The Magazine

'Deathless Fame'

How the British view America's first naval hero.

Jun 8, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 36 • By JOSEPH F. CALLO
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

John Paul Jones

Maverick Hero

by Frank Walker

Casemate, 278 pp., $32.95

In 1775, John Paul Jones volunteered for a navy that began with eight converted merchant ships. He then went on to fight with effect against the best equipped, best trained, and best led navy of his time. Some called him a hero for what he accomplished. His enemies called him a renegade, traitor, rogue, and villain, treating him with the special disdain reserved for unworthy opponents.

In his introduction to this new assessment of Jones, Frank Walker, who is British, recognizes those two widely disparate views and maintains a balanced position. He also identifies his objective: "I hope that by looking at events from a different viewpoint I have been able to furnish some fresh and valid insights into the man."

While evenhanded, Walker's viewpoint remains distinctly British, and that special perspective translates into an ongoing focus on whether or not Jones was a professional naval officer rather than on broader issues. The author's particular perspective also results in more attention to local details of key events than most studies of Jones.

Walker picks up his story with the dramatic return of Jones's remains to the United States in 1905 and his exploits as captain of the Continental Ship Ranger in 1778. That beginning jumps past the particulars of a number of profoundly formative events, such as Jones's childhood upbringing during the early 18th century's Scottish Enlightenment, his career in Britain's merchant marine, and his successful commerce raiding in the Continental Navy's sloop-of-war Providence in 1776.

Jones's deployment into the Irish Sea in Ranger in 1778 surely was a pivotal point in his career and in the American Revolution, however, and Walker devotes approximately a third of his total text to that connected sequence of three events. In the course of those 80-plus pages, he provides extensive background for the actions. (That background is further enhanced by a 32-page gallery of photos and illustrations.)

Two of the events connected with Jones's exploits in the Irish Sea were planned by him. The planned actions included an amphibious assault against the English port of Whitehaven and the kidnapping of an English nobleman, Lord Selkirk, from his home on St. Mary's Island.

In Walker's coverage of these events there are comprehensive descriptions of the local populace and the physical setting in which the actions took place. For example, there are three pages devoted to the question of how many and what kind of cannons were involved in Whitehaven's defenses. The third event in Jones's Irish Sea deployment involved chance: a single-ship engagement between Ranger and a British warship of comparable size, HMS Drake. Again, Walker puts heavy emphasis on the details, and particularly on Jones's problems with his crew, but his conclusion is concise: "The victory was well deserved and it was in fact the very first time that a British warship had been defeated by one flying the stars and stripes of the United States of America."

As described here, those three events in the Irish Sea illuminate themes that are particularly important in evaluating Jones's significance as a historic figure. The first involves the ongoing tensions between Jones and his crew in Ranger, which was constantly on the edge of mutiny. Jones's difficulties with his crew were a striking example of the variety of daunting noncombat challenges that ran through his astonishing career, and that he overcame against long odds.

The second theme in the description of Jones's deployment in the Irish Sea involves the author's continuing attention to the sharply contrasting view of Jones as a commissioned officer in the Continental Navy and the assertively negative British view of him as a privateer--or worse, a pirate.

The third theme involves the psychological impact of Jones's activities in Ranger on British public opinion, the Admiralty, and in Whitehall generally. In this instance, the book's narrative benefits from the inclusion of a number of British newspaper accounts of Jones's attack on Whitehaven.

Among the conclusions to be drawn from Walker's analysis of Jones's Ranger deployment are that Jones was able to overcome a lot more than the challenges of combat in the course of his career, and based on his conduct, he also clearly deserves to be defined as a professional naval officer.