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John Paul Jones
By Dennis M. Conrad

John Paul Jones personifies the fighting spirit and the never-say-die attitude of the United States Navy. This spirit was never more evident than at the Battle off Flamborough Head, one of the most desperate sea-fights in naval history and the most famous engagement involving an American vessel fought during the American Revolution.

In September 1779, Jones served as captain of Bonhomme Richard, an old converted merchant vessel, and commanded a "fleet" of three smaller warships in the waters off Scotland and northern England when he encountered a British convoy carrying naval stores to England from the Baltic Sea region. Acting as an escort to this convoy were two British warships. The largest of these warships, which Jones engaged, was Serapis, a 44-gun vessel - though at the time carrying fifty guns - with a crew of 284. A ship of that size and firepower occupied a place in the eighteenth-century Royal Navy equivalent to a cruiser in its twentieth-century counterpart. From the battle's onset, Bonhomme Richard was at a disadvantage fighting a ship with superior firepower and maneuverability. Moreover, an accident that occurred early in the engagement greatly increased the odds against an American victory. On the second broadside fired by Bonhomme Richard, two of its biggest guns exploded. (At least one expert believes only one gun may have exploded, but that two neighboring guns were dismounted by the blast.) In a memoir that he later penned, Jones wrote that many of the officers and men working those guns, "who had been selected as the best of the crew," were killed, wounded, "or so frightened that none of them was of any use during the remainder of the engagement." This accident completely silenced Bonhomme Richard's biggest guns and left the ship vulnerable to being pounded to pieces by Serapis.

Understanding immediately that it would be suicidal to continue to trade broadsides with Serapis, Jones by superior seamanship moved Bonhomme Richard close to the enemy ship, allowing his crew to use grapples and lines to secure Bonhomme Richard to it, thus negating some of the advantages enjoyed by Serapis. Even with the ships locked together, however, the British gunners, the British gunners continued to fire into Bonhomme Richard until the hull and lower decks of the American ship were so battered that it resembled more a raft than a fighting ship. In fact, the British gunners wreaked such devastation with their broadsides that they had to reposition their guns continually or their cannonballs would pass through Bonhomme Richard without hitting anything solid.

As the sea poured in through the holes punched in its hull by British cannonballs, the hold of the ship filled with water. As the long battle neared its climax, Bonhomme Richard lay half submerged and was kept afloat only because the master at arms released one hundred British prisoners who were told to man the pumps and pump for their lives or the vessel would sink and they would drown. Even their efforts could not keep pace with the incoming sea. In short, the American ship was sinking.

As if this situation were not dire enough, fires raged both aloft in the sails and rigging and below decks. In fact, fighting at times ceased so the crews of both vessels could combat these out-of-control blazes. Finally, the continued pounding inflicted by Serapis had left half of Jones' crew dead or wounded.

At this point in the battle, the senior warrant officer of Bonhomme Richard and the ship's carpenter, unable to see their captain or the first lieutenant and assuming both were dead, decided to surrender their sinking, burning ship. They called for a ceasefire and ran to haul down the ship's pendant at the head of the mainmast - the signal that an eighteenth-century ship was giving up the fight. Hearing their calls for surrender, an enraged Jones drew his pistols and ran at them, shouting, "shoot them, kill them!" The two would-be surrenderers abandoned their attempt to lower the ship's pendant and turned to flee when they spied Jones approaching them. Jones, finding his pistols unloaded, hurled his empty guns at the carpenter, the slower of the two fleeing men, striking him on the head and knocking him unconscious. The captain of the British warship, who heard the calls for surrender, yelled across to the Jones, "Have you struck? Do you call for Quarter?" Jones then replied, "I have not yet begun to fight," - words that have defined he American navy ever since. With that, the battle continued.

Jones' fighting spirit and determination were contagious. Though the odds against victory remained formidable, Jones' will to win reinvigorated his crew. They renewed the battle "with double fury" and succeeded in repelling a British boarding party that attempted to capture the American vessel just after the surrender incident. The key moment of the battle then occurred. A Scottish seaman serving in Bonhomme Richard climbed down from the top of the mainmast, moved along a spar to a point above Serapis' decks and began to throw the eighteenth-century equivalent of hand grenades onto the deck of the enemy. One of these "grenades" rolled down a partially opened hatch and landed near cartridges that had been stacked along the portside guns of the Serapis. Because of the position of the two ships, these guns were not in action and these spare cartridges were piled behind them. The grenade's explosion ignited these cartridges, which in turn ignited other cartridges on the gun deck creating a flash-fire, which had a devastatingly horrible effect in the cramped gun deck filled with men and officers. Twenty crewmen died instantly and another thirty were badly injured. Several of these men - their clothes burned off, their skin seared, and their hair on fire - jumped out of the ship's gun ports into the sea. With this disaster, the big guns of Serapis fell silent.

