Conversations in Management: Joshua Barney

“Mr. Barney Leave the Girls Alone!”

                American Top 40—1814 Edition.

Barney_1814While Frank Key was busy penning the national anthem, another War of 1812 notable was the subject of an anthem of a different sort. The notable was Joshua Barney and the “anthem” celebrated his success with the distaff side of Jeffersonian America. The song’s refrain was, “Mr. Barney leave the girls alone! Why don’t you leave the girls alone, And let them quiet be?” Lyrics included the memorable, “Barney you’re a wicked boy, And you do always play and toy, With all the gals you see.” It was a humorous song and not the least bit mean-spirited. Barney had been a swashbuckling hero of the Revolutionary War as both a privateer and later as a commissioned officer in the Navy. He was handsome, courageous, daring and impetuous (more sail than ballast to his jealous critics). Towards the end of the war, he was sent to Paris with important dispatches for Benjamin Franklin. The young Captain impressed the elder statesman and also caught the eye of Marie Antoinette. When Barney was presented at court, the queen offered her cheek rather than her hand for a kiss. Taking the cue, all the ladies-in-waiting did likewise. Barney never made much of the experience but it was just too good a story for folks not to talk about. Then, as now, a tale involving a celebrity that contained a whiff of salaciousness was irresistible to the public. Before he knew it, Barney was being celebrated in song. It’s not known what Barney thought of the song or if he ever belted out a chorus with the fellows over a brew, but we can assume he found it preferable to being commemorated as Yankee Doodle.

For all his good humor, Barney shared a weakness common among swashbucklers—a propensity for being thin-skinned and irascible. Over the years, these traits had won him the enmity of Jefferson and Madison. Both rebuffed his efforts to rejoin the Navy. But circumstances have a way of changing things. By 1814, with the British terrorizing the civilian population along the Chesapeake Bay and advancing on both Washington and Baltimore, the recently retired, Barney contacted the Navy with an audacious plan. He offered to build and command a flotilla of twenty barges that would harass and slow the British advance. Short on options, the Navy accepted and the old warrior was back in uniform. The Chesapeake Flotilla’s tenure was brief but successful in distracting the enemy. When finally cornered, Barney scuttled the barges and with his sailors joined General Winder’s forces at Bladensburg for the defense of Washington. As history records, that defense turned into a rout that the British dubbed the Bladensburg Races. In fairness, Barney’s sailors acquitted themselves well and, unlike the militia, held their positions until finally overrun.

Despite possessing lips that kissed the downy cheek of Marie Antoinette, Joshua Barney has faded into history. And while the lyrics of his Top 40 hit live on, the tune has long been forgotten. Yet there’s something noble about this wicked boy. Love for the ideal of liberty propelled him to the high seas on behalf of his nascent country. Love for that realized ideal sent him from retirement back into war. In many ways, his life reflects the spirit of perseverance that as a people, we so admire and that’s captured in Key’s sweeping Star Spangled Banner. In perfections and imperfections, he’s a genuine American hero. But, please, Mr. Barney leave the girls alone!     —Ebert

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