Share This Article

Risking all to expose corruption and crime is deeply rooted in the American ethos. Long before the likes of Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden, a small group of Revolutionary War sailors took great chances to report misdeeds to the Continental Congress

In February 1777 Captain of Marines John Grannis furtively departed the frigate near Providence, R.I., and made his way to Philadelphia to deliver a petition to the Marine Committee of the Continental Congress. It was a risky destination for an officer who had just jumped ship, but young Grannis had been chosen for the job. The petition, signed by him and nine other men aboard Warren, then anchored Warren, alleged that Commodore Esek Hopkins, head of the Continental Navy, was unfit to lead. In accompanying affidavits the sailors and Marines charged that a British warship had eluded capture through Hopkins’ incompetence; that he had been “barbarous” to prisoners; that he had spoken disrespectfully about the Congress; and, in the words of the chaplain, John Reed, he was “remarkably addicted to profane swearing” and regularly took the name of God in vain.

The Marine Committee agreed to investigate and called Grannis to testify. “It is generally feared on board the feet as well as those ashore that his commands would be so imprudent that the ships would be foolishly lost, or that he would forego opportunities of getting to sea, or attempt it when impractical,” Grannis stated in support of the charge that Hopkins was a “hindrance” in manning the feet. Regarding alleged mistreatment of prisoners, Grannis reported that some of them had been placed in irons for refusing to do “ship’s duty” and some had been held back from a prisoner exchange because Hopkins, desperate for crewmen, wanted them to enlist in the American navy. Near the end of his testimony, Grannis was asked whether he had obtained permission to leave the frigate. “No,” he said. “I came to Philadelphia at the request of the officers who signed the petition against Commodore Hopkins, and from a zeal for the American cause.” Grannis was not censured for this infraction; rather, the complaints were swiftly forwarded to the Continental Congress, which voted to relieve Hopkins of his command.

The fall of America’s first naval commander was only partly caused by the actions of Grannis and his shipmates, America’s first whistleblowers. Hopkins’ relationship with Congress had been acrimonious for most of his 15 months in high command. His appointment itself smacked of partisan politics, since his older brother, Stephen Hopkins, a former governor of Rhode Island and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, sat on the committee that had commissioned him. Still, Hopkins had proven to be a brave fighter during the French and Indian War, and as a merchant captain he had sailed around the world. Before commanding the Continental Navy, Hopkins was a brigadier general in charge of all of Rhode Island’s military forces, which included a small feet. But an American navy was without precedent, and its first leader was bound to stumble. The colonies along the Atlantic produced many fine seamen, and their training and experience “made them the best sort of raw material for an efficient naval force,” noted maritime historian Gardner Weld Allen, but “the lack of true naval tradition…and of military discipline, and the poverty of the country, imposed limitations which, together with the overwhelming force of the enemy, seriously restricted the field of enterprise.”

The feasibility of a colonial naval force had been hotly debated in Congress. Proponents such as John Adams and Benjamin Franklin clashed with skeptics such as Maryland’s Samuel Chase, who believed it “the maddest idea in the world to think of building an American feet. . . . We should mortgage the whole continent.” But most delegates saw the value in some sort of maritime power, and on October 30, 1775, Congress appointed a Naval Committee to supervise the creation of the first feet: two sloops, two schooners and four merchant vessels refitted as warships.

Hopkins was commissioned as commander on December 22, 1775, at age 57. On January 5, 1776, he received orders to sail to the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and dispatch a small recon vessel to assess the enemy’s strength. If it wasn’t “greatly superiour”to his own, Hopkins was to “search out and attack, take or destroy all the Naval force of our Enemies.” If successful, he would conduct similar raids in North and South Carolina, then sail to Rhode Island to complete the purge. Should some accident or disaster alter these plans, Hopkins was to decide the next move: “Follow such Courses as your best Judgment shall Suggest to you.” The feet was scheduled to depart in mid-January,but the icy waters of Philadelphia’s Delaware River were not navigable until February 17, when it finally set sail. A dockside crowd roared as a yellow banner rose above the flagship Alfred.Fluttering in the wind, the banner bore the image of a coiled rattlesnake above the words “Don’t Tread On Me.”

Once upon the open sea, Hopkins’ “best Judgment” kept the feet clear of Virginia and the Carolinas and headed toward the balmy waters of the Bahamas. Intelligence officers had informed him of a stockpile of British guns and ammunition in a poorly guarded fort on the island of New Providence. As expected, the feet encountered little resistance in confiscating the stash. It took two weeks to lade the cache of cannons, mortars, shells, hand grenades, gunpowder and other munitions desperately needed for the cause. Good fortune followed them to the east coast of Long Island, where they captured two British vessels, a schooner and a bomb brig, both stocked with valuable provisions. But the winning streak ended on April 6, with a surprise encounter with Glasgow, a 20-gun British frigate carrying 150 men. Cabot, a two-master commanded by John Hopkins, Esek’s son, fired the first broadside, but Glasgow pummeled the smaller vessel. With Cabot now silent and adrift, Alfred joined the fight, with Esek Hopkins in charge and John Paul Jones commanding a 9-pounder cannon crew on the lower deck. Alfred put up an able fight until its wheel block and tiller ropes were shot of. Despite engagements with Hopkins’ other ships, the battered Glasgow escaped into the Atlantic.

Notwithstanding this unfortunate incident, Hopkins was feted as a hero. John Hancock, president of Congress, wrote him a letter expressing the gratitude of that body “in whose Name I beg leave to congratulate you on the Success of your Expedition.” But real concerns about the commodore soon replaced the fanfare. He had, after all, utterly ignored his orders to sweep through the Chesapeake Bay and the Carolinas. And while two of his captains were court-martialed over the escape of Glasgow, Hopkins remained unscathed. Furthermore, as idle weeks passed after its maiden voyage, the Continental Navy failed to adequately man its ships.


On August 12, 1776, Hopkins appeared before the Marine Committee (the new incarnation of the Naval Committee) to account for his record, most specifically his disregard for the orders to attack southern ports. The British had increased their military might in Virginia and the Carolinas, he stated, and his small feet could not have overtaken them. This was true, since Hopkins’ orders had become known to British intelligence and squadrons had been dispatched to abort his mission. But Hopkins had not mentioned that in his original report, and Congress voted to censure him. “It appeared to me that the Commodore was pursued and persecuted by that anti–New England spirit which haunted Congress in many of their proceedings,” wrote John Adams, who had argued in Hopkins’ defense. “I saw nothing in the conduct of Hopkins which indicated corruption or want of integrity. Experience and skill might have been deficient in several particulars: but where could we find greater experience or skill? I knew of none to be found.”

Soon afterward, as if to mitigate the censure, Congress authorized Hopkins to refit the schooner he had captured of Long Island and name it Hopkins. It was to sail on his next mission to destroy British fisheries in Newfoundland and disrupt British trade in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. But Hopkins could not round up enough men even to begin the expedition.

Competition for able seamen came from American privateers—armed private vessels authorized to capture or destroy enemy ships. Typically, sailors aboard privateers shared in the prize money from the sale of captured ships, a practice that paid better than service in the regular Navy. Hopkins appealed to the General Assembly of Rhode Island, seeking an embargo on privateering, at least until his feet was manned. The measure lost by two votes, “owing to a number of the members being deeply concerned in privateering,” he wrote. Hopkins had sailed a privateer during the French and Indian War; during peacetime he had commanded commercial ships for local business titans who now profited from privateering. Once considered a colleague, Hopkins was now at odds with such men,including the Brown brothers, Nicholas, Joseph and John,prominent Rhode Island business and political figures who were members of a committee engaged in the construction of two naval frigates. Hopkins accused the committee of abusing its spending privileges to benefit privateers, and all of its members resigned after a rebuke from the Marine Committee.

Travel plans for the Continental Navy were dashed on December 7, 1776, when 18 British warships and convoys carrying 7,000 troops sailed into Narragansett Bay, R.I., where Hopkins’ feet lay at anchor in the Providence River. Newport fell to the enemy with little resistance; inclement weather prevented that happening in Providence. “I have got the ships in the best position of defense we can make them,” Hopkins wrote to the Marine Committee. “If we get the ships manned, shall take some favourable opportunity and attempt getting to sea…but at present think we are of more service here than at sea without we were manned.”

On January 2, 1777, Hopkins was informed that a British frigate, Diamond, was stranded on a shoal between Providence and Newport. Hopkins and his men approached on a sloop, since the waters were too shallow to float a large ship.They opened fire, and a nearby fort seconded their salvos with cannon blasts. But the fort soon ran out of ammunition, the winds turned to turbulent gales and the waters rose enough for enemy warships to join the battle. As had Glasgow, Diamond sailed off to safety. A Boston prize agent who had ridden on the sloop as a volunteer sent his account of events to the Marine Committee. He depicted Hopkins as an incompetent old coot.Who couldn’t capture a wounded frigate stranded in the sand?

Around the time of Grannis’ arrival in Philadelphia, three of the 10 Warren whistleblowers met with Hopkins and informed him of the petition and affidavits. Midshipman Samuel Shaw, Chaplain John Reed and Master Roger Haddock confessed that they had acted under the influence of “some gentlemen of the town,” the town being Providence, which lay a little north of the feet. They signed statements disavowing their earlier affidavits, which Hopkins forwarded to William Ellery, a Rhode Island delegate to Congress, along with a letter. He alerted Ellery to “some paper or Petition greatly to my disadvantage: which they were persuaded to by some Gent of this Town, I suppose the Owners of the Privateers, who I am sorry to say are greatly prejudiced against me. . . . And as for Captain Grannis who I understand is gone to you with it, I am well persuaded he never has been on board the ship three nights together, nor I believe ten days this five months past…and this single thing must Convince every Impartial Person, that for an officer of a Ship to leave without the knowledge of the Captain or Lieutenant when she was in danger of being attacked…and to go on such a Journey without first endeavoring to Remedy the Evil if there was any, cannot be a friend to his Country, but must act upon some private View.”

