PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Long before the whistleblower complaint that sparked the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, it was a Rhode Island slave runner who was the catalyst for the first whistleblower protection law in 1778.
Commodore Esek Hopkins was a prominent figure in Rhode Island at the time. The State Archives offer a glimpse into Hopkins’ legacy, featuring several original letters signed by the commodore himself.
Hopkins was involved in the slave trade, and was also commander in chief of the first Continental Navy during the Revolutionary War. History books describe him as a tyrant.
While Hopkins was in command, 10 of his crew members blew the whistle on his abuse of power.
Allison Stanger, a political science professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, studies the history of whistleblowers and wrote a book on the subject titled “Whistleblowers: Honesty in America from Washington to Trump.”
“There was a general concern that Hopkins was exploiting his public office for private gain,” Stanger told Eyewitness News. “His crew generally viewed him as wild and unsteady.”
The crew demanded Congress remove Hopkins, and lawmakers quickly did so.
“They were really angry at Hopkins for serving the interests of Rhode Island and his cronies rather than serving the Congress of the newly United States,” Stanger said.
Hopkins had powerful connections in Rhode Island: his brother Stephen was once governor, as well as one of only two Rhode Islanders to sign the Declaration of Independence.
Stanger says there are parallels between Hopkins and the president. “He is quite similar to Donald Trump in that he incited retaliation against the whistleblowers,” she said.