When news of the disaster was conveyed to the captain, Richard Pearson, he decided to surrender and save his remaining crew from slaughter. Calling for quarter, he personally made his way to the rear of the warship and hauled down the battle ensign. Thus ended the three-and-one-half-hour battle. Jones and his crew had prevailed and had captured the enemy's vessel, which was fortunate since the badly damaged Bonhomme Richard sank shortly after the battle. Against long odds and a formidable foe, they had achieved a remarkable victory.

Making his Way: Jones' Youth

While Jones' actions and fighting spirit in the battle off Flamborough Head, the most notable of his career, established him as one of our country's greatest naval heroes, his entire life can be instructive. John Paul Jones was born John Paul on 6 July 1747 at Kirkbean, Kirkcudbright, Scotland, on the shores of Solway Firth. He was the fifth child in his family. His father, also named John, served as the gardener at Arbigland House, an estate at Kirkbean. While not poor, the Pauls were decidedly working class. Some of John Paul Jones' early biographers refused to accept his humble origins and instead insisted that he was the illegitimate son of the Third Earl of Selkirk. According to American historian Samuel Eliot Morison, this story of Jones' "hidden nobility" is the product of "a type of snobbery which insists that every great man who makes a stir in the world (such as Shakespeare, Columbus and Lincoln) must be either a nobleman in disguise or a man of lefthanded aristocratic lineage." In truth, Jones was a working class boy who overcame class prejudice and succeeded in a world dominated by the rich and powerful.

In 1761, at the age of thirteen John Paul became a sailor. Since he lacked "connections," the young man began his career as an apprentice mariner. As an apprentice, he committed himself to seven years' service to John Younger, a merchant operating out of an English port near where John Paul had been raised. His first voyage took John Paul to Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he visited his older brother, a tailor who had earlier immigrated to America. A number of voyages between England, the West Indies, and the Chesapeake followed until 1764 when Younger went bankrupt and released John Paul from his apprenticeship. Young Jones then worked on ships operating in the African slave trade, which recent studies have indicated was the most dangerous and least desirable of berths for sailors. Jones could not abide what he called that "abominable trade." Even though unhappy in his position, he made the most of it, and in 1768 when the twenty-one year old Paul left the slaving vessel Two Friends, he was its chief mate. Separating from Two Friends in Jamaica, John Paul took passage home on a brig, John, and when both the captain and chief mate died of disease on the brig's voyage to Scotland, John Paul, being the only person aboard who could navigate, assumed command and brought the vessel and its crew of seven safely to Kirkcudbright.

The owners of John, pleased with John Paul's performance, asked him to continue as captain and for the next two years he served as master and selling agent for John, making several voyages between Scotland and the West Indies. By 172, he had graduated to command of Betsy, a large square-rigged merchant vessel. Through personal initiative, merit, force of character, and luck, John Paul had in the space of a few years risen from ship's boy to become a captain. Unlike many of his contemporaries, his opportunities were not provided to him; he made his own way and at a young age had achieved much.

John Paul's life took a dramatic turn in 1773 as a result of his ferocious temper. One of the seamen on Betsy, to whom Jones later referred simply as the ringleader, challenged Paul's authority and fomented a mutiny when the ship arrived at the West Indian island of Tobago. Jones confronted the ringleader with a sword, intending, as he later asserted, to intimate the sailor into obedience. According to Jones, the ringleader then went berserk, picked up a piece of wood and came at Jones, who defended himself with his sword against repeated blows. Finally Jones, in self-defense, stabbed his attacker, killing him. If Jones' account is accurate, his subsequent actions seem strange. A few days after the incident, Jones fled Tobago, traveled "incog[nito]" to America, changed his name, and "reinvented" himself. Either Jones' rendition of the events leading to the sailor's death were not as he later portrayed them or the killing of the man, a Tobagoan, though justifiable, so inflamed the local population that Jones and his friends feared that he could never receive justice and therefore must flee.

