One early 20th-century writer called John Paul Jones “a knight of the seas.” Some refer to him as the father of the U.S. Navy. But others had a less-charitable view. His British opponents, for example, called him pirate, corsair, and renegade, and a recent biographer contended that one of his defining characteristics was “all-consuming ambition.” Still another observer has questioned the use of the word “warrior” to describe Jones. With so many conflicting labels during the more than two centuries since his service in the Continental Navy, it’s time for a fresh look at the enduring qualities that establish Jones’ place in U.S. history.
A good starting-point is Jones’ motivation for joining the Continental Navy. In a letter at the beginning of the American Revolution to Robert Morris, a member of the Continental Congress, Jones wrote: “The situation of America is new in the annals of mankind, her affairs cry haste, and speed must answer them.” Those words suggest that Jones was fighting for a cause, for something beyond mere personal ambition. That and other, similar statements show that he had in fact captured the idea of American liberty before he captured a single British ship.