Hopkins learned that 3rd Lieutenant Richard Marvin had been the catalyst in organizing the complaints against him.Marvin was the sole Rhode Islander among the 10 men, a resident of Providence who, as a carpenter on the new frigates,had worked for the same committee Hopkins had accused of corruption. Marvin was tried in a court-martial on April 3, 1777, aboard one of those ships, Providence, now in Hopkins’ feet. Captain Abraham Whipple presided over the court, with Hopkins and his son John assisting in the grilling. Marvin proved to be an unshakable and slightly arrogant defendant. “I was born in England but America is grown dear to me,” he told Hopkins, who asked about his place of birth.

“What was it that I ever did that was injurious to the public welfare?” asked Hopkins.

“A number of facts coming to our knowledge which we thought was our duty to submit to Congress.”

“Do you remember what the facts were?”

“I do remember.”

“If you remember will you tell what they were?” asked Whipple.

“Whenever Congress or any body authorized by them calls upon me I am ready to relate the facts.”

“Do you think you was acting in the character of an officer when you made and signed a complaint and sent it away privately against your superior officer?” asked Whipple.

“I think I was.”

Marvin was dishonorably discharged for having “treated the Commander-in-Chief of the American Navy with the greatest indignity and defamed his character in the highest manner,”but he was later granted a federal pension for his 11 months of service. Tough Hopkins was unaware of it, his service was over as well: Eight days earlier Congress had voted to suspend him. Since news traveled slowly, Hopkins received a copy of his suspension order on April 15, delivered by a Continental prize agent from Rhode Island. “Although I have lost the Interest of a parcel of mercenary merchants…I do not think I have lost it in the major part of this State,” he wrote to William Ellery. “I am obliged to you for your advice to continue a Friend to my Country, and you may depend I shall, should I have a few friends in it—neither do I expect to remain inactive.”

Hopkins never gave Congress a rebuttal to the petition and complaints. He never answered the charge—lodged by some petitioners—that the feet’s crew shortage stemmed from his reputation, not privateering. He never made public the conspiracy of privateer owners who bought of Marvin and his shipmates, if such a conspiracy ever existed. But when Hopkins was formally dismissed from the Continental Navy on January 2, 1778, he decided it was time to salvage his reputation, at least in Rhode Island. He brought a suit for criminal libel against the 10 petitioners, with damages set at £10,000.Only Marvin and Samuel Shaw were arrested; the rest were at sea or otherwise unreachable.

The defendants turned to Congress for help. They were not men of means, they wrote, and they had suffered much trouble and expense for doing what they believed was their duty. It is unclear whether Congress was aware that Shaw had recanted his claims against Hopkins; on July 31, 1778, Henry Laurens, president of Congress, wrote to inform Marvin and Shaw that reasonable expenses for their defense would be provided. He enclosed a copy of a law passed the previous day, the first whistleblower protection act, which they could present in court.

“Resolved, that it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States, as well as all others 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.”

William Channing, Rhode Island attorney general and son-in-law of William Ellery, was hired for the defense. Hopkins brought forth an estimable group of character witnesses to attest to his fairness: a sea captain, a clergyman and college president, a prize agent and a judge of the maritime court of the state. The affidavits of the men disavowing their complaints were also submitted. The defense relied heavily on documents released by Congress, including the original petition and affidavits. After five days of trial, the men were found not guilty. The defendants’ congressional support no doubt impressed the jury, but Hopkins had few allies in Philadelphia and many delegates likely welcomed the chance to drive one more nail in his coffin. Future whistleblowers would rarely enjoy such government cooperation.


The next federal action to protect whistle came in 1863 with the passage of the False Claims Act. Referred to as the “Lincoln Law,” it rewarded those who uncovered corruption among contractors and other government service providers, even if the whistleblowers blowers -were involved in the malfeasance. “It takes a rogue to catch a rogue” went the thinking, and the informer earned a slice of the settlement. The Lincoln Law went virtually unchanged for almost a century.

In 1952 Senator Richard M. Nixon introduced a whistleblower protection act when he was concerned about upcoming hearings on the Truman administration’s handling of the Korean War and other matters. “Unless protection is given to witnesses who are employees of the Armed Services or employees of the Government,” he wrote, “the scheduled hearings will amount to no more than a parade of ‘yes-men’ for Administration policies past, present and future.” Nixon’s proposed legislation stalled and was never signed into law.

Ironically, the actions of Nixon as president inspired the next significant whistleblower protection legislation, 200 years after Congress first shielded those who came forward. To curtail Watergate-style cover-ups, the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act granted civil servants protection from reprisal for the “lawful disclosure of information” related to “mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.” That law was strengthened by the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act; 25 years later, on July 30, 2014, the U.S. Senate unanimously recognized the second annual National Whistleblower Appreciation Day as an acknowledgment that whistleblowers “risk their careers, jobs, and reputations” to “serve the public interest by ensuring that the United States remains an ethical and safe place.”


Steve Boisson wrote about Hollywood’s 1942 pro-Soviet film, Mission to Moscow, in the February 2014 issue of American History. He is currently researching a biography of fingerstyle guitarist and composer John Fahey.

Originally published in the April 2015 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.