Two Captains at Breakfast

By Tim McGrath

Jones was heading to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to oversee construction of the only American ship-of-the-line being built, later to be christened the America . His meeting with Barry was not just professional courtesy. In 1779 the America had been Barry’s assignment, but Congress lacked the funds to continue construction. Nevertheless, Barry saw great promise in her, and while some in Congress recommended trimming her from 74 guns to 60, he argued against such a plan. 4

At some point in the meal, Jones delighted in describing a new cockade he recently had designed for naval officers. It included red for “the glory and Friendship of Spain,” white to represent “the spotless purity of intention and the sincere Friendship of our illustrious Ally [France],” and blue “as the natural cockades of America, leaving the Black to England which is a true emblem of the character of that Dark Minded Nation.” 5

The Good, the Good, and the Politically Connected

One Continental Navy captain who was not lauded during the breakfast conversation was James Nicholson. Owing to political connections, the Marylander was named first captain on Congress’ infamous captain’s list. As a naval officer, Nicholson never came close to equaling Barry and Jones, but zealously guarded his number-one status, believing all other captains beneath him. Once Barry was awarded command of the Alliance , Nicholson protested to Congress, only to be reminded that he “was at sea” and that Barry’s “great activity and popularity with Seamen” compelled them to award him the Navy’s prize frigate. Upon returning to Boston in June 1781, the wounded Barry received his own malicious letter from Nicholson—not about him, but about Jones. 6

Nicholson recently had learned that some congressmen were considering promoting Jones to rear admiral—a rumor that must have damaged Nicholson’s gall bladder for the excessive bile it produced. 7 His letter to Barry began with transparent “concern” for the welfare of the Navy and the threat Jones posed to Barry’s (in reality, Nicholson’s) standing:

The Chevalier ever since his arrival in [Philadelphia] has devoted his time, privately, by making personal application to the individual members of congress to give him rank at the head of our navy . . . . I immediately took my Hat and with very little Ceremony waited on the President of Congress at his house & informed him of what I had heard . . . . Many things pretty severe of the Chevalier’s private as well as Public Carrector too odious to mention. 8

Nicholson continued, hissing to Barry that he had spoken to “Bob Morris the Financier”—as Nicholson condescendingly called the financial wizard of the war—that the America should be offered to those captains still serving and ahead of Jones on that regrettable list (an idea Morris already dismissed). From there, he went into false humility, praising Barry’s exploits and their effect on Jones:

Your arrival and success came very opportunily and I did not fail to make use of it I mean outdoors in presence of Capt. Jones & some of his advocated Members, by observing that you had acquit yourself well, which they acknowledged. I then told them they could not do less than make you Admiral also. I had not a sentense of reply. It irritated the Chevalier so much that he was obliged to decamp . . . . I am convinced he will never get [the America ] to sea. 9

If Barry wrote a response to Nicholson, it did not survive. Considering his abhorrence of political infighting, it is reasonable to guess this letter went unanswered. Barry did not mention it at breakfast. 10

As their meal concluded, the two captains stepped out into the sun and said their goodbyes. Jones left for Portsmouth the next day. The following week he sent Barry “the cocade I promised” along with a letter mentioning that he knew he was “the Subject of a Letter you recd. some time ago from Philadelphia.” Without mentioning Nicholson by name, Jones was confident that Barry knew “how to credit such information.” 11

The Perennial Paternity Question

For centuries now, both academic and armchair historians have argued which of these naval heroes was the better of the two, thereby more deserving of the title “Father of the American Navy.” The battle lines are most clearly drawn between their ethnic partisans: A member of the Saint Andrew’s Society is guaranteed to side with the bantam Jones, just as a Friendly Son of Saint Patrick will favor the taller Barry. And neither side believes it necessary to consider other candidates for the honor, leaving the equally worthy John Adams, George Washington, Joshua Humphreys, and Edward Preble on the beach.

Nor do popular and academic historians avoid the debate. While acknowledging in his best-selling biography on Jones that “Barry may have been a better commander,” Evan Thomas makes it clear where he stands in his book’s title: John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy . 12 Some naval historians are not as swayed by Jones’ derring-do. Taking a page from Barry’s reserve, as opposed to Jones’ swagger, they tacitly seem to side with the man they admiringly call “Silent John.”

But all the clash and clamor takes away from one simple fact. In real life, while their calling prevented them from seeing much of the other, they were as friendly as two sea captains could be.

The Alliance and America were not the only ships the captains shared. They first met each other in October 1775 in Philadelphia, where Barry’s merchantman, the Black Prince , nestled against Robert Morris’ dock after a voyage from England. Barry had sailed her 237 miles on the fastest-known day of sailing in the 18th century. Jones was in town awaiting his lieutenant’s commission in the newly formed Continental Navy. To Barry’s chagrin, the first captains were selected in his absence, and he was given the task of refitting the Black Prince and the other selected merchantmen into ships of war.

