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Happy Birthday, Navy! Do You Know Who Your Father Is?

Hint: Probably not John Paul Jones

When I was in school, textbooks told us that daring Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones was the “Father of the American Navy.” But something happened over the last thirty years, and the title is now up for grabs. Today, most sources give the honor to Commodore John Barry, President John Adams, or the first Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert.

So, what went wrong with John Paul Jones?

Well, it turns out he was never much of a father or founder. He was, probably, a murderer and rapist, definitely a fugitive from justice and an erratic leader, and his real name wasn’t even Jones. He was never a part of the Navy under the US Constitution. In fact, he left America after the Revolution, became an Rear Admiral in the Russian Navy, and died in obscurity at age 45, probably with syphilis. He’d been celebrated briefly for heroics in 1778, but Americans forgot about him.

And he probably would have remained forgotten if not for President Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt’s top priority when he became President in 1901 was the creation a Great White Fleet of modern warships that could project American power around the globe. Americans had traditionally thought of their Navy as more of a Coast Guard—a service to defend American shores. Roosevelt, on the other hand, imagined an offensive fleet supplied by overseas coaling stations and able to strike anywhere in the world. Just the kind of Navy that a swashbuckler like John Paul Jones would have loved.

Jones was unlike any Navy hero in our history. Born John Paul (Jones came later) in Scotland, he was apprenticed at age 13 to a merchant seaman in Whitehaven, England. In 1768, at age 21, John Paul caught his first big break. Both his captain and first mate died at sea. John Paul took charge and navigated the ship back to safe harbor. The ship owners were so grateful they made him captain.

Captain John Paul quickly gained a reputation for poor leadership. He was vain and hard-driving. He took a lot of risks, and didn’t pay his crews on time or at all. His sailors grumbled always and sometimes mutinied. On one occasion, he flogged a rebellious sailor so severely the man died of his injuries. On another, John Paul ran a sword through a potential mutineer. Charged with two counts of murder, Captain Paul fled to America rather than stand trial in Britain.

Changing his name to Jones to throw authorities off his trail, John Paul arrived in America just as the Revolution was erupting. He needed a job, so offered himself to the newly christened Continental Navy, which was desperate for experienced seamen. Jones proved himself able at mundane duties and superb at privateering (the polite word for piracy). But he feuded constantly with his superiors and was relegated to the small USS Ranger and sent across the Atlantic. It was a sort of banishment away from the main action in the Caribbean and Canadian Maritimes.

Free from supervision, Jones rampaged in the Irish Sea with mixed success, battling the British as well as his own crew, who didn’t approve of Jones’s hard-charging ways. Even his top lieutenants protested when Jones announced his most audacious plan yet: to raid his adopted hometown of Whitehaven and set it on fire.

He maintained that torching Whitehaven would further the Patriot cause, but everyone knew he was also out to settle some personal scores.

At 3 a.m. on April 23, 1778, thirty sailors pressed into service by Jones launched the only American attack on Britain in history. One party made for the local fort and spiked the cannons. The other party searched the town for fuel to light fires. Figuring the local tavern was a good place to start, they broke in and discovered casks of liquor. By the time Jones arrived, the men were drunk. One crew member escaped and began running through town warning residents of the impending inferno.

Jones and his men took to their dinghies and rowed furiously back to the Ranger as townsmen fired shots at them from shore. The good folks of Whitehaven had recognized their native son, and from that day on the foul-tempered merchant seaman became a symbol in Britain of American depravity.

Serapis and Bonhomme Richard

Jones’s next plot, to kidnap a British lord, also failed and sparked another mutiny. The crew conspired to leave Jones ashore in England to suffer whatever fate the British had in store. But before they could, the captain’s fortunes turned.

First, he captured a prize when his Ranger outdueled the war sloop HMS Drake in the English Channel. Then, Jones took command of the USS Bonhomme Richard and emerged triumphant (though the Richard was sunk) in the multi-ship Battle of Flamborough Head. Legend, though not the historical record, has it that when all looked lost, and a British captain demanded the Richard’s surrender, Jones responded, “I have not yet begun to fight!”