His ability to recover from what he himself later called "that great Misfortune of my Life" was an important turning point in Jones' career. He arrived in America, which, he later wrote, had long been his "favorite Country," intending to settle there permanently and "quit the Sea Service" using money owed him as a merchant captain to "purchase some small tracts of Land." Whether or not he genuinely desired to abandon the sea cannot be known; however, events quickly overtook him and propelled him back to a maritime career.

Jones Joins the Continental Navy

Jones arrived in America just as the crisis in relations between the American colonies and England came to a climax, culminating in fighting between British soldiers and colonial militiamen at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts in April 1775. Reacting to these clashes, the Continental Congress created a Continental army and navy. Officers were needed to staff this new navy. Responding quickly, Jones went to Philadelphia to offer his services. In addition to needing a job, Jones had other motives for volunteering. As he later wrote, he had made "the Art of War by Sea" his "Study" and had been "fond of a Navy from my boyish days up." Serving in the new Continental Navy would allow him to fulfill that childhood dream. Jones also professed a loftier motive for enlisting in the Patriot cause. He later wrote that he, though not an American but a "Citizen of the World," had joined up out of a love of liberty, a concern for "the Violated rights of Mankind," and a sense of "universal philanthropy." Jones has provided ample proof of being a romantic and an idealist; fighting to establish the right of a people to decide their destiny freely without coercion from a despotic king or his corrupt underlings appealed to these impulses.

Upon enrolling in the American cause, Jones was commissioned a lieutenant - the "Eldest" or most senior lieutenant in the navy. Jones could have commanded the sloop Providence but chose instead to serve as a lieutenant in the flagship of the commander in chief of the Continental Navy, Esek Hopkins, because, Jones said, his "highest Ambition" was to learn from a "Gentleman of Superiour Abilities[,] of superiour Merit." Jones believed he could be immediately useful and learn more seamanship and fleet maneuver by serving as a first lieutenant on Alfred than by commanding his own ship. He evidenced this same desire to increase his professional knowledge twice more: in 1778 when he requested that his friend, French fleet commander Lieutenant-General le Comte d'Orvilliers, allow him to go on board d'Orvilliers' flagship when the French sailed to attack a British flotilla protecting the English Channel; and in 1782 when he sailed as an observer on a French fleet going to the West Indies. In both cases, Jones hoped to study French battle tactics and fleet maneuvering in person. Throughout his career, Jones made learning and acquiring professional knowledge a priority.

In later years, Jones regretted his decision to sail in Alfred instead of accepting an independent command. Ever ambitious, Jones decided that a captaincy, even of a small vessel, would have established his seniority in the Navy and given him an opportunity of distinguishing himself. The outcome of the first operation involving Alfred heightened his dissatisfaction. Under the command of Hopkins, the fleet in 1777 captured the island of New Providence in the Bahamas. They captured the virtually undefended island easily; however, the governor in surrendering bought enough time to send away two hundred barrels of gunpowder, the capture of which had been the chief object of the expedition. On its way back from the Bahamas, the fleet sailed to Block Island, Rhode Island, hoping to capture British merchant vessels. While in those waters, it encountered the British warship HMS Glasgow, which should have been easy prey. The American attack was not well coordinated, however, and Glasgow escaped after mauling the American brig Cabot. Hopkins' conduct in the encounter with Glasgow convinced Jones that he had nothing to learn from the American commander in chief so that when he was again offered the command of Providence in the shuffling of positions that followed the Glasgow affair, Jones quickly accepted.

Independent Command

In August 1776, Jones set sail on his first independent cruise as captain of Providence. Operating as a commerce raider on this and a subsequent voyage, Jones enjoyed spectacular success. During his first voyage - off the Grand Banks - he captured sixteen prizes and destroyed the local fishing fleet. In his second cruise - again to the Grand Banks - he took several more prizes, including the armed transport Mellish with its cargo of winter uniforms, which were distributed to the nearly naked Continental Army. As he wrote his friend Joseph Hewes, a delegate to Congress from North Carolina: "In the term of Twelve weeks, including the time of fitting out … I took twenty four Prizes."