On 3 December Lieutenant Jones raised the Continental colors for the first time, on board the Black Prince , now called the Alfred and serving as the Navy’s flagship. A year later, after his headline-making cruises commanding the sloop Providence , Jones was made captain of the Alfred , surpassing Barry’s peacetime successes with a string of captures while decimating the Nova Scotia fishing industry. 13

As personalities, Jones and Barry are the Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig of the American Navy. From their papers, it is easy to see who is who. While both men sent meticulous reports to Congress throughout the Revolution, Jones’ prolific prose was ornate. Replying to a privateer captain’s update on the latest maritime news from Philadelphia while away in France, he loquaciously replied:

Your account of the Situation and of our Poor Marine distresses much—but let us not altogether despond. Tho’ I am no Prophet, the one will yet become the first City , and the other the first Navy . . . . When the Enemies land force is once conquered and expelled the Continent, our Marine will rise as if by Enchantment. 14

Barry, by contrast, never wrote two words if one would do. After a desperate passage down the Delaware in two barges past British-occupied Philadelphia he simply wrote, “I passed Philadelphia in two small boats.” Jones wrote poetry, dedicating verse after verse to the ladies with whom he fell in love. And Barry? Well, let his lovely wife Sarah be our judge. Her letters to her husband, while affectionate, are also 18th-century versions of “You never write, you never call.” Regarding their writing skills, Jones is a broadside, full of bravado; Barry is a shot across the bow. 15

Different Men, Kindred Spirits

Both captains shared similar opinions of their fellow officers. They admired the courage of Matthew Parke, captain of the Marines on board the Bonhomme Richard and later the Alliance , although they found his independent streak vexing. Jones was the first of the two to encounter the machinations of Pierre Landais, who ordered broadsides fired from the Alliance into both the Bonhomme Richard and HMS Serapis off Flamborough Head. The Frenchman was a deadly duelist, whose approach to command was both insulting and inept, as if the deadly marquis in the novel Scaramouche had been cloned with Inspector Clouseau. 16

In 1780 Jones was ordered to sail the Alliance to America, but while he was in Paris, Landais seized the frigate (putting Matthew Parke in irons for not signing a loyalty oath to the Frenchman). En route to Philadelphia, his crew mutinied and sailed her to Boston. Shortly afterward, Congress sent Barry to take command of both the ship and Landais’ court-martial. Barry had been handed a diplomatic nightmare: a mutiny of American sailors against a French captain on board an American ship whose name honored French intervention. His solution required navigational skills one did not learn with a sextant. 17

The officer Jones and Barry admired most was Richard Dale. Barry met him first, after capturing one of Lord Dunmore’s privateers off Bermuda in 1776. The young Dale began his wartime service with the Virginia State Navy, but when captured by Loyalists, he changed sides. Seeing merit in the youngster, Barry convinced him to rethink his decision and gave him a midshipman’s berth. In doing so, he also almost got Dale killed when lightning struck the Lexington , knocking Dale “prostrate and senseless.”

The war years constantly tested Dale’s resolve. He was twice captured by the British and sent to Mill Prison, where he twice escaped, the second time strolling past the guards in a British naval uniform, then making his way to L’Orient. Jones made him second-in-command of the Bonhomme Richard . Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that Jones “loved him like a brother.” After the Revolution, Dale rekindled his friendship with Barry, later marrying Sarah Barry’s cousin. 18

General Washington and other contemporaries openly admired both captains for their service, as did Robert Morris and Thomas Jefferson. John Adams praised and criticized them equally. Both were friendly with the marquis de Lafayette. In 1779 Jones looked forward to a raid on Liverpool, with Lafayette’s land forces to augment his sailors and Marines, an operation that never got past the planning stages.

Three years later, Barry returned Lafayette to France, his crew including three dozen French sailors. Once in L’Orient, Barry was beset by money woes while trying to replace the French hands with Americans, who were denied him by French bureaucrats. From Passy, Benjamin Franklin, American commissioner to France, pleaded helplessness over Barry’s dilemma, while Lafayette provided both funds and assurances that Yankee tars would be released to him. 19

Jones did enjoy a better relationship with Franklin than Barry did. Like Lambert Wickes and Gustavus Conyngham, Jones made for Paris immediately on arriving in France, falling under both the city’s and Franklin’s charms. Barry never did. Franklin adopted an almost fatherly approach to Jones, patting him on the back for his victories, counseling patience when he was without command, and scolding him when he lost the Alliance to Landais. “Give your officers and friends a little more praise than is their due,” he advised, and Jones would be “a great captain.” 20

The correspondence between Barry and Franklin reveals a chilly relationship. In his three voyages to France, Barry wrote letter after letter requesting supplies, sailors, and money. Franklin’s replies commiserated with Barry’s troubles, but the commissioner did little to assuage him. Instead, he periodically countermanded Barry’s orders from Congress. Neither man saw the other’s point of view; on one voyage back to America, Barry carried a letter from Franklin to their mutual friend Robert Morris, in which Franklin called Barry “a great Man” but “influenced by small matters.”

