The Revolutionary Roots of Modern Whistleblowing

Introduction: The Revolutionary Roots of Modern Whistleblowing


In the opening to Rules for Whistleblowers, Author Stephen Kohn recounts the story of the first known whistleblowers – ten sailors aboard the Warren warship – who unknowingly laid the foundation for current qui tam cases. Featuring Founding Father Samuel Adams and two other signers of the Declaration of Independence, this tale captures the essence of whistleblowing today: protecting yourself while trying to fight for what is right. Recounting this detailed history, Kohn explains how the whistleblowing efforts of these dedicated men paved the way for the First Congress of the United States to pass the first of eighteen qui tam laws. Whistleblowing is woven into the history of this country, and understanding this historical account will contextualize the later efforts of American lawmakers championing for further protections.

Foundations of Whistleblowing

  • Letters of Delegates to Congress, 17741789, Paul H. Smith, editor (Washington, DC: Library of Congress/Government Printing Office, 1976–2000);
  • Examination of John Grannis by subcommittee of the Marine Committee (Mar. 25, 1777);
  • Letter from Congress to Marven and Shaw (July 31, 1778) (transmitting resolution from Congress);
  • Letter dated September 19, 1785 from Samuel Adams to Shaw discussing payment of attorney fees and costs, online at The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1785.

Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1908)

  • Vol. VII, p. 202 (report from Marine Committee after examination of Grannis), p. 204 (suspension of Hopkins);
  • Vol. X, p. 13 (dismissal of Hopkins);
  • Vol. XI, p. 713 and 732 (first resolution of the United States declaring “duty of all persons” to disclose “earliest information” of “misconduct” to “proper authority;”pp. 732–33 (vote to pay Warren whistleblowers’ “reasonable expenses” and to release documents concerning Hopkins to the whistleblowers);
  • Vol. XIV, p. 627 (approved payment of “fourteen hundred and eighteen dollars and 9/90” for the defense of whistleblowers Shaw and Marven). Congress directed that the fee be paid to Samuel Adams for his services, and Adams was required to pay attorney William Channing).

The Warren sailors originally approached a member of the Continental Congress, Robert Treat Paine, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a delegate from Taunton, Massachusetts. Paine was a well-known attorney who had led the prosecution of the British soldiers who had killed colonists during the Boston Massacre. Paine advised the whistleblowers to file their concerns directly with Congress, and apparently recommended that the whistleblowers work with Samuel Adams. See Grannis to Paine (Feb. 11, 1777).

See Letters of Delegates to Congress, explanatory note to Letter from Grannis to Marine Committee dated March 25, 1777.

The recognition by the Founders of the United States that “courage” stood behind those willing to report wrongdoing and exercise their freedom of speech is highlighted in the landmark concurring opinion of Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927).

Information on Esek Hopkins

John G. Coyle, “The Suspension of Esek Hopkins, Commander of the Revolutionary Navy, XXI Journal of the American Irish Historical Society 193 (1922) (reprints original petition from the Warren sailors and the individual statements each of the sailors had delivered to Congress).

Edward Field, Esek Hopkins, Commander-in-chief of the Continental Navy during the American Revolution, 1775–1778, Master Mariner, Politician, Brigadier-General, Naval Officer and Philanthropist (Preston & Rounds: Providence, 1898).

Hopkins’ role as the commander of the notorious slave ship “Sally” is fully discussed in the Brown University report on the role of the University in the slave trade. Aboard the Sally conditions were abysmal and the slaves rose in rebellion. As Hopkins reported:

“Slaves Rose on us Was obliged fire on them and Destroyed 8 and Several more wounded badly.”

Thereafter, conditions on board continued to deteriorate, and Hopkins discussed the death of his human cargo:

“Some Drowned themselves, Some Starved and other Sickened and Dyed.”

All told, 109 slaves died aboard the Sally. James Campbell’s Navigating the Past: Brown University and the Voyage of the Slave Ship Sally, 1764-65.

A full list of the qui tam reward laws enacted by the First Congress of the United States are listed in the Testimony of Stephen M. Kohn before the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, hearing on “Restoring the Power of the Purse: Legislative Options” (Dec. 1, 2016).

These early laws were cited to by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in his decision upholding the constitutionality of the False Claims Act’s qui tam whistleblower reward law. See Vermont Agency of Natural Resources v. U.S. ex rel. Stevens, 529 U.S. 765 (2000).

Since the history of America’s first whistleblowers was uncovered and recounted in first edition of The Whistleblower’s Handbook (Lyons Press, 2011)the U.S. Congress and numerous executive agencies, scholars, and public interest organizations have recognized the importance of the Continental Congress’ first whistleblower law, and the courage of the ten sailors and marines who stepped forward.

Every year since 2013 the U.S. Senate has unanimously passed a resolution recognizing July 30th as National Whistleblower Appreciation Day. See Senate Resolution 324 (117th Congress).

Numerous executive agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, Department of Labor, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Homeland Security, and the Director of National Intelligence have all recognized National Whistleblower Appreciation Day with public events and on-line statements of support.

Frequently Asked Questions

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All purchases or donations proceeds go to support the National Whistleblower Center, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to supporting whistleblowers.

What's Inside

This books covers all federal and state laws regarding whistleblowing, including protections, rewards, and procedures for whistleblowing.

Meet the Author

Stephen M. Kohn is considered the world’s leading authority on international whistleblower law, and behind some of todays modern whistleblower rules.

Introduction: The Revolutionary Roots of Modern Whistleblowing

Law Library

The Law Library is a free companion to the Rules for Whistleblowers, complete with relevant whistleblower cases and important links and resources.

Speaking Engagement

Stephen Kohn enjoys speaking to universities of all sizes, students and professionals, the media, general public, and government officials.

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