Anticipating that these successes would get him promoted to squadron commander, Jones was bitterly disappointed to discover that Congress had placed him 18th on the seniority list. One of Jones' failings as a naval officer and as a human being was his inability to distance himself from decisions that involved him or his career. Instead of appreciating that Congress was forced to appoint many of the men because they were well known in a particular geographical area and could therefore generate support to construct and man vessels for the navy, Jones interpreted his ranking as a slight on his honor and abilities. He should have understood that despite his being a foreigner with no natural political constituency or supporters, he still ranked high on the list of senior officers. Instead, he lashed out against some of those ranked above him in a series of intemperate letters. In a letter to Robert Morris, a Pennsylvania delegate to Congress and a member of the Marine Committee, Jones charged that several of the officers promoted over him were "altogether illiterate and Utterly ignorant of Marine Affairs." In another letter, Jones argued the new rankings slighted "the Gentleman or Man of Merit," by which Jones meant himself.

Going then from the purely personal to important ideas on the naval service in general - something Jones often did in such letters - he wrote "none other than a Gentleman, as well as a Seaman both in Theory and in Practise is qualified to support the Character of a Commission Officer n the Navy, nor is any Man fit to command a Ship of War, who is not also capable of communicating his Ideas on Paper in Language that becomes his Rank." Thus, Jones advocated that the Marine Committee consider a candidate's character and communication skills as much as technical expertise in promoting an officer to command a ship or a fleet.

On another occasion, Jones suggested that the system of establishing seniority be based on merit. He proposed that commissioners, aided by "three or more of the most Judicious commanders of the Fleet," be appointed "to examine the abilities of Men who apply for Commissions, and make report to the Board [of Admiralty], also to examine divers Persons who now bear Commissions in the Service, and whoe's Abilities and accomplishments are very suspicious and uncertain." Jones therefore advocated a system of promotion based on merit rather than political influence or nepotism, a farsighted reform that would be long in coming. A system of merit promotion was particularly important for the naval service because "the Abilities of Sea Officers ought to be as far Superiour to the abilities of Officers in the Army as the nature of a Sea Service is more complicated, and admits of a greater number of Cases than can possibly happen on the Land - therefore the discipline by Sea ought to be the more perfect and regular." To this end, Jones came to advocate a training regimen for naval personnel that included schools for officers in the fleet and naval academies on shore. Although intemperate in some of what he wrote, Jones was enough of a patriot to say in his letters that he could not "think of quiting the Service" while "the liberties of America are Unconfirmed."

In 1777, while pressing his case for advancement, Jones advocated a new naval strategy that demonstrates imagination, initiative, and audacity. Recognizing that the American navy was not strong enough to protect the country's coasts and that preying on British commercial shipping brought minimal strategic advantage because privateers did this task equally well, he and his patron Robert Morris advocated a different role for the small, young American navy. As Morris stated in a letter to Jones, they believed that the Navy's mission should be to "attack the Enemies defenceless places & thereby oblige them to Station more of their Ships in their own Countries or to keep them employed in following ours and either way we are relieved so far as they do it." In other words, the Navy should hit the British where they least expected it and where they were most vulnerable. This strategy was, in fact, an extension of some of Lambert Wickes' ideas. Jones first suggested executing this strategy by leading a flotilla to Africa to prey on the "English African Trade which would not soon be recovered by not leaving them a Mast Standing on that Coast." Speaking for Congress, Robert Morris endorsed the main outlines of Jones' plan, but ordered that the attack be against British posts in the Caribbean, West Florida, and near the mouth of the Mississippi River instead.

The expedition never took place however. Jones blamed the jealousy and backwardness of the commander of the Continental Navy, Esek Hopkins; Hopkins cited the inability of the Navy to recruit men enough to man the ships needed for the proposed expedition. Instead, Jones was given command of Ranger, a sloop of war under construction at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and was ordered to Europe. As it turned out, this appointment gave Jones the perfect opportunity to execute his plan of an attack on the British where they least expected it.

Taking the War to the Enemy's Shores

Before that could happen, however, Jones had to spend several months readying Ranger for sea. To Joseph Hewes, he explained that he and his officers had used "application and Industry" to scrounge the necessary "materials" to outfit the vessel. Despite their efforts, it was not until the end of October, some four months after command of the vessel had been given to Jones, that "a single suite of sails" was obtained. Jones commented that outfitting this "small ship" had given him "more trouble" and cost him "more anxiety and Uneasiness than all of the other duty which" he had "performed in the service."