Years later in Philadelphia, when a Pennsylvania Assembly session lacked the necessary quorum to vote on the new Constitution, Barry led a group of wharf toughs to a nearby tavern and “escorted” two Anti-Federalist assemblymen back to their duty. No one was happier to see the Constitution passed than the old and frail Franklin, then president of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council. That said, Franklin used this occasion to get the last word in on his relationship with Barry, ordering his arrest and prosecution for his shanghai service. 21

Barry and Jones took a similar approach to leadership from the quarterdeck. They were expert mariners, clear with their orders, and courageous to a fault. While the jocular Barry was more popular with his men, Jones is better regarded as a visionary, with numerous letters to Congress about ship designs and championing the need for a naval academy. Fifteen years later, Barry advocated an independent Department of the Navy; during the Quasi-War, his flagship, the United States , was the de facto first naval academy, with Barry serving as mentor to the next generation of heroes, including Stephen Decatur, Richard Somers, and Charles Stewart. 22

One Final Sitdown

In May 1783, two years after their Boston breakfast, Jones and Barry shared another meal in Philadelphia. Barry and the Alliance were stateside after another slew of captures and winning the Revolutionary War’s last battle at sea, fought weeks after the Treaty of Paris had ended the conflict. Jones was in such a state of ill health that Robert Morris canceled orders sending him to Boston to preside over a court-martial.

Jones had gotten the America off the stocks and into the water in 1782, but it was a bittersweet accomplishment. Lacking both money and sailors, Morris, then singlehandedly running both the Navy and the Treasury, saw the America ’s launching as a twofold opportunity. He presented her to the French, both in thanks for their financial and military support and as a way of getting the titanic vessel off Congress’ books. In his last act as a captain in the Continental Navy, Jones turned command of the largest ship yet built in the Western Hemisphere over to the French. James Nicholson’s petulant boast that Jones would “never get America to sea” was correct and incorrect at the same time. 23

Over their meal, Barry told Jones he was sailing the Alliance to Holland on a merchantman’s errand, and Jones happily wrote a letter of introduction on Barry’s behalf to the House of Deauville et Fils in Amsterdam, requesting that “As Captn Barry is an entire Stranger to Holland any civilities you may show will the more Oblige.” 24 They parted company, Jones to recover his health at a Moravian sanitarium in Bethlehem, and Barry to return to the Alliance .

Jones went on to serve in the Russian navy; Barry sailed to China and then “swallowed the anchor” before President Washington gave him the first captain’s commission in the United States Navy. They never saw each other again. 25

Jones died first, in 1792, most likely from kidney failure, sick and alone in a Paris apartment after months of anticipating orders to sail to the Mediterranean and negotiate a ransom for the American sailors seized by the Dey of Algiers. Most of his personal effects were sold, but his chevalier’s sword was given to Barry, who wore it throughout the Quasi-War. Barry died in Philadelphia in 1803, after years of battling asthma. Among his possessions was a cameo of John Paul Jones.

For more than 100 years Jones lay in a Paris cemetery. By 1905 it had been filled in and was beneath a laundry. President Theodore Roosevelt, one of the Navy’s greatest advocates, saw Jones as a valuable symbol in his ambition to make the Navy second to none in the world, and had Jones’ remains returned to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1905. Roosevelt made a grand speech, extolling Jones’ accomplishments. The president was the perfect champion for the brave but vain captain; in his daughter Alice’s words, Roosevelt, like Jones, “wanted to be the baby at every christening, the bride at every wedding, and the corpse at every funeral.” 26

As it turned out, Barry and Jones were even buried in respectively befitting manners. Jones finally has the resting place of his dreams. He lies beneath the Naval Academy Chapel (where Barry’s Bible is displayed at the altar). Stairs lead to a circular tomb; his crypt is dead center. It is a grand tribute, with one sad aside. Jones is buried alone, the eternal warrior and bachelor. 27

In Philadelphia, one follows the direction that Barry’s statue at Independence Hall points to and heads south on Fourth Street to Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Church. Front and center is Barry’s tomb, where he is buried with his wives Mary and Sarah. It is not nearly as ostentatious as the crypt in Annapolis, but the hero rests alongside family and friends, in the city he adopted and that adopted him.

