John Paul Jones captained a small ship for a country that didn’t even exist, fighting against the greatest sea power of the age.
Yet, a full century ahead of his time, he envisioned the United States as a global maritime force. He predicted the U.S. Navy would “rise as if by enchantment and become, within the memory of persons now living, the wonder and envy of the world.”
The self-taught Jones thought in terms of strategic attack, making a connection between naval power and world domination. In a word, he had vision.
“Without a respectable Navy,” he wrote, “alas America!”
Jones did not allow current realities to intrude on his vision.
• He embraced “power projection” early. In 1776, less than a year after he became the first American naval officer to hoist the new nation’s flag, his 10-gun sloop, Providence, had captured or destroyed 16 British brigantines, sloops and schooners.
Later, he proposed leading a small squadron to the west coast of Africa, where he would attack British commerce, “not leaving them a mast standing.” This idea was particularly audacious considering that the Continental Navy at the time couldn’t even keep American ports open.
• He considered recruitment and retention. In various bold proposals to Congress, Jones critiqued the quality of the officer corps, addressed the future structure of the Navy, and suggested building a fleet, opening naval academies and undertaking naval and commercial agreements with Europe.
It was the kind of sweeping, unsought advice politicians don’t typically welcome from Navy captains.
• He hoped to become America’s first admiral, but Jones never rose above captain in the Continental Navy. He did, however, become a rear admiral for Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. In 1788, he wrote to Thomas Jefferson that there simply weren’t opportunities for him in America, which didn’t appoint its first admiral until 1862.
— Adapted from “John Paul Jones: Sea Power Visionary,” Joseph F. Callo, Military History.