As well as being a talented scrounger, Jones had a real technical understanding of ships and took great pains to maximize the performance of those he commanded. In the case of Ranger, he decided that the vessel was too lightly built to carry twenty cannon and reduced its armament to a more manageable eighteen guns. In so doing, he lowered the center of gravity for the vessel. He also believed the vessel was over-sparred, a judgment confirmed by his voyage to France during which Ranger sailed "very Crank." To correct the defect, Jones made additional alterations in his vessel. He shortened the spars, added thirty tons of lead to the original ballast, and recut the sails. As a test voyage, he took Ranger into the rough winds and waters between Quiberon Bay and Brest, France. After the test, Jones ordered further alterations to the vessel in March 1778 hoping to improve its ability to sail to windward. Carpenters set the masts farther aft, sailmakers shortened the sails on the lower spars, and the crew repositioned the ballast. Finally, he had his crew scrape and clean the vessel's bottom, maximizing its speed. As evidenced here, Jones' success as a ship captain was the result of pre-campaign preparation as well as tactical decisions made in the heat of battle.

In the midst of these preparations, Ranger had gained the distinction of being the first vessel flying the Stars and Stripes to receive formal recognition from a foreign navy, thanks to Jones' efforts. On 13 February 1778 Jones anchored at Quiberon Bay where a squadron of line-of-battle ships and three frigates under the command of French Admiral La Motte Piquet were sitting at anchor awaiting to escort an American-bound convoy away from the European coast. La Motte Piquet's presence gave Jones the opportunity he had long coveted to exchange salutes with a French flag officer. Jones sent a note saying that he was prepared to discharge a thirteen-gun salute if La Motte Piquet would "Return Gun for Gun." Jones was insulted when the French admiral replied that he would return the thirteen-gun salute with nine guns, but Jones was mollified on learning that was offered to "an Admiral of Holland or of any other Republic." He also saw it was an important symbolic moment because the salute was "an Acknowlidgement of American Independence."

At about the same time, Jones received orders from Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee, the American commissioners in France. Jones had sailed to Europe in anticipation that he would receive a frigate, L'Indien, which the American government had arranged to build in Holland. However, the British, learning of American plans, had persuaded the Dutch, in whose shipyard the vessel was being constructed, not to deliver L'Indien into American hands. The American commissioners, who were in the midst of delicate negotiations with the French, decided not to press the matter. As a result, Jones was ordered to retain command of Ranger and, in that vessel, to attack the enemy. The orders the commissioners gave him, though vague, directed Jones to pursue the strategy he had advocated. He was to assault the enemy "by Sea, or otherwise." An earlier letter from Jones to the commissioners had spelled out his intentions: "I have always since we have had Ships of War been persuaded that small Squadrons could be employed to far better Advantage on private expeditions and would distress the Enemy infinitely more than the same force could do by cruising either Jointly or Seperately - were strict Secrecy Observed on our part the Enemy have many important Places in such a defenceless Situation that they might be effectually Surprised and Attacked with no considerable Force - We cannot yet Fight their Navy as their numbers and Force is so far Superiour to ours - therefore it seems to be our most natural Province to Surprize their defenceless places and thereby divide their attention and draw it off from our Coasts." In a February 1778 letter to the commissioners, Jones reiterated his ideas, adding: "I have in contemplation several enterprizes of some importance - the Commissioners do not even promise to Justify me should I fail in any bold attempt - I will not however, under this discouragement, alter my designs. - When an Enemy think a design against them improbable they can always be Surprised and Attacked with Advantage. - it is true I must run great risque - but no Gallant action was ever performed without danger - therefore, tho' I cannot insure Success I will endeavour to deserve it."

As seen in these two letters, Jones understood that Americans must fight a kind of guerilla war at sea. They could not engage the enemy fleet against fleet, nor was commerce raiding the answer. While the latter might be profitable for the captains and crews, it did not, in the end, significantly help the nation's interest. Striking the enemy where least expected would keep the British off-balance and dispersed, forcing them to redeploy some of their naval squadrons away from the American coast. Jones' ideas were "out of the box," and reflected a patriotism that was willing to sacrifice personal gain and advancement for a greater good. It was not, however, a strategy that appealed to his crew who saw commerce raiding and attendant prize money as their best chance to supplement meager wages. In Ranger and in his subsequent commands, Jones had problems with dissatisfied crews because of his reputation as a risk-taker and hard-fighter who eschewed commerce raiding for other, more perilous, missions.

