The History

The History of America's First Whistleblower Law

Celebration of National Whistleblower Appreciation Day began in March of 2011, when whistleblower attorney Stephen Kohn’s book the Whistleblower’s Handbook was released.

Kohn’s book included original historical research concerning records obtained from the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Historical Society of Rhode Island, and the Continental Congress among other sources documenting the history behind the first whistleblower law passed in the United States – perhaps in the entire world.

The documents revealed that 10 sailors and marines wrote petitions to Congress exposing serious misconduct by the Commodore of the US Navy. One of the whistleblowers was chosen to jump ship and deliver the petitions to the Congress. Thereafter that whistleblower, Mr. Grannis, testified before the Continental Congress Marine Commission in February of 1777, approximately 6 months after the Declaration of Independence was signed and at the height of the American Revolution.

What followed laid the foundation of both whistleblower rights in the United States and a recognition that whistleblowing is a fundamental freedom. After Grannis testified and delivered the petition, instead of retaliating against the whistleblowers, the Congress suspended the Commodore. The founders of America were open to receiving whistleblower allegations and acted on them responsibly and without retaliation. How the founders reacted to people reporting allegations of misconduct set the precedent for how they should act in the future.

However, the Commodore pursued retribution, targeting two of the whistleblowers – Third Lieutenant Richard Marven and Midshipman Samuel Shaw – with criminal libel charges in his home state of Rhode Island. Both men were incarcerated with significant bail.

From their Providence jail cell, the imprisoned whistleblowers appealed directly to Congress for assistance, prompting further deliberation by the governing body. On July 30, 1778, Congress made a landmark decision, enacting the first whistleblower protection law, the Federal Claims Act (FCA), and authorizing the release of the whistleblowers’ petitions, even though information contained therein proved sensitive. Congress assumed the financial burden of defending Marven and Shaw.

Once the history was laid out in the handbook, it became obvious to the partners of KKC and the leadership of the National Whistleblower Center that this significant incident in U.S. history had essentially been forgotten.

They approached whistleblower champion Senator Charles Grassley with the findings, who immediately recognized the significance of the incident. His office put together a resolution to honor July 30th as National Whistleblower Appreciation Day and sought endorsement by the United States Senate, commencing the first official recognition of whistleblower day.

Recognizing the historical significance of the Continental Congress’ actions, Members of Congress and numerous federal agencies have celebrated July 30th as National Whistleblower Appreciation Day since 2013. The United States Senate has unanimously passed a resolution recognizing July 30th as National Whistleblower Appreciation Day. The resolution has called upon every federal agency to call attention to the contributions of whistleblowers on July 30th:

These resolutions go beyond symbolic gestures – they carry a specific directive. On July 30th, each federal agency is called upon to act to raise awareness of the historical significance of whistleblowing, and to educate both employees and the broader citizenry about their rights as whistleblowers to foster a cultural shift.

Following the resolution, the National Whistleblower Center worked with Senator Grassley and the newly found Senate Whistleblower Caucus to annually celebrate the day on Capitol Hill. The event gives government officials, members of Congress, advocates and whistleblowers the opportunity to speak and celebrate their contributions while encouraging executive agency officials to make public statements on whistleblower day.

Since it was first uncovered historically uncovered in 2011, the nation’s first whistleblowers have now been discussed in numerous books, articles, and publications about whistleblowing. Resolutions have been passed by local governments such as Arkansas and DC, among others.

KKC continues to work with the whistleblower community and the National Whistleblower Center in a movement to make whistleblower day permanently recognized event, be it through congressional legislation, executive order, or by facilitating a more systemic administrative action. Join the campaign here.

“Resolved, that it is the duty of all persons 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 persons in the service of these States, which may come to their knowledge.”

First U.S. whistleblower law, unanimously passed on July 30, 1778 by the Continental Congress

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