The victory was the high point of Jones’s career, and the captain became a celebrity and ladies’ favorite in Paris. Back in America, however, the newly independent republic saw little use for Jones or a Navy.

With no other job prospects, Jones entered the service of Empress Catherine II of Russia. It didn’t take long for Jones to alienate his fellow Russian officers, and, after being accused of raping a twelve-year-old girl, Jones retired to Paris. He died in 1792 and was buried in Paris’s St. Louis Cemetery. The world largely forgot about him.

Teddy Roosevelt delivers speech on John Paul Jones

Except for Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, a popular historian before he became President, had scoured America’s past for the kind of dashing, dauntless hero who might symbolize a new American Navy. He found John Paul Jones. Learning that Jones was buried in Paris, Roosevelt financed a quixotic effort to find the mariner’s final resting place and bring his remains back to America.

The search took six years. St. Louis Cemetery had been built over, first as a cesspool and dump, then as streets and buildings. Workers knocked down ramshackle dwellings and excavated the ground underneath. Finally, they struck a lead casket containing the well-preserved remains of John Paul Jones.

The discovery of Jones’s body electrified the already high-voltage President. Roosevelt spared no pomp in ferrying Jones back to America in a Navy squadron headed by the USS Brooklyn. Seven battleships greeted the ships with a fifteen gun salute at the mouth of the Chesapeake and escorted the Brooklyn to Annapolis, home of the United States Naval Academy.

On April 24, 1906—the 128th anniversary of Jones’s capture of the HMS Drake—President Roosevelt personally orchestrated the greatest spectacle in Navy history. Over 7,000 attendees from all over the world crammed into Dahlgren Hall where Jones’s flag-draped coffin sat elevated at the center. Above him on a grandstand stood Roosevelt, who delivered the stirring eulogy Jones never got at his first burial. Roosevelt declared Jones a visionary ahead of his time, a role model for the new 20th century:

Every officer in our Navy should know by heart the deeds of John Paul Jones. Every officer in our Navy should feel in each fiber of his being an eager desire to emulate the energy, the professional capacity, the indomitable determination and dauntless scorn of death which marked John Paul Jones above all his fellows.

John Paul Jones crypt at the Naval Academy

On that day, Theodore Roosevelt christened John Paul Jones as “The Father of the US Navy.”

Jones would eventually be moved to the Academy’s new Chapel, interred in a marble sarcophagus modeled after Napoleon’s tomb in the Hôtel National des Invalides.

There, Jones remains.

To this day, Midshipmen are compelled to memorize Jones’s “Qualifications of a Naval Officer” (see below). Most probably don’t know that Jones never wrote it. The maxims, pulled from Augustus C. Buell’s magisterial two-volume biography of Jones and quoted in Roosevelt’s speech, are fabricated. Buell created them and the whole biography from his own phony documents. “Qualifications of a Naval Officer” tells us much about Buell and Roosevelt, but nothing about Jones.

The saga of John Paul Jones exemplifies our need for a “useable past,” a past we need to steer us into the future we want. At the dawn of the 20th century, that past included John Paul Jones.

We’re now well into the 21st century, following a course largely charted by the pasts we’ve chosen to find.

Qualifications of a Naval Officer

“It is by no means enough that an officer of the Navy should be a capable mariner. He must be that, of course, but also a great deal more. He should be as well a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor.

He should be the soul of tact, patience, justice, firmness, kindness, and charity. No meritorious act of a subordinate should escape his attention or be left to pass without its reward, even if the reward is only a word of approval.

Conversely, he should not be blind to a single fault in any subordinate, though at the same time, he should be quick and unfailing to distinguish error from malice, thoughtlessness from incompetency, and well meant shortcomings from heedless or stupid blunder. In one word, every commander should keep constantly before him the great truth, that to be well obeyed, he must be perfectly esteemed.”

–as quoted in August C. Buell, Paul Jones: Founder of the American Navy (1900)