The Cruise of Ranger

The cruise of Ranger, which began in April 1778, was truly remarkable. It lasted twenty-eight days, and in that time, according to historian Samuel Eliot Morison, Jones and his crew "performed one of the most brilliant exploits of the naval war." In addition to taking two merchantmen - Jones favored capturing merchant ships when it did not detract from the overall strategic goal - and destroying several others, Ranger captured a British man-of-war, took some two hundred prisoners, and, most notably, executed a land raid that caught the public's attention in both England and America.

Jones had planned to raid a British coastal town as retaliation for English raids against towns on the Connecticut coast and in order to seize one or more "important" prisoners who might be exchanged for American seamen held in British prisons. The British government was willing to exchange captured American army officers and soldiers, but insisted on treating American naval prisoners as pirates who had no rights as belligerents. As a result, captured American seamen languished in British jails. The British could follow such a policy because American ships, especially privateers, captured few British prisoners and kept even fewer. Concerned about the fate of these American naval prisoners, Jones hoped that by taking an important English nobleman captive, he would force the British ministry to authorize an exchange. Jones mistakenly supposed that Lord Selkirk, his intended target, was a great lord whose detention would force the British to change their policy. Selkirk was, in fact, an unimportant Scottish peer. Moreover, he was away from home when Jones' raiding party arrived. Because of this, Jones - at the insistence of his crew - did nothing more than authorize his men to loot the Selkirk household silver. Jones refused to accompany his men on their mission and later purchased the silver from is men and returned it to the Selkirks. He also wrote a lengthy, apologetic letter to Lady Selkirk spelling out the rationale for the raid.

This raid roused the countryside and caused the Admiralty to send warships in pursuit of Ranger. Jones, unaware that he was being chased, decided to attack the 20-gun British ship Drake. It was an even match. Ranger had more and heavier armament but Drake had more men. In contrast to his tactics at Flamborough Head, Jones decided to disable Drake with cannon fire while preventing the British warship from closing with Ranger and boarding it. In a battle that lasted just over an hour and was "warm close and obstinate," Ranger forced Drake to surrender. Jones, understanding the publicity value of bringing the British warship into a French port after his daring land raid, decided to take Drake, whose rigging was in tatters, with him to France. For almost twenty-four hours, therefore, he remained off Whitehaven, England, refitting the damaged Drake. He then sailed for France via the northern tip of Ireland, an inspired choice because his British pursuers had taken up a position south and east of Whitehaven on the more direct route to the continent.

Reaction to the raid in England is interesting. In some publications, Jones was characterized as a bloodthirsty pirate interested only in murder and mayhem. These newspaper accounts even changed his physical appearance, describing Jones, who was approximately 5'6", with light brown hair, fair skin, and hazel eyes, as big, dark and swarthy, like a buccaneer. Despite the attempt to demonize Jones, many among the English lower classes came to see him as a Robin Hood figure, who took from the upper classes but was considerate of he English working man. This impression was solidified when on his return voyage to France Jones set ashore fishermen he had earlier captured to gain knowledge of the local waters and reportedly gave them new sails and money.

Heroism and Fame

With his success in Ranger, Jones gained command of a squadron, returning to British waters and fighting the battle off Flamborough Head. After that battle, Jones again eluded British patrol ships and with his squadron sailed into the Texel, Holland, on 3 October. While the battle was the pinnacle of Jones' naval career, in the period after the battle Jones demonstrated his shortcomings. He had always been concerned with his reputation, later asserting: "I have never served but for honor, I have never sought but glory." The victory over Serapis had given Jones that glory and he reveled in it to the point of neglecting his command and his crew. Shortly after arriving in the Texel, Jones traveled to Amsterdam where he was received as a hero and he played to that adulation. According to one of his midshipmen, Nathaniel Fanning, Jones "was treated as a conqueror. This so elated him with pride, that he had the vanity to go into the state house, mount the balcony or piazza, and shew himself in the front thereof, to the populace and people of distinction then walking on the public parade." Jones also worked as his own publicist to further his fame.

