continental Navy met aboard the U.S. warship Warren to discuss the misdeeds of their commander, Commodore Esek Hopkins.

Meeting in secret, the sailors were trying to decide what to do about Hopkins’ distressing behavior at sea. Hopkins was a wealthy former slave-runner and member of the Rhode Island elite. When he became the first commodore of the U.S. Navy, Hopkins brought the habits of his old profession with him, disturbing the sailors with his war profiteering and the torture of the British war prisoners aboard the ship.

Knowing that they would face retaliation, the ten members bravely decided to blow the whistle on their Navy Commander. In a petition known now as the “Letter from the Warren Sailors,” the sailors wrote to Congress and asked for an investigation. They wrote that the commodore was “guilty of such crimes that render him quite unfit for the public department he now occupies” and that he “treated prisoners in a unbecoming barbarous manner.”

In response, the Continental Congress supported the whistleblowers and dismissed the commander. However, the commander retaliated, using his power and connections among the Rhode Island slave-running elite to sue the whistleblowers for criminal libel. The two whistleblowers from Rhode Island, Samuel Shaw and Richard Marven, were thrown in jail.

To plead their case, Shaw and Marven wrote a letter to Congress, saying that they were “arrested for doing what they then believed and still believe was nothing but their duty.” After receiving the letter, Congress intervened, declaring that the two whistleblowers should be released. Congress even covered the two whistleblowers’ legal fees.

Their intention was clear: “it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States, as well as all other the inhabitants thereof, to give the earliest information to Congress or 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.”

But the Founding Fathers didn’t stop there. In July 1778, they unanimously passed the very first whistleblower law, determining that it is “the duty of every inhabitant of the US” to report corruption and misconduct.

Since then, the United States has developed a robust set of laws designed to protect and reward whistleblowers. With this first law to pave the way, the United States became the world leader in whistleblower laws.

While whistleblowers may rely on more modern protections like anonymity, anti-retaliation, and rewards today, America’s first whistleblower law will always serve as an important reminder of the bravery and patriotism that motivates whistleblowers. It contains almost all three of these provisions, restoring Shaw and Marvin to their freedom as an act rejecting Hopkins’ retaliation against them and rewarding them with legal fees and a new law. The whistleblowers acted, in their own words, “with an earnest desire and a fixed expectation of doing our country Some Service.”

Today, whistleblowers continue to advance this meaningful legacy by risking retaliation to blow the whistle on fraud, corruption, and abuses of power. This is why the National Whistleblower Center celebrates whistleblowers past, present, and future. To celebrate with us, RSVP and participate in National Whistleblower Day on July 30, 2021.

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National Whistleblower Center

National Whistleblower Center is the leading nonprofit working with whistleblowers around the world to fight corruption and protect people and the environment.