Warrior at Sea: The Father of the American Navy Was an Insecure, Brash, Brave Officer Who Would Have Fit Right in with Donald Rumsfeld's Military. in an Excerpt from His New Biography of Jones, Evan Thomas Brings One of the Revolution's Most Intriguing Characters Back to Life
Lying in his ornate crypt beneath the Chapel of the United States Naval Academy, John Paul Jones is the quintessential dead white male. Once celebrated as a hero of the American Revolution and the father of the Navy, Jones has been by and large dropped from high school history books. At the Naval Academy, midshipmen are still required to know Jones's definition of the ideal naval officer: "a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor." But it turns out Jones never uttered or wrote those words; they were falsely attributed to Jones by a charlatan biographer more than a hundred years ago.
Jones himself was not always a model officer and a gentleman, I discovered as I was researching a new biography. He was not much loved by his crews or his superiors, and he was disgraced by a sex scandal while serving in the Russian navy in 1789. And yet Paul Jones is a highly relevant historical figure for today's precarious world.
Jones understood and practiced what is formally known as "asymmetrical warfare" but is more commonly regarded as terrorism. Jones was no Osama bin Laden in knee britches; he did not set out to kill civilians. But he did mean to terrify them. He understood that the tiny, feeble navy patched together by the Continental Congress in 1775 was no match for the Royal Navy. By raiding English coastal towns, burning shipping, taking high officials and even whole towns hostage, he meant to create a public panic. If the Royal Navy--the "wooden wall" that had protected the British people from invasion for centuries--could not stop the Americans from attacking British citizens in their own homes, Jones correctly figured, perhaps the cost of keeping the American colonies would seem too high.
Jones was for many years best known to scholars and schoolboys for his courage. As his ship, the Bonhomme Richard, was burning and sinking in its battle against a more powerful British man of war, the Serapis, on a September night in 1779, Jones reputedly cried out, "I have not yet begun to fight!" He probably did not say those exact words; contemporaneous accounts suggest he said something more like, "I'll sink before I surrender." Still, his refusal to quit eventually carried the day, and the British surrendered after a three-and-a-half-hour blood bath.
Jones's boldness would have commended him to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has been campaigning against "risk aversion" in the modern military. Yet Jones's strategic cunning was more important than his bravery. Alone among the captains of the Continental Navy, he grasped the need to take the battle to the enemy's cities and towns. In April 1778, he set out from France (America's ally in the revolt against Britain) to burn the fishing fleet in the English port of Whitehaven and kidnap and hold for ransom a Scottish peer of the realm, the Earl of Selkirk.
The mission was botched. Jones's crew mutinied; Jones was able to set fire to only one fishing boat; the Earl was away, and Jones's men ended up stealing his lordship's silver. …