A Question of Paternity
Beneath the main deck of the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel, there is a magnificent marble sarcophagus containing the remains of John Paul Jones, a fitting resting place for someone who is frequently referred to as the "Father of the American Navy." This sobriquet seems appropriate enough. Jones' humble beginnings, colorful life, and unquestionable courage are in keeping with the American character and are both inspirational and worthy of emulation. His legendary defeat of HMS Serapis has become a treasured component of American lore, and even when the embellishments are stripped away, the facts remain jaw-droppingly impressive. Despite Jones' illustrious final resting place, his unimpeachable credentials, and an unambiguous reference to him as "Father of the American Navy" in Evan Thomas' 2003 biography and in a 2006 article in the Navy's public affairs magazine, All Hands , not everyone recognizes Jones as "Father." There are other contenders, and it is often the subject of near-pugilistic debate. The Naval History and Heritage Command's Web site attempts to put the matter to rest by proclaiming:
. . . the Navy recognizes no one individual as "Father". . . . As it was the Continental Congress . . . that created the Navy . . . the members of Congress must collectively receive credit for [its] creation. The various attempts to credit individual naval officers with this act are misguided, for those officers received their commissions from the very body that created the Navy in the first place.
Congressional popularity being what it is, proponents of the various candidates are not likely to be mollified, and the debate goes on. One of the top contenders is John Barry. Like Jones, he was an immigrant (though Irish rather than Scottish—which may account for at least some of the support he enjoys) with humble beginnings and an impressive combat record. Among his claims to the title, he was the first to capture a British warship on the high seas, ultimately took more than 20 prizes, fought the last naval battle of the American Revolution, and wrote the Navy's first signal book.
As if he does not already have enough titles to his illustrious name, George Washington is frequently cited as one of the chief contenders. He was a strong proponent of sea power and, before the Continental Congress had authorized a navy, Washington armed, crewed, and outfitted the schooner Hannah in hopes of her capturing much-needed supplies arriving from England. While this first ship did not meet with much success, seven more vessels authorized by Washington eventually captured 55 enemy ships.
John Adams is also a favorite among a growing number of supporters. During the Revolution, he was instrumental in the creation of the Continental Navy, served on the Naval Committee that managed the Navy during the early days of the war, and wrote the first Navy Regulations. As President, he played a key role in the official formation of the U.S. Navy (to replace the suspended Continental Navy) and remained a partisan of the Navy throughout his time in office and for the rest of his life.
There are other candidates as well, but short of the appearance of some convincing DNA evidence, the title of "Father of the American Navy" will likely remain a source of contention and debate. If there is a silver lining in all of this, it is that there are so many people who care enough about the Navy's heritage to keep the argument going.