A Sampler of Courage, Part 3On September 18, 2019 by Elyse
After three free samples, if you don’t buy something, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.
. . . Just kidding. According to my website stats, you’re the only ones here. Don’t move a muscle unless you’re scrolling down.
With few exceptions, people don’t like to hear or say what is difficult, unpopular or hurtful—to others or especially oneself. We’re too nice, too afraid or simply too lazy to call out wrongdoing. Guilty as charged: I kept my mouth shut every time John Doe copied my answers on Spanish quizzes. De nada para el A, Johnny. But once in a while, someone speaks out, “snitches get stitches” be damned. And even more rarely, their revelations have an impact far beyond a high school grade point average.
Here in the U.S., courageous whistleblowers have been around at least as long as the nation itself. In February of 1777, 10 American naval and marine officers and one midshipman held a secret meeting below deck on the warship Warren, anchored near Providence, Rhode Island. Alas, their secret password has been lost to history.
The subject was their captain, Commodore Esek Hopkins, commander in chief of the Continental Navy. Described as a man “destitute of the principles, both of religion and Morality” and “remarkably addicted to profane Swearing,” he was a character right out of the movie “Horrible Bosses.” In addition to his potty mouth, the sailors had a litany of complaints against him, including cruel treatment of prisoners. They had to decide whether to report the commodore to the only authority that could stop him: the Continental Congress, the very body that had appointed him in the first place.
The sailors’ pro and con list might have looked something like this:
- Hopkins is unfit for his command, and his actions are damaging to the American cause. His removal would be a service to the nation.
- Hopkins has friends and family in high places; his brother was a governor of Rhode Island, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a sitting member of the Continental Congress. Talk about a conflict of interest.
- Someone would have to sneak off the ship to bring word to Congress, risking both capture by British soldiers camped out nearby and execution for going AWOL.
- The U.S. Constitution doesn’t exist yet, and without legal protections, being arrested as traitors is a definite possibility.
- It’s the middle of winter; who wants to go anywhere when it’s this cold?
Remarkably, patriotism and a strong moral compass won out. The sailors put pen to paper and wrote a formal complaint addressed to Congress’ Marine Committee:
We are ready to hazard every thing that is dear, and if necessary, Sacrifice our lives for the welfare of our country. We are desirous of being active in the defence of our constitutional liberties and priviledges [sic] against the unjust cruel claims of tyranny and oppression. . .– The Complaint on Board the Warren, February 19, 1777
One man’s account starts not with Hopkins’ cruelty but with his badmouthing of Congress. The line between whistleblower and brown noser can apparently be a thin one:
I have often heard him curse the honorable marine committee in the very words following. God damn them. They are a pack of damned fools. If I should follow their directions, the whole country would be ruined. I am not going to follow their direction, by God. Such profane Swearing is his common conversations, in which respect he Sets a very wicked and detestable example both to his Officers and Men.– Jas. Sellers, The Complaint on Board the Warren, February 23, 1777
Almost as an afterthought, he later notes, “He has treated prisoners in a very unbecoming barbarous manner.”
Captain John Grannis must’ve drawn the short straw because it was his unpleasant duty to sneak off the Warren and deliver the complaint to Congress in Pennsylvania, more than 300 freezing miles away. Worst of all, he couldn’t even stop at a Denny’s for breakfast at 2 a.m. Not much of a road trip if you ask me.
His pancake-less journey wasn’t in vain. Unlike its modern incarnation, Congress acted quickly and decisively. After an investigation, it relieved Hopkins of his command in March of 1777.
However, like any evil villain, the commodore had one more card up his sleeve. He filed a criminal libel suit against the whistleblowers in—guess where—Rhode Island. As a result, Lieutenant Richard Marven and midshipman Samuel Shaw were arrested and languished in jail without bail. Once again, they appealed to the highest authority in the land for help.
In July of 1778, Congress did something—stop laughing, a functional legislative branch shouldn’t be funny—bold:
Resolved, That it is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States, as well as all other 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.– Journals of the Continental Congress, July 30, 1778
Whereas, a suit has been commenced by Esek Hopkins, Esq. against Richard Marven and Samuel Shaw, for information and complaint by them and others made to Congress against the said Esek Hopkins, while in the service of the United States:
Resolved, That the reasonable expences of defending the said suit be defrayed by the United States.
Ordered, That the secretary of Congress furnish the petitioners with attested copies of the records of Congress, so far as they relate to the appointment of Esek Hopkins, Esq. to any command in the continental navy, and his dismission from the same, and also to the proceedings of Congress upon the complaint of the petitioners against the said Esek Hopkins, preferred to Congress through the Marine Committee, as mentioned in their petition.
With one fell swoop, Congress passed the new nation’s first whistleblower protection legislation, and in a show of support for the sailors, authorized both the full disclosure of records and funds for the men’s legal defense. I’m happy to report Richard and Samuel were subsequently acquitted and presumably lived happily ever after.
