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John Barry An American Hero In The Age Of Sail by Tim McGrath

Tim McGrath

Reviewed by:
On December 5, 2013
Last modified:November 5, 2022


If you’re a naval history buff or a Patrick O’Brian fan, put this book at the top of your list. Tim McGrath’s biography of John Barry is excellent. McGrath gives a wealth of detail without being tedious.

John BarryIf you’re a naval history buff or a Patrick O’Brian fan, put this book at the top of your list.  Tim McGrath’s biography of John Barry is excellent. McGrath gives a wealth of detail without being tedious.

The first part of the book is the tale of a man who pulled himself by his bootstraps.  Barry was the epitome of the self-made man, emigrating from a bleak future in Ireland to become a successful captain in the American merchant marine – prior to the American Revolution.

When the war began, for Barry there was no question where his allegiance lay.  He was a fierce advocate for his adopted country and put his considerable talents at the disposal of the Continental Congress … and George Washington.

McGrath breathes life into Barry’s naval escapades and describes several actions with a verve that seemed like something out of a Patrick O’Brian novel

However, most interesting to this reader were the connections between Barry and other patriots. In the naval realm, Barry was a contemporary of John Paul Jones who, while a good deal more flamboyant, lacked some of Barry’s qualities.  Barry never blew his own horn, and was content to let his actions speak for him.  Due to this and local prejudices, Barry didn’t always get the recognition or assignments that his skills merited.  Nonetheless, Barry went about his duties with a vigor that made his abilities manifest, whether he was eluding the British, capturing an enemy ship, or getting one of several ships ready in record time. Barry worked closely with some fantastically gifted shipwrights, notably Joshua Humphreys whose work is paid homage to in at least one Patrick O’Brian novel.

John Barry and Anthony Wayne conducted a brilliant campaign in tandem to provide food for Washington’s troops wintering at Valley Forge.  Barry sailed up and down the Delaware River setting fires to haystacks and harassing the British to distract them while Wayne and his men conducted raids to gather up cattle to feed the troops.  The British focused on Barry and his raiders while Wayne and his men got through unmolested.  This not only provided food for the starving American army, but also denied the cattle to the British. Wayne and Barry became lifelong friends.

Barry also was involved in several diplomatic missions to France, once taking Tom Payne and John Laurens on a perilous trip across the Atlantic. The trip was perilous not just because of the stormy Atlantic and the fact that America was at war with the world’s foremost naval power, but also because his ship was severely undermanned, and the men that it did have were in large part comprised of captured British, prone to mutiny.  Not only that, Barry and his officers hadn’t been paid, increasing the difficulty with some of his own officers.

On arrival to France, Barry began what was to be a frustrating relationship with Benjamin Franklin.  Barry and Franklin didn’t see eye to eye, with Franklin assuming that Barry was there to do his bidding alone.  Franklin couldn’t have cared less about Barry’s orders.

This is but one instance in the book where McGrath shows a famous figure like Franklin from a different perspective than what is normally encountered.  Other figures, like Arthur Lee, conform more to their normal portrayal in other biographies (like that of Franklin by Walter Isaacson),

Barry wasn’t very good at playing politics, as his dealings with Franklin illustrate.  Barry was a straight shooter, a man of few words, and he didn’t mince them.  However, for the first part of his naval career, he didn’t have to worry, having a powerful advocate in the person of his friend Richard Morris.  Morris ran the early navy and knew what to expect from Barry and Barry didn’t often disappoint him.

Although, Morris did become frustrated at points with Barry because Morris at times issued orders that hamstrung him.

After the Revolution, Barry tried unsuccessfully to get sailors recognized for their contributions and receive back pay and pensions due them.  But there wasn’t enough money to go around and he and other naval officers got the short end of the stick.

In an intriguing interlude after the war, when the Constitution was up for ratification, Barry played an interesting, if dubious role in getting it ratified in Pennsylvania.

The Constitutional Convention was over, but the battle for ratification had just begun.

Even thought the Constitutional Convention was over, the assembly still gathered upstairs in the chambers recently renovated as a carbon copy of their usual downstairs haunt.  The desks faced in the same directions, and the gallery – a cordoned-off area taking up about fifteen percent of the room– was filled with spectators.  Anyone with a vested interest in the outcome could attend theses sessions.  Barry was a regular.

McGrath describes the battle lines,

The Constitution’s supporters were led by men Barry knew well, including Mifflin, George Clymer, and recent constitutional delegate Thomas Fitzsimmons.  The opposition was led by James McCalmont, Jacob Miley, and James Barr.


