Review – John Paul Jones: America’s First Sea Warrior

John Paul Jones’ victory changed course of a new nation

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John Paul Jones: <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />America’s First Sea Warrior

By Joseph Callo

Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD

ISBN:  1-59114-102-8


252 pages.


Reviewed by Edward Lundquist


Of course you know all about John Paul Jones.  Or do you?


Admiral Joe Callorealized that there had not been a major biography of his life for nearly fifty years.  So he wrote one.


“As I began to research the subject, several additional circumstances supported the idea that it was time to reexamine Jones’s career,” says Callo.  “For example, much of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writing about Jones positioned him in a predominantly heroic role. Phrases like ‘knight of the seas,’ ‘one chosen by fate,’ and ‘the sailor whom England feared,’ were used.  In contrast, many contemporary views are basically deconstructionist, with recent pejoratives, such as ‘glory-seeking, theatrical zeal’ and ‘a tiresome crank’ being typical.”


So, who was he, and why should we care?


Jones’ came to America with the shirt on his back.  He wasn’t a blueblood, but he made some powerful friends.  His patron was Joseph Hewes of South Carolina, a networking contact from the Masonic Lodge who also happened to be on the Naval Committee of the First Continental Congress.  It’s not surprising that Jones was caught up in the revolutionary fervor.  Jones dated Dorothea Dandridge, who eventually wed Patrick Henry.


“I believe that Jones’ career is more relevant to our own lives and times than many are willing to admit,” Callo says.  “For example, Jones’ deployments in the Continental Ships Ranger and Bonhomme Richard were focused upon issues that are similar to those in the news today.  Two examples include forward projection of national power and the concept of civilian control of the military.”


Callo set out to make a fresh examination of Jones, a native of Scotland, as a self-taught naval officer whose impact on the outcome of the American Revolution has been underestimated.


“My biography illuminates Jones as a self-taught naval officer, who was a seaman warrior, not a warrior seaman.  That had a significant influence on what he did and particularly how he did it.  Within months of his joining the Continental Navy in 1775, he was in command of his own ship in a navy without a single purpose-built warship.  As he took on the American cause of liberty, he was also striving for recognition as a professional naval officer.  Most biographers emphasize Jones’ combat victories.  I have put more emphasis on the strategic impact of his deployments, particularly in Ranger and Bonhomme Richard, than others,” he says.


The early American naval experiences against the Royal Navy were not outstanding.  So Jones’ tactical successes were quite noteworthy for a Navy and a Nation that needed a victory.


“Not outstanding” is putting it mildly,” says Callo.  “On the face of it, the impact of the Continental Navy was minimal.”


With serious analysis, however, Callo says it becomes apparent that there were three components to the American naval strategy that emerged during the American Revolution.  First, the Americans must attack Britain’s merchant marine.  Second, project naval forces against the British Isles.  And third, establish naval control in key situations and key places.


Jones took on the British, the major naval power of the day, on its own terms and in its home waters.  To be sure, the Royal Navy had other pressing concerns, and Jones might be viewed as little more than a distraction.  Britain was facing a much graver threat in its ongoing, global war against France.  Jones’ battle with HMS Serapis was a case in point.  Serapis was not a capital ship, but a lesser frigate.  Both ships were virtually destroyed.  But a win is a win, and nobody expected the Americans to put up such a good fight.


“Jones’s deployments in Ranger and Bonhomme Richard were the prime examples of the second component, and achievements as commodore of a small squadron deployed around the British Isles in 1779 came at a time when there were growing doubts at the Admiralty and Whitehall about the war with the American Colonies, and this deployment, which ended with his astonishing victory in single-ship combat off Flamborough Head, actually became a critical tipping point in the American Revolution.”


Callo’s research incorporated previous biographies of John Paul Jones., including Samuel Eliot Morison’s John Paul Jones—A Sailor’s Biography (Little, Brown & Company, 1959), The Life and Character of John Paul Jones by John Henry Sherburne (Adriance, Sherman & Co., 1851) and Life and Correspondence of John Paul Jones edited by Robert C. Sands (A. Chandler, 1830).  He also avoided several biographies that are not accurate.  Much of my research involved primary sources.  One of the best sources was the Naval Documents of the American Revolution series, published by the Naval Historical Center’s Early History Branch.


Jones naval reputation earned him a commission in Russia after his service for the United States.  Callo says he’s been toldthat his description of Jones’ experience in the navy of Catherine the Great goes beyond what others have done with that phase of Jones’s life.


While some biographers have claimed that Jones was consumed by his position and career, Callo says that has been grossly exaggerated.  “His primary motivation was the American cause of liberty.  His concerns about his position and career were natural consequences of his position as a seaman warrior, one whose career was in the hands of political leaders who were getting on-the-job training in civilian control of the military.”


While Jones served in the age of sail, Callo says contemporary naval officers should learn today from an examination of what John Paul Jones accomplished in the Revolutionary War. 


“His iron determination in the face of military and political obstacles (“I have not yet begun to fight” in the face of defeat by almost any measure) is a quality that is as important today as it was in 1779,” Callo says.          


“The inscription that marks Jones’ final resting place in his crypt at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., says: ‘He Gave Our Navy its Earliest Traditions of Heroism and Victory.’  That’s something every current officer in the U.S. Navy should focus on.”




Captain Edward Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior science advisor with Alion Science and Technology in Washington, D.C. 


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