During October and November, Jones wrote dozens of letters, gave interviews, and helped to get accounts of the battle published widely in European newspapers. This publicity was not without benefit because it helped further the American cause. The problem was that Jones focused on it to the detriment of his command. As a friend and American agent in the Netherlands warned him in a letter of 18 October: "I have seen persons of authority here who are warm friends of America and who have spoken to me much about your squadron. Their opinion is that you did not do wrong to come and show yourself here; but, on the other had, they think that you should not repeat this step, because that would give you too much publicity and it would produce a bad effect … I must warn you also, my dear sir, that these same friends told me something which, whether or not it is true, hurts me as much as it does them, namely that, according to what one says, there reigns a great filth and infection in the Serapis; people have seen pieces of cadavers left from the battle … This shocks people here right now and makes one fear the consequences of such negligence. In the name of God, my dear sir, put order in all this. Do not leave your ship again. Have it cleaned and purged of this filth."

Jones' quest for fame also led him to diminish unfairly the contributions made by fellow officers during the engagement with Serapis. One of the captains in Jones' squadron, Denis-Nicholas Cottineau, whom Jones considered a friend, wrote a memoir that was highly critical of Jones when he became irritated with his insufferable self-promotion. As Cottineau wrote on 15 November 1779: "Ungrateful to his crew, he makes it seem that he alone did everything." Nor was this a new development. Throughout his service in the Continental Navy, Jones was slow to credit subordinates or superiors and quick to criticize them. As a result, he comes across as ungrateful, super-sensitive, and self-absorbed.

Another incident, the "mutiny" of the crew of Alliance, which occurred in June 1780, also had its origins in Jones' self-absorption. Although Jones wanted to refit and sail Serapis, pressure from the English government on the still-neutral government of the Netherlands forced Jones to turn that vessel over to the French before the Dutch government could seize it and return it to the English. Jones then took command of the frigate Alliance and slipped out of the Texel, eluding a blockading English squadron. He first took Alliance to Spain and then to Lorient, France, to refit. While Alliance was at Lorient, Jones traveled to Paris and again began a campaign of self-promotion that culminated in his being awarded the Order of Military Merit and a gold sword by King Louis XVI. While Jones was gone, Pierre Landais, the former commander of Alliance whom Jones had charged with treachery at the battle of Flamborough Head, boarded Alliance and convinced the crew that Jones was trying to rob them of prize money and that he, Landais, was their only hope for returning to America. With Landais in command, Alliance sailed from Lorient for the United States despite efforts by Jones to stop them.

Jones blamed the port officials at Lorient for not doing more to thwart Landais, but a letter from Benjamin Franklin, the American minister to France and Jones' patron and friend, is quite revealing. Franklin wrote: "If you had stayed on board where your duty lay, instead of coming to Paris, you would not have lost your ship. Now you blame them [the port officers] as having deserted you in recovering her; though relinquishing to prevent mischief was a voluntary act of your own, for which you have credit; hereafter, if you should observe an occasion to give your officers and friends a little more praise than is their due, and confess more fault than you can justly be charged with, you will only become the sooner for it, a great captain. Criticizing and censuring almost every one you have to do with, will diminish friends, increase enemies, and thereby hurt your affairs."

Having lost Alliance, Jones was given command of Ariel, a corvette built for the British navy but seized by the French and lent to the United States to carry supplies to America. On taking command of it, however, Jones, always interested in ship design and performance, decided that the vessel needed to be rerigged to improve its sailing abilities and further delayed his departure to America. Almost as soon as Ariel left Lorient in September 1779, it was caught in a vicious gale that battered the French coast and destroyed numerous ships. Ariel survived - thanks to Jones' superior seamanship - but lost two masts and had to return to Lorient for repair, keeping Jones and the vessel in France until February 1781.