When Barry died, he bequeathed Jones’ gold sword to Richard Dale, the officer who served both of them so gallantly in the Revolution. You will find it by Jones’ crypt. The legacy of Barry and Jones can be found on board every ship in the U.S. Navy, living in the heart of any and every sailor nobly called to sea.

1. John Paul Jones Papers, Library of Congress (LOC), Reel 6, Item 1339, 7 September 1781. Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) Ms. N-761, William Pynchon Diary, 1776–1789, entry for 29 August 1781.

2. John Barry to Board of Admiralty, 25 July 1781, quoted from Martin I. J. Griffin, The History of Commodore John Barry (Philadelphia: American Catholic Historical Society, 1897), 148. Independence Seaport Museum (ISM): Barry-Hayes Papers, John Brown to John Barry, 26 June 1781.

3. Samuel Eliot Morison, John Paul Jones: A Sailor’s Biography (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999), 321–26. New York Historical Society (NYHS): Thomas Paine to Thomas Hutchinson, 11 March 1781. ISM: Alliance log, March 1781. Pennsylvania Archives: John Kessler, “Rough Sketch,” London Chronicle , 6 August 1781.

4. Howard I. Chappelle, The American Sailing Navy (New York: Bonanza, 1949), 80. Morison, John Paul Jones , 385-87. Charles Oscar Paullin, ed., Out-Letters of the Continental Marine Committee and Board of Admiralty (New York: Devinne Press, 1914), vol. 2, 131.

5. LOC: John Paul Jones Papers, Reel 6, Item 1339, 7 September 1781.

6. Journals of the Continental Congress : John Brown to James Nicholson, 13 November 1780.

7. Morison, John Paul Jones , 377.

8. Mrs. Reginald DeKoven, Life and Letters of John Paul Jones (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), vol. 2, 2112–14.

9. Ibid. Morison, John Paul Jones , 377.

10. LOC: John Paul Jones Papers, Reel 6, Item 1339, 7 September 1781.

11. Ibid. William Bell Clark, Gallant John Barry (New York: MacMillan, 1938), 233. ISM: Barry-Hayes Papers, List of Articles for Auction, 1939.

12. Evan Thomas, John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003), 250.

13. ISM: Ship’s log, Black Prince , 10–11 September 1775. Morison, John Paul Jones , 85–114.

14. John Paul Jones to Thomas Bell, 15 March 1778, quoted from Morison, John Paul Jones , 221–22.

15. ISM: Barry Memorial to Congress, 1785, quoted from Clark, Gallant John Barry , 144. Sarah Barry, as a stitch-sister to Betsy Ross, is credited with sewing the flag that Jones flew atop the Ranger (Gregory Keen, the Descendants of Jöran Kyn,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography , vol. 4, 486.

16. Morison, John Paul Jones , 275. John Adams, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams , L. H. Butterfield, ed. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1961), vol. 2, 368.

17. Thomas, John Paul Jones , 247–48. Marine Committee to John Barry, 5 September 1780, in Paullin, Out-Letters , 263. De Koven, Appendix, “John Barry’s Summation of the Evidence at Landais Court-Martial,” 467–73.

18. Richard Dale: “Biographical Memoir of Richard Dale,” Portfolio Magazine , vol. 3, no. 6 (June 1814), 499–515. Edgar Stanton MacLay, A History of American Privateers (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1899), 64. Keen, “Descendants,” 494.

19. Thomas, John Paul Jones , 157–60. LOC: George Washington Papers, Lafayette to Washington, 18 February 1782. American Philosophical Society (APS): Benjamin Franklin Papers, Barry to Rankling, 17 January 1782.

20. APS: Franklin Papers, Franklin to Jones, 5 July 1780.

21. LOC: Letters of Delegates to Congress, Samuel A. to Elbridge Gerry, 2 January 1788. Pennsylvania Gazette , 10 October 1787. Pennsylvania Archives, Colonial Series, vol. 15, 285–87. Charles Biddle, The Autobiography of Charles Biddle (Philadelphia: E. Claxton & Co., 1883), 219.

22. James C. Bradford, “John Paul Jones: Honor and Professionalism,” Command under Sail: Makers of the American Naval Tradition 1775-1850 , James C. Bradford, ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1985), 25, 40. NYHS: Barnes Collection, John Barry Papers (JBP), Barry to James Imlay, 8 January 1798.

23. Morison, John Paul Jones , 377, 396.

24. NYHS: Barnes Collection, JBP, Jones to Deauville, 4 June 1783.

25. Morison, John Paul Jones , 396.

26. Ibid., 480–82; ISM: Barry-Hayes Papers, List of Articles for Auction, 1939.

27. With thanks to James Cheevers, curator of the U.S. Naval Academy Museum, for updating me since my last visit to the Academy.



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