At the dawn of the United States, before the Constitution, and more than 240 years before a U.S. intelligence source filed a whistle-blower complaint against President Donald Trump, Americans clearly understood the damage that high-ranking government officials can do if they use their public authority for private gain.
Esek Hopkins, a Rhode Island slave runner who became the commander in chief of the first United States Navy, was the catalyst for America’s first whistle-blower-protection law, which Congress passed on July 30, 1778. With this congressional support, members of his crew—long-forgotten men with names such as Richard Marven and Samuel Shaw—gave testimony that brought down Commodore Hopkins, ostensibly for the crime of torturing British prisoners of war. Archival research, however, reveals a more complicated story. Rather than serving the new United States in the American Revolution, Hopkins served himself. He repeatedly defied General George Washington’s orders for where and when to engage the British during the war when they conflicted with his self-interest. Rhode Island elites were addicted to the illegal slave trade, and that corruption was at odds with the ideals of the new republic and the state’s own laws.
Unlike Esek Hopkins—and Trump—the nation’s Founders understood corruption to be a threat to liberty and democracy itself. Recently, a still-unidentified whistle-blower within the U.S. intelligence community reported witnessing events of “urgent concern” that the community’s inspector general said should be disclosed to Congress. The acting director of national intelligence refused to turn over the information. Leaks suggest that the president withheld military aid to Ukraine in an attempt to pressure that country’s leader into digging up dirt on Joe Biden, one of the Democrats seeking to unseat Trump in 2020. Trump has described the accusation as a “Democrat/Crooked Media con.”
But, far from casting aspersions on whistle-blowers—for instance, by dismissing them as unpatriotic partisans—Congress has always recognized the need to protect people within government who have the courage to tell the truth about their superiors. Corrupt or even treasonous acts may never come to light unless someone speaks up.
Rhode Island passed the first colonial antislavery statute in 1652, abolishing African slavery and stating that “black mankinde,” just like white mankind, could not be indentured for more than 10 years. But the law was never enforced. After the Revolution, Rhode Island merchants controlled 60 to 90 percent of the American trade in enslaved Africans.
Hopkins acquired much of his transatlantic-sailing experience on those slave ships, including captaining and provisioning the 1764–65 voyage of the Sally for Nicholas Brown and Company, a Providence merchant-shipping firm. Brown and Company was owned by four brothers, Nicholas, John, Joseph, and Moses. With Hopkins in command, the Sally set sail for West Africa on September 11, 1764, laden with more than 17,274 gallons of New England rum. The Browns had instructed him to sail to the windward coast of Africa, “dispose of your Cargo for slaves,” and then sail to Barbados or any other suitable port in the West Indies and sell the captives; the proceeds from the sale of Africans would be used to fill the emptied hold with molasses and sugar for Rhode Island’s booming rum industry. Hopkins was to return to Providence with four young slaves for the Brown family’s own use. In payment, he would receive the “privilege” of 10 slaves to sell for himself, as well as the standard captain’s compensation of four slaves for every 104 he delivered alive.
It was not that Rhode Islanders—at least some of them—didn’t know slavery was wrong. A decade after the Sally’s voyage in 1774, the Rhode Island General Assembly prohibited the further importation of slaves to Rhode Island. In 1787, the state made it illegal for Rhode Islanders to participate in the slave trade anywhere, the first such ban of its kind in the United States. Enforcing such laws, however, stood in direct conflict with powerful citizens’ economic interests.
Rhode Island’s slave runners, meanwhile, had become some of the emerging nation’s most experienced mariners. In December 1775, Esek Hopkins was named commander in chief of the new Continental Navy—an appointment engineered, in part, by Rhode Island’s social elite, in which his own family was prominent. The new Navy addressed the need for a more unified force than the privateers General Washington had hired to back up his Continental Army, who ultimately answered to the profit motive rather than to General Washington. The new force, starting with four vessels authorized by an October 1775 appropriation, would answer solely to the Continental Congress. From the start, its officer ranks were dominated by Rhode Islanders.
There were disputes from the start over how the Navy was to be deployed. The southerners were having trouble with British raiders and wanted to see an initial engagement in the Chesapeake Bay. Hopkins received his first orders from Congress on January 5, 1776, to clear the southern coasts and then sail north to do the same in Narragansett Bay. But Hopkins had other plans. Disregarding Congress entirely, he took the fleet south to the island of New Providence in the Bahamas, without engaging the British at all until he reached Nassau. Finding the British garrison undermanned, he seized more than 100 cannons. Then he headed home. On April 4, he also captured two British vessels off the eastern end of Long Island, as well as two merchant vessels bound from New York to London the following day; the latter two were taken as prizes. His renegade mission appeared wildly profitable.
At midnight on April 6, however, Hopkins’s luck changed. Sailing near Block Island, his fleet encountered the HMS Glasgow. Despite the Navy’s overwhelming superiority, the Glasgow managed to elude capture and escape to Newport, leaving 11 Americans dead and 17 wounded. The entire Continental Navy had failed to defeat a 20-gun British frigate.
Commodore Hopkins met with General Washington on April 8 in New London, Connecticut, the first meeting of the two commanders. It did not go well. Washington wanted to coordinate Navy operations with the Army. Hopkins had other priorities and instead took his fleet back home to Providence. Washington would fight the British alone in New York, just as he had in Boston.
