A century after President Theodore Roosevelt eulogized John Paul Jones at the U.S. Naval Academy, a scholar speculates about what a present-day "TR" might say about the life and career of the Navy's earliest and most enduring hero.
On a clear, cool day, 100 years ago (24 April 1906), President Theodore Roosevelt, congressional and judicial leaders, governors, military and naval officers, foreign emissaries, representatives of patriotic societies, and thousands of spectators gathered in Annapolis to pay tribute to John Paul Jones, whose remains now rest in a striking black marble sarcophagus below the Naval Academy Chapel. 1 The inscription on his tomb reads: "He gave to our navy its earliest traditions of heroism and victory," a sentiment echoed by Secretary of the Navy Charles J. Bonaparte when, in his introduction of President Roosevelt, he declared, "We have met to honor the memory of that man who gave our Navy its earliest traditions of heroism and victory." 2
After welcoming the assembled dignitaries and paying special homage to the French naval officers present, Roosevelt challenged U.S. naval officers, saying, "Every officer in our Navy should feel in each fiber of his being an eager desire to emulate the energy, the professional capacity, the indomitable determination and dauntless scorn of death which marked John Paul Jones above his fellows." The two themes developed by the president in his oration were personal courage to the point of refusing to surrender regardless of the hopelessness of the situation, and the need for "building up the United States Navy." 3
The fact that Roosevelt devoted more of his speech to the need to enlarge the Navy would probably not have surprised Jones were he present. Indeed, Jones had, for much of his life, been ceremoniously used by writers and political leaders for their own purposes. In 1780, following the victory in which he and the Bonhomme Richard captured the British frigate Serapis , French leaders lionized him in Paris. King Louis XVI knighted him and presented Jones with a gold-hilted sword, Queen Marie Antoinette invited him to join her at the opera, and various soirees were held in his honor. The explanation for such honors lies in the timing. The spectacular success of Jones' voyage around the British Isles; his capture of half a dozen ships; the virtual panic inspired by his attempt to hold Leith, the port city of Edinburgh, for ransom; and his capture of the Serapis and her consort, the Countess of Scarborough , shone in stark contrast to the dismal failure of a planned Franco-Spanish attack against southern England. 4 That French leaders sought by celebrating him to deflect attention from the failure of their own navy is reflected by the caption to a print hastily engraved and offered for sale in Paris. Translated, the caption reads: