John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy

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9780743205832: John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy

John Paul Jones, at sea and in the heat of battle, was the great American hero of the Age of Sail. He was to history what Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey and C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower are to fiction. Ruthless, indomitable, clever; he vowed to sail, as he put it, "in harm's way." He never flinched or turned back. Evan Thomas's minute-by-minute re-creation of the bloodbath between Jones's Bonhomme Richard and the British man-of-war Serapis off the coast of England on an autumn night in 1779 is as gripping a sea battle as can be found in any novel. Thomas draws on Jones's wide-ranging correspondence with some of the most significant figures of the American Revolution -- John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson -- to paint a compelling portrait of a tortured warrior who was that most interesting and essential of American figures, the entirely self-made man. The son of a Scottish gardener (or possibly the bastard son of the lord of the manor), Jones fought his way up from second mate on a slave ship to become a mythic figure, hailed as the father of the navy, buried in a crypt (modeled after Napoleon's Tomb) beneath the chapel of the U.S. Naval Academy. Along the way he was an accused murderer (forced to flee to America under an assumed name); a notorious rake in Parisian society; and an admiral in the navy of Catherine the Great, fighting against the Turks in the Black Sea. He was a singularly successful naval officer during the American Revolution because he was both bold and visionary. John Paul Jones is more than a great sea story. Jones is a character for the ages. John Adams called him the "most ambitious and intriguing officer in the American Navy." The renewed interest in the Founding Fathers reminds us of the great men who made this country, but John Paul Jones teaches us that it took fighters as well as thinkers, men driven by dreams of personal glory as well as high-minded principle to break free of the past and start a new world. Jones's spirit was classically American. Evan Thomas brings his skills as a biographer to this complex, protean figure whose life and rise are both thrilling as a tale of dauntless courage and revealing about the birth of a nation.

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Review:

Evan Thomas’s John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy grounds itself on the facts of Jones’s life and accomplishments to bolster his place among the pantheon of Revolutionary heroes while also working to deflate the myths that have circulated about his name. Jones, we learn, was confronted throughout his life with controversy and was crippled by ambition. But Thomas lauds Jones for early innovations as an American self-made man who rose from Scottish servitude.

Jones, despite his too brisk manner, was a true success, if not genius, as a naval captain. Early in the Revolutionary War, he captured a shipload of winter uniforms destined for General Burgoyne’s army in Canada, which instead warmed General Washington’s troops as they swept across the Delaware to defeat British at Princeton and Trenton. Later, Jones helped formulate the Navy’s plan of psychological warfare on British citizens. And Jones’s strategy to cut off the British fleet via the French Navy was arguably the most decisive strategic decision of the War.

In the end, Thomas makes a good case for a renewed appreciated for Jones’s role in the broader revolution, citing his many connections to the Founding Fathers and his contributions to the broader war effort. While it may be that the John Paul Jones who proclaimed "I have not yet begun to fight" never existed, the real man behind the textbook legend is every bit as compelling a figure in Thomas’s hands. This temperate biography situates Jones in what will likely prove durable fashion among portraits of Adams, Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson. --Patrick O'Kelley

About the Author:

Evan Thomas is assistant managing editor of Newsweek. He has won a National Magazine Award and taught writing at Harvard and Princeton. He has written seven books, including New York Times bestselling John Paul Jones.

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