Hopkins was roundly criticized for the Glasgow fiasco and for the insubordination that led to it. Rather than take responsibility for his own choices, Hopkins blamed his own brother-in-law, Abraham Whipple, captain of the Columbus, and John Hazard, captain of the Providence. Both were court-martialed for the Glasgow debacle.
Congress was not pleased with Hopkins, either. On May 8, 1776, the legislature appointed a special committee headed by John Adams to investigate his behavior. “I saw nothing in the conduct of Hopkins, which indicated corruption or want of integrity,” wrote Adams in his autobiography. Thomas Jefferson, however, saw the matter differently. In his personal brief in preparation for the inquiry, he noted that Hopkins’s suspicious conduct had continued after his return, because the Continental Navy “has merely acted in defence of trade of Eastern colonies … The objection is [not] that he did not exercise an honest discretion in departing from his instructions but that he never did intend to obey them.”
In addition to ignoring the needs of his compatriots, Hopkins was accused of favoring Rhode Island in distributing the spoils. Congress had ordered him to turn over all of the captured cannons to Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut, but Hopkins again defied orders and sent some of them to the governor of Rhode Island, who was an old friend of his. On May 30, Congress intervened, ordering that six cannons be returned from Newport and 14 from New London.
Outrage at Hopkins’s self-serving maneuvers reached its apex in February 1777, when he defied Congress yet again by issuing counterorders to Joseph Olney, who had replaced John Hopkins as captain of the Cabot. Congress had wanted Olney to report immediately for a multi-ship mission under the direction of John Paul Jones. Hopkins instead ordered Olney to complete a six-week cruise already in progress. His defiance of congressional authority fatally undermined the loyalty of his crew. On February 19, 1777, 10 officers of the Warren delivered a petition to Congress demanding his removal from command. Hopkins, they wrote, was guilty of defying congressional orders on multiple occasions, and was responsible for the Glasgow fiasco. He also had deficiencies of character that rendered him unfit for command of the Continental Navy.
Once he became aware of the “plot” against him, Hopkins tried to cast doubt on his critics. One of the signers of the complaint, Marven, was tried by court-martial aboard the Providence on April 3, 1777 (before the news of Hopkins’s suspension had reached the commodore). Marven was found guilty of insubordination, which rendered him “unworthy of holding a Commission in the American Navy.”
But there was blood in the water, and public criticism of Hopkins mounted. In a letter to John Adams on May 19, 1777, the minuteman Joseph Ward lamented America’s “sleepy navy” under Hopkins. John Paul Jones, now promoted to the rank of admiral, wrote to the American commissioners in France (who were procuring guns and ships for the war effort against England) on December 5, 1777, complaining that the jealousy of “the then Commodore Hopkins” had deprived him of the ships he needed to fulfill an order from Congress. Hopkins’s crew blew the whistle on his character. Hopkins’s peers focused on his insubordination, which they saw as having compromised the war effort.
In bringing charges against Commodore Hopkins, the 10 officers who signed the complaint were upholding principles that had been delineated in Congress’s original “Orders and Directions for the Commander in Chief of the Fleet of the United Colonies,” which stipulated that prisoners of war be “well and humanely treated.” The orders also urged commanders to promote and protect whistle-blowers: “You will … very carefully attend to all the just complaints which may be made by any of the People under your Command and see that they are speedily and effectually Redressed … for on a careful attention to these important Subjects the good of the service essentially depends.”
Several months later, on January 2, 1778, Congress dismissed Hopkins from “the service of the United States.” Enraged at having been undercut by his inferiors, Hopkins retaliated by filing a criminal libel suit against the 10 petitioners. Richard Marven and Samuel Shaw had the misfortune of being residents of Rhode Island, where the Hopkins family was powerful. Of the 10, they were the only ones jailed. They again turned to the Continental Congress for justice, and again they were vindicated: Congress ruled that Marven and Shaw should be released. But the legislators went even further; on July 30, 1778, they passed the world’s first whistle-blower-protection law. America’s public servants were obligated to report wrongdoing in government whenever they encountered it.
Congress did not stop at extolling whistleblowing as an expression of American values. It went on to protect whistle-blowers from retaliation. Despite being at war and strapped for resources, Congress paid Marven’s and Shaw’s legal fees, a sum of $1,418—no insignificant amount, given that the first issue of continental currency, in 1775, was just $2 million. Congress clearly considered it crucial to support whistle-blowers, because it also passed a law ensuring that future whistle-blowers would have legal counsel to fight libel charges, just as Marven and Shaw did. Finally, it authorized all records related to Hopkins’s removal to be released to the public, which is why this story can be told today.
Congress did not pass the first whistle-blower-protection law or pay Marven’s and Shaw’s legal fees solely to stand against torturing prisoners of war. The group of 10 and others blew the whistle on abuse of power and disrespect for the newly independent United States of America. For that union to be viable, Rhode Island corruption could not prevail against the authority of the Continental Congress. A union of free and equal states and a collective commitment to the rights of individuals within that new entity were necessary if the new republic was to put down sturdy roots. What was at stake was no less than the authority of Congress and the supremacy of the people over special interests.
Like Hopkins, Trump is betting that his own authority and the support of his political allies will be enough to keep him from facing any consequences for his actions. As they did in the revolutionary era, Congress and the American people have the power to act on principle and condemn corruption at odds with American ideals. Inherited privilege and entitlement are inconsistent with self-government. Whistle-blowers kept and keep us focused on that simple truth.
This article was adapted from Whistleblowers: Honesty in America from Washington to Trump.