Students frequently discover that historians sometimes arrive at the establishment of facts with great uncertainty of proof. Nevertheless, the opinions of narrators become, as years pass on, records of history, and as such are handed down to posterity. From time immemorial, political, factional, or religious influences have distorted the accuracies of important national events. Posterity, however, always eager for the truth, seeks full knowledge of the records of a historic past, and to it is justly entitled.
The question as to whom among the nation’s early naval commanders or statesmen, if any, is due the honor of being called the father, or founder, of the American Navy, is a topic of interest to all of us, whether naval men or civilians. The opinions of naval historians on the subject, where expressed, are distinctly out of unison. We find that four, at least, of the Revolutionary patriots have had this honorary title con- conferred upon them, three of the number being naval officers and one a civilian. Certainly, the title is one of very great distinction; and should it be a correct appellation to affix to the name of any deemed worthy of the honor, then custom would dictate that one person, or one body of persons, and not four individuals, should be so honored.
The most illustrious of our Revolutionary naval officers, Captain John Paul Jones, doubtless has been more popularly accorded the title than any other man. If we but recall Jones’s brilliant services in behalf of the Naval Committee of the Continental Congress during the period of the Navy’s inception in the autumn of 1775, then the reason for bestowal of great popular favor upon him is plainly disclosed. Jones’s relation with the Naval Committee was that of an adviser, in which capacity he made his influence appreciably felt. History records that he took a leading part in the reconditioning of merchant ships for naval service and in the organization of the first American naval fleet which later, in January, 1776, put to sea under command of Commodore Hopkins. While engaged with these tasks Jones found the time, at the request of the Naval Committee, to submit two manuscripts for the enlightenment of that body; the one being on naval personnel, the other on naval material. These papers, as all naval officers know, were highly regarded for the mature thought and wise counsel that they contained, and even today are, in many respects, quite as applicable to the needs of the naval service as they were one hundred fifty years ago. Further, they definitely proved the author’s long experience and wide knowledge in the profession of the sea, and thus served to establish for him a well merited prestige, which increased with his brilliant successes in the course of the Revolutionary years that followed.
Thus it was that John Paul Jones became known as the father, or founder, of the American Navy. And it is pertinent to add that the great honor was bestowed upon him, not so much for his remarkable sea exploits, although they were the most brilliant of the Revolutionary War, but rather because of his invaluable services to the Naval Committee of 1775, when that body was engaged in the administrative task of laying the foundations of the American Navy.
Shortly after General Washington took command of the Army outside of Boston in July, 1775, he ordered, with the consent of Congress, several small vessels to be armed and manned. These vessels were known as Washington’s fleet and had orders to cruise between Cape Ann and Cape Cod for the purpose of intercepting or capturing enemy transports and store ships. By far the most successful among this small fleet was the Lee, a schooner of seventy-two tons, under command of Captain John Manley, a shipmaster of English birth. The Lee had effected several important captures and in January, 1776, her commander, who had been highly commended by Washington for his distinguished services, was made commodore of the fleet and transferred to the schooner Hancock. Later, Manley was appointed one of the first commissioned captains of the Navy. He continued to serve throughout the Revolution with great distinction and, while not always successful, yet rounded out an enviable record which placed him in the first rank of early American naval commanders.
The historian, Willis J. Abbot, in his well known work, The Naval History of the United States, makes the following reference to Captain Manley:
In October, 1775, Congress fitted out and ordered to sea, a number of small vessels. Of these the first to sail was the Lee under command of Captain John Manley, whose honorable name, won in the opening years of the Revolution, fairly entitled him to the station of the father of the American Navy.
In the center of Independence Square, Philadelphia, within a stone’s throw of Independence Hall, stands a noble statue of Captain John Barry, one of the most distinguished of the Revolutionary naval commanders. Many are those who claim for Barry the title of father of the American Navy; and one sees inscribed upon a bronze tablet at the base of the statue the following:
Commodore John Barry, U.S.N.
Father of the Navy of the United States Born in Wexford, Ireland r74S
Died in Philadelphia 1803 Presented to the City of Philadelphia by the
Friendly Sons of St. Patrick
The services of Barry, like those of Manley, were highly meritorious and praiseworthy to the end of his naval career. History discloses to us that in the early days of the Revolution there was serious opposition to a Federal Navy. This opposition existed among the citizens, as well as among members of the Continental Congress. Yet the necessity for a united naval policy had its staunch supporters and, of these, Mr. John Adams took the lead. He debated long and convincingly in the Congress, not only for a Navy as security against the depredations that were being committed along the undefended coast, but also for the purpose of harassing the enemy on the high seas and in his home waters. Adams later became chairman of the Naval Committee from October, 1775, to January, 1776, and while so serving was largely instrumental in the founding and early administration of the Revolutionary Navy.
In an old publication, entitled American Naval Baltics, by Horace Kimball, the author expresses his views in the preface of his work, as follows:
To no individual is the nation more indebted than to Mr. John Adams; and posterity will hail him as the father of the American Navy.
Thus do we find that a most honored title is bequeathed by historians and others to at least four of the Revolutionary patriots. Most naval historians, however, wisely disregard the choice of a favorite for this distinction, for the very good reason, doubtless, that no person, whatever his fame, can truly merit the honor.
The founding of the Navy, like the founding of the Army, was of indubitable need to the Revolutionary patriots in their struggle for liberty. The one supplemented the other and each was used as an indispensable means to the attainment of the peoples’ rights for self government.
Dr. C. O. Paullin, whose thorough and extensive researches in connection with the early history of the Navy have resulted in several notable publications under his able authorship, will bear quoting. In The Navy of the American Revolution, be states:
It scarcely needs to be said that the Naval Committee’s claim to distinction rests not upon its military achievements, hut upon its work of a civil character, whereby it laid the foundations of the Revolutionary Navy. It acquired the first American fleet, selected its officers and fitted it for sea. It drafted the first penal code of the Navy and prepared not a little fundamental naval legislation.
The honorary title then, of father, or founder, of the American Navy, because it is not truly merited, at least, by any single person, becomes incongruous. Also it is an appellation which is extremely misleading, particularly to those of our citizens, and others, who may be unacquainted with the essential facts pertaining to American naval history. Therefore the title might well be revoked, and without loss of prestige to any of the great patriots to whose names it injudiciously has been affixed.
By Lieutenant Commander F. E. Cross, U.S N.R.
15 January 2023 at 21:22
Thank you for reproducing this Naval Institute Proceedings article from December 1927, Mario. I started reading my dad’s Proceedings between 1956-1958. I’ve spent many enjoyable and enlightening hours reading this wonderful publication ever since then. John Paul Jones was one of my early heroes.
I’m certainly not an expert or even reasonably well versed as to who the father of the United States Navy is. I’d prefer to think of our Navy as the Peoples Navy. A Navy that was born in the interest of our own freedom. Our Declaration of Independence certainly played a major role in the birth of the United States Navy.
We Americans, all of us, have a Navy we can be truly proud of. The same also applies to each of the other military service branches.
Maunaloa, Molokai, Hawaii