Sturdy, seaworthy life of the Scottish-born hero of the American Revolution, whom John Adams characterized as “the most ambitious and intriguing officer in the American Navy.”
Jones, already a legend in his early 30s thanks to his daring exploits aboard the Bonhomme Richard, wasn’t exactly forgotten at the end of the Revolution, although he felt ill-used when Congress ignored his offer to establish a naval academy and make America a maritime power and instead auctioned off the Continental Navy’s few surviving frigates. He was given to mercurial moods and feelings of persecution anyway, writes Newsweek assistant managing editor Thomas (Robert Kennedy, 2000, etc.), very much like his contemporary Benedict Arnold, whom Thomas considers to have been Jones’s “closest rival . . . for drive and resourcefulness”—adding that “unlike Arnold, Jones remained steadfast to the American cause,” though both complained about official indifference to their brilliance and about “commands offered and withdrawn.” Jones therefore stalked off to Paris after the war against England, where he nursed his wounds before finding work as an admiral in the navy of the Russian tsarina Catherine the Great. There, he found himself embroiled in political intrigues of many kinds, though his undoing would prove to be an unseemly encounter with a 12-year-old girl that naturally enough, “left him vulnerable to scandal.” Shunned and disgraced, he returned to Paris, where he died in 1792 at the age of 45—just a few days, ironically enough, before a commission arrived from Congress for him to go and have sharp words with the Dey of Algiers about the matter of the Barbary Pirates. Thomas’s account of these events—and whether Jones ever really said “I have not yet begun to fight”—is skillfully rendered, and his blend of period detail and modern psychobiography just right for the job.
Fine slice of American military and revolutionary history—good for commodores in the making, too.