Newspapers, both today’s and yesterday’s, teach us that not all whistleblowers fare so well. But look at enough newspapers over enough decades, and in many cases (though admittedly not all), we’re better off because of those courageous enough to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, no matter the consequences—or the lack of late-night dining options.
Because of pride, awkwardness or narcissistic personality disorder, admitting mistakes seems to be one of the hardest things for humans to do (see: SharpieGate). No matter how slight the offense, it takes courage to look someone in the eye and acknowledge the pain caused by our actions. If it makes you feel better, this aversion to apologies is hardly a modern phenomenon.
Beginning in February of 1692, the government of Salem, Massachusetts got a little noose happy, and over the course of 15 months, more than 200 people were accused of witchcraft; 19 of them were executed. Your own mistakes aren’t looking so bad now, are they?
The Salem witch trials were catalyzed by unexplained convulsions suffered by several local girls, including 12-year-old Ann Putnam. Since this was before the advent of WebMD’s Symptom Checker, the community attributed their fits to witchcraft and promptly panicked. To be fair, that must have been about the level of alarm most of us feel when WebMD tells us our minor ailment is actually a brain tumor, a heart attack or terminal cancer.
Ann eventually testified against sixty-two people, many of whom—completely coincidentally—were connected to local factions opposed to the Putnam family. Of those, 17 were executed. I don’t know what her test scores were, but Ann must have really needed a unique topic for her college admissions essay.
After the hysteria tapered off, none of the girls suffered any legal repercussions for their part in the wrongful executions. However, Ann’s past came back to haunt her 14 years later when she sought to join the Salem Village Church. Think of it as an exclusive country club, but instead of paying exorbitant initiation fees, you have to publicly confess your sins. I’d rather cut a check.
With assistance from the church’s reverend, she composed a confession and apology, which he read to the congregation on her behalf:
I desire to be humbled before God for that sad and humbling providence that befell my father’s family in the year about ’92; that I, then being in my childhood, should, by such a providence of God, be made an instrument for the accusing of several persons of a grievous crime, whereby their lives were taken away from them, whom now I have just grounds and good reason to believe they were innocent persons; and that it was a great delusion of Satan that deceived me in that sad time, whereby I justly fear I have been instrumental, with others, though ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon myself and this land the guilt of innocent blood. . .– Ann Putnam, Salem Village Church, August 25, 1706
Tl;dr: Satan made me do it. So much for taking full responsibility for her actions. Still, it was more than any of the other accusers had the courage to do. Should we choose to do the same, whatever it is we need to apologize for, at least we likely won’t have to do it in front of an audience that includes relatives of people we sent to the gallows.
Sometimes, life deals us a rotten hand of cards; there are no takebacks and no reshuffles. The only thing in our control is how we play those cards. For an example of courage, grace and dignity in the face of incomprehensible adversity, look no further than the Iron Horse himself, baseball legend Lou Gehrig.
From a New York City tenement to an engineering program and football scholarship at Columbia University, it was already clear in 1921 that Lou was going places. He didn’t have to wait long to find his calling: He was signed to the New York Yankees during their 1923 season and remained with them for the rest of his career.
And what a career it was. He broke a host of records that stood for decades: youngest player inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, most grand slams in a career, most home runs hit by any first baseman, blah, blah blah. Sports accolades make my eyes glaze over, but take my word for it (or don’t), he was a big deal.
However, Lou’s performance noticeably weakened in 1938, the first sign something was amiss. The next year, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease that would eventually lead to paralysis and difficulty swallowing and speaking. His life expectancy was less than three years. He received the news on his 36th birthday.
His baseball career was over, but he remained beloved by the public. More than 62,000 fans crammed into Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939 for “Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day.” During the festivities, Lou delivered “baseball’s Gettysburg Address:”
For the past two weeks you have been reading about a bad break. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. . .– Lou Gehrig, Yankee Stadium, July 4, 1939
When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies – that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body – it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.
So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for. Thank you.
If your screen is suddenly a little blurry and your keyboard a little wet, you’re not the only one. I can only hope I’ll remember his words and take them to heart when confronted with my own puny-by-comparison challenges.
Many thanks to my few but loyal readers for sticking with me. I see you, and I appreciate your dedication as I thoroughly—very, very thoroughly, if word count is any judge—explored these stories over the last few weeks. We’ll move on to something else next time, but for now, I’ll leave you with a final word from an expert:
Courage is the price that– Amelia Earhart, 1928
Life exacts for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not, knows no release
From little things:
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,
Nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear
The sound of wings.
Disclaimer: The modern era is far from the first to grapple with rampant “fake news.” As I am neither a historian nor journalist, I make no claims about the accuracy or lack thereof of the above sources. I assert only that they make for a good story.
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