June 11th, 2003 12:00 am MATT BUCKINGHAM | Books

john paul jones: sailor, hero, father of the american navy
by Evan Thomas
(Simon and Schuster, 381 pages, $26.95)

Despite his book's subtitle, author Evan Thomas makes a pretty convincing case that John Paul Jones was not the "father" of the American Navy. More like "bastard son" or "black-sheep uncle." The surname "Jones" was, in fact, an alias the future sea hero appended to his real name while fleeing a murder charge in the West Indies.

Jones was not present at the creation of the Continental Navy and was peripheral to its administration throughout the American Revolution. He was never even commissioned a proper warship. The fabled Bonhomme Richard was a leaky merchant vessel entrusted to Jones only after the French had written it off as unfit for military service. Thomas recounts how Jones overcame a near-mutinous crew and desertion by his French allies (the other ships in his squadron fled) to capture the British man-of-war Serapis--at the cost of half his men and the sinking of his own ship.

Jones' gift was not in his power to command (Thomas concludes he never would have made a great fleet commander) but in his vision of the ruthlessness that would be required to defeat the British Empire. Jones was literally a terrorist--not the kind who believed in the indiscriminate murder of innocent civilians, but one who understood the psychological effect of taking the horrors of war to the British homeland. Perhaps that's why American readers are now buying so many books about the Revolutionary War (and so many publishers are publishing them). They need such books to help them comprehend the principles and sacrifices that once enabled them to defeat the empire they have become.

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