Jones seems to have anticipated that he would be received as a hero when he arrived in America. Instead he was met with a congressional investigation. Certain delegates, hoping to use Jones' conduct in France as a means to discredit Franklin, initiated an investigation into the question of whether Jones had unnecessarily delayed the shipment of war supplies to America. Quickly deciding that the investigation would not achieve what they had hoped, these delegates abandoned the inquiry and turned the matter over to the Board of Admiralty. The secretary of the board submitted forty-seven questions to Jones, who, as a master of self-promotion, skillfully answered, highlighting his triumphs and blaming any problems on others, most notably Pierre Landais. Jones' triumph was confirmed when the French ambassador conferred on Jones the Order du Mérite Militaire, the highest award that the French could give to a foreigner. Congress then voted a resolution of thanks to Jones and gave him command of America, the Continental Navy's only ship of the line, which was then being built at Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Jones hoped to use America as the flagship of a flotilla that would once again attack England, but on arriving at Portsmouth to oversee its completion and launch, he was surprised to find progress on the vessel so "backward." While Jones actively supervised construction and the procurement of craftsmen and materials needed to complete the vessel, inadequate funds from the near-bankrupt Continental government meant that work on America progressed sporadically and slowly. In the end, a cash-strapped Congress presented America to the French as a replacement for a French man-of-war that had been destroyed on a sandbar outside of Boston Harbor.

The Final Years

The failure to complete America in time for active duty and the intrigue of other Continental captains denied Jones his fondest dream, a rear admiral's rank in the Continental Navy. The remaining years of Jones' life were spent trying to increase his professional knowledge of fleet command and to convince Congress that he should be appointed the United States Navy's first admiral. Such actions included his obtaining permission to accompany a French fleet to the West Indies in 1782-1783 to study fleet evolutions. While on that cruise, Jones became so ill that when he returned to America in May 1783, Robert Morris believed that he would die. After his recovery, he sought and received permission to travel to Europe, ostensibly to recover prize money owed to the officers and men of Bonhomme Richard and to serve as a reminder of the American navy in European capitals. He again sought an admiral's commission to enhance his prestige, but this honor was denied him. The mission was successful and Jones returned to the United States in 1787. Presenting his accounts for the French prize money negotiations to Congress, he again sought to be named a rear admiral. While the title would have been an honorary one at best because the United States had no navy at the time, captains who were senior to him blocked the request.

Frustrated, Jones left the United States for France in 1788. He was sent ostensibly to obtain prize money, this time from Denmark. While in Denmark, he was offered a commission in the Imperial Russian Navy. Attracted by the opportunity to command a fleet and hoping that his new title would impress Congress enough to award him with an admiral's rank, and attracted by the prospect of adventure and glory, Jones accepted the offer and set out for St. Petersburg. Sent to the Black Sea, the new rear admiral believed he would command all the naval forces in that theater in their operations against the Turks, but quickly learned that three other rear admirals served in the command and each jealously guarded his powers and privileges. Jones was instrumental in the Russian navy victory at Liman, but another admiral, Prince Nassau-Siegen, a friend of Empress Catherine II's key advisor, Gregorii Aleksandrovich, Prince Potemkin, successfully usurped all the credit for the victory. Jones was recalled to Moscow and spent several months making plans until a trumped-up sex charge linking Jones and a young girl scandalized the empress and ended any chances for his restoration to command.

In the end, he returned to Paris where he remained without money and prospects, all but ignored until his death in July 1792 at the age of forty-five after months of suffering from jaundice and other diseases. Ironically, only days before his death, Jones had been named a commissioner to negotiate with the dey of Algiers concerning the release of American sailors held prisoner by the dey. Jones was buried in Paris and the site of his grave quickly forgotten. Only in 1905 was Jones' grave rediscovered. His remains were returned to the United States to be re-interred in a magnificent tomb at the United States Naval Academy.

While Jones was revered through much of the nineteenth century as a hero who exhibited dauntless courage and unconquerable persistence in the face of overwhelming odds, it was not until the twentieth century that his professionalism and abilities as a "complete" naval officer came to be appreciated. His strategic vision that placed the nation's interest over his own personal gain, his rise to the top levels of the new American navy through dint of hard work and application, his skill as a naval architect, his continued study to better himself as an officer and commander, and his attempts to reform the Navy and to substitute merit and ability in place of nepotism and influence, all marked him as one who sought to professionalize the early Navy. While his personal shortcomings - his penchant for criticizing others, his inability to credit subordinates, self-promotion, and self-absorption - left him an outsider in the American naval service, he nonetheless became a symbol for the best that was to become the United States Navy and those who served in it.

Source: Conrad, Dennis M. "John Paul Jones" in E. Gordon Bowen-Hassell, Dennis M. Conrad, and Mark L. Hayes Sea Raiders of the American Revolution: The Continental Navy in European Waters. Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 2003. [see pp. 42-46, 48-51, 54-69]


Additional Resources

Captain John Paul Jones Main Biography Page




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