"I have not yet begun to fight": The Story of John Paul Jones

Adapted from Lauren Pitre's article for SWONET
Related Source: 250 Anniversary of the Birth of John Paul Jones

Today, the most recognizable name of a naval officer of the American Revolutionary War is that of John Paul Jones. Historic sites associated with his story attract tourists from around the world. Jones was born John Paul on July 6, 1747, in Kirkcudbright, Scotland. At 12 he entered the British merchant marine and went to sea for the first time as a cabin boy.

Jones became first mate on a slaver brigantine in 1766 but soon left that trade in disgust. He was appointed master in 1769. As master of a merchant vessel, he killed the leader of his mutinous crew in self-defense at Tobago in the West Indies in 1773.To avoid trial, Jones fled to Virginia and was considered a fugitive by the British. He concealed his identity by adding the surname Jones.

At the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775, Jones went to Philadelphia and entered the Continental Navy. In December he was commissioned a lieutenant on the first American flagship, Alfred. Jones was quickly promoted to captain in 1776 and given command of the sloop Providence. While on his first cruise aboard the Providence, he destroyed British fisheries in Nova Scotia and captured sixteen prize British ships.

In command of Ranger in 1777 and 1778, he operated in British home waters and made audacious raids on England’s shore.In recognition of his exploits, he was placed in command of five French and American vessels. Aboard his flagship, the Bonhomme Richard, Jones led his small squadron in the capture of seven merchantmen off of the Scottish coast. On September 23, 1779, Jones fought one of the bloodiest engagements in naval history. Jones struggled with the 44-gun Royal Navy frigate Serapis, and although his own vessel was burning and sinking, Jones would not accept the British demand for surrender, replying, “I have not yet begun to fight.” More than three hours later, Serapis surrendered and Jones took command.

According to some historians, Jones remained appealing as much for his actions as for his personality. British chapbooks, an early form of dime novels, pictured him as a ruthless marauding pirate akin to Blackbeard. His attacks on British ships were often sudden and sometimes bloody. The vision of a swarthy scalawag persisted even to the writings of Rudyard Kipling a century later.

In person, however, Jones was another man. Thomas Jefferson and others referred to him as ‘little Jones’ and he may have been 5’5”. Unlike other merchant seamen, he was well dressed, carried a sword, and conducted himself with practiced decorum.. Add to that a Scottish brogue, and light Celtic features. He was never an easy man to get along with, intense about his honor and his duties, a harsh military master. But he was surprisingly sociable. He was a prolific poem and letter writer, spoke some French, and, though he never married, was involved in many romances. Above all, no one questioned his daring. In Britain, his naval actions against the mother country certainly led to his presentation as a pirate.

In 1788, Russian Empress Catherine the Great appointed Jones rear admiral in the Russian Navy, in which he saw action in the Liman campaign in the Black Sea. He left the Russian service in 1789 and moved to Paris. He was appointed U.S. Consul to Algiers but died before the commission arrived. His body was buried in Paris, but in 1905, after a lengthy search, his remarkably preserved corpse was discovered and removed from a gravesite in Paris and transported to the United States. Through the intervention of President Theodore Roosevelt, Jones’ remains were re-interred in an ornate tomb at the Naval Academy Chapel at Annapolis, Maryland in 1913 when the tomb was completed