The battle for ratification commenced. Words and blood pressure ran high; Clymer, leading the Federalists, tried to steamroller ratification, while MCCalmont and the anti-Federalists, equally passionate, were determined to oppose the measure by every possible argument.  To add to the tension, the debate was being fought with a shrinking calendar.  The assembly was adjourning at the end of the month to allow members to go home and campaign for reelection. Clymer’s Federalists held a two-to-one advantage, but McCalmont’s ant-Federalists skillfully stonewalled attempts at passage.  If they succeeded, they could delay voting on ratification by a year- perhaps even defeat it.  Barry’s friends in the assembly wanted Pennsylvania to be the first state to ratify the Constitution.  McCalmont’s side wanted to kill it.

On September 28, 1787, a raucous debate ensued as Clymer proposed that the assembly ratify the Constitution.  Fitzsimmons proposed that the motion be amended, calling for an election of delegates. The anti-Federalists attempted a move to postpone that proposal and were defeated.  Moving forward with ratification in 1787 depended on this vote. … A vote for the proposed selection of delegates would resolve the issue by December 1787; a vote against would delay debate to December 1788.  Fitzsimmons’ resolution passed 43 to 19.  But that didn’t mean clear sailing for the Federalists.

A motion to recess until four o’clock resoundingly passed, and the assembly went their various ways, in groups and individually, leaving the building in search of a meal.  Barry and the gallery followed. 

Around four, Barry rejoined the crowd in the gallery to witness the Federalists’ victory.  The representatives ambled in — only not nearly as many as had left earlier.  The clock struck four.  All nineteen anti-Federalists were missing. Their trump card was absence; there was no quorum. There could be no vote.

Disgusted, the Federalists called a recess until 9:30 the next morning.

Barry and the crowd stamped down the steps and out into the Indian summer weather.  Everyone knew what would happen the next morning; another no-show by the anti-Federalists.  Without a quorum, there would be no convention, perhaps no ratification for another year.  How many absent assemblymen were needed to have a quorum?   Barry knew the answer: two.

Barry mulled things over in his mind that evening.  The next morning he made a trip to the waterfront and brought some sailors, dock workers, and wharf toughs to the boardinghouse where the two remaining anti-Federalists were lodging.

The two ex-militiamen put up a fight.  Fists were thrown, clothes were torn and fingers were bitten or pried of the banisters.  The representatives of Dauphin and Franklin counties punched and kicked in every direction, but to no avail.  Messrs. McCalmont and Miley bid adieu to Major Boyd’s [the owner of the boardinghouse], without settling their bill.

The anti-Federalists continued to fight all the way to the state house.

… McCalmont and Miley squirmed to free themselves, lashing out to their bearers, whose fingernails dug into their necks and hands, drawing blood.  Their clothes, torn in proportion to their resistance, became shredded rags.


Finally, Barry and his men got through the doorway, literally throwing the two men over the rail that divided the gallery from the austere chamber of official government business.  Thanks to Barry there was bedlam, but also a quorum.

McGrath’s telling of the rest of the story in the assembly gives real color to the events.  The dialog between the bedraggled anti-Federalists and the rest of the assembly was very humorous.

However, his actions got him into hot water, and although legal proceedings were eventually dropped, Barry lived under the threat of them for quite a while.

On November 6, the Assembly vote for ratification of the Constitution barely passed, 46 to 23, and with it ended Barry’s career as a political activist.

Barry remained an active member, at times the only active member of the early US Navy, fighting in the quasi-war with the French. It was during this conflict that Barry crossed paths with Alexander Cochrane. The author’s account of this event is an interesting minor mistake in an otherwise flawless book.  McGrath writes that a frigate flying French colors (a ruse de guerre),

… proved to be the HMS Thetis, commanded by Thomas Cochrane.  … [who] in later years would burn Washington and attack Fort McHenry ...

This is an interesting mistake, and possibly a typo. The man actually commanding  the ship was Alexander Cochrane who would indeed have a hand in the burning of the capitol during the war of 1812. What’s interesting about this, is that the famous Thomas Cochrane, Alexander’s nephew, was also on board the Thetis at this time.  Thomas Cochrane was a frustrated lieutenant eager for promotion and dissatisfied with his time on the North American station patrolling around Halifax.  He was catching a ride back to London with his uncle.

John Barry not only served with distinction and knew many of the most significant actors on the American side during the Revolution, but also was famous for his floating naval academy.  Under his guidance, many of the most successful and famous heroes of the War of 1812 were launched.  One exception to this was David Porter whose father, David Porter Senior, was Barry’s contemporary.  For some reason, Barry didn’t think much of the elder Porter.  (Readers of this blog may recall a recent review of a The Shining Sea, which was about David Porter.)

There is much more in McGrath’s excellent book than can be covered in the space of this review, including a fascinating description of Barry’s dealings in Canton.  Using first hand accounts, McGrath paints a vivid picture of what it was like to do business with China in the early in 19th Century.  But, alas, all things must come to an end, and while much has been left out by necessity, this reviewer hopes the foregoing will serve to whet the reader’s appetite to read the book.


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