Michael L. Cooper‘s handsome volume for older readers (National Geographic, 9/06) gets going by questioning the accuracy of the famous quote attributed to John Paul Jones, “I have not yet begun to fight.” While that saying certainly captures the spirit of Jones, regarded as the father of the U.S. Navy, Cooper offers plenty of historically verifiable alternatives.
My favorite: Upon learning that a defeated foe had subsequently been knighted, the scrappy Scottish immigrant wrote, “Let me fight him again, and I’ll make him a lord.”
As Cooper correctly remarks, Jones’ accomplishments may seem modest by modern standards, spoiled as we’ve been by two and a quarter centuries of military heroics. But it’s easy to forget that, unlike his landlocked revolutionary contemporaries, Jones had no American model to follow. Inspired in large part by his own thirst for fame, he was establishing U.S. naval history as he went along.
Once the necessary backstory — both Jones’ and the revolution’s — is addressed, Cooper’s tale speeds along. Cooper offers lively descriptions of Jones’ exploits as a troublemaker in the British Isles as he brought a bit of the revolution back to the mother country. Granted considerable leeway by the powers-that-be, Jones acquired a reputation among the British as something of a pirate — and we all know how unpopular pirates are in children’s literature these days.