Happy National Whistleblower Appreciation Day!
It’s the 238th anniversary of the first whistleblower law that was passed by the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War. The law’s origins stem from ten U.S. Naval officers reporting the mistreatment of British prisoners by their commanding officer.
In early 1777, Midshipman Samuel Shaw, Third Lieutenant Richard Marven, and eight fellow sailors witnessed the torture of British prisoners of war by Commodore Esek Hopkins, who was then the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy. Aside from being the Navy’s top officer, Hopkins was also well-connected politically. Hopkins’ brother Stephen was governor of Shaw and Marven’s home state of Rhode Island and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence.
When the sailors reported the misconduct, Hopkins used his power to dismiss them from the Navy. After Hopkins himself was dismissed by the government, Hopkins went after Shaw and Marven since they were from Rhode Island and could be prosecuted under his brother’s government. Hopkins filed a criminal libel suit that resulted in both being jailed.
Shaw and Marven then petitioned their newly-formed government for protection for coming forward as whistleblowers. Only a week after the petition was read on July 23, 1778, the Continental Congress unanimously enacted the first whistleblower protection law on July 30, 1778. The law declared it:
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.
The law went further to pay for the whistleblowers’ representation in the libel suit, which Shaw and Marven won the following year.
In the more than two centuries that have followed, numerous whistleblower laws have been enacted protecting thousands of whistleblowers from retaliation while recovering billions in taxpayer dollars. On this July 30th, take a moment to appreciate all the whistleblowers who have risked their careers, and sometimes even jail, in order to report wrongdoing.