Capt. John Paul Jones, Continental Navy

Capt. John Paul Jones, Continental Navy
by: By Engraving (bust) by J.B. Fosseyeux, 1781, from drawing by J.M. Moreau, Jr., 1780
19-N-12445, National Archives, Washington, DC

The future naval hero was born on 6 July 1747 in the parish of Kirkbean on the Solway Firth in southwestern Scotland. His father John Paul was the gardener on the estate of Arbigland belonging to one William Craik who in 1730 fathered an illegitimate son, James, later Dr. James Craik, Chief Hospital Physician of the Continental Army and personal physician to George Washington.

The young John Paul was the fourth child in the family of the gardener and his wife Jean MacDuff and was not alone in having later ties to America. His eldest brother William, a tailor, was born about 1738, emigrated to Virginia and died at Fredericksburg in 1774. The youngest of the family, Mary Ann, took as her second husband one Mr. Louden, a merchant who emigrated to Charleston, South Carolina.

John Paul was given a sufficient Scots education which he never ceased improving but his formal schooling ended when he was twelve. In 1761 Paul was apprenticed to learn the sea and shipped out of Whitehaven aboard the brig Friendship, bound for Virginia. The vessel entered the Chesapeake Bay in May and sailed up the Rappahannock River to Fredericksburg where John stayed with his brother. From that time the brig made yearly voyages until 1764 when it was sold and Paul was released from his apprenticeship. He was able to sign on as Third Mate aboard a slave ship, the King George, and until 1768 was employed on various ships in this “abominable trade,” as he called it. In 1768 when he quit it, Paul was in Jamaica and was fortunate in being offered passage back home aboard the brig John of Liverpool. On the voyage both the captain and the mate died of fever and Paul took charge, de bonis non. He remained the John’s master, engaged in the West Indies trade, until the vessel was sold in 1771, but during his last voyage on this ship in 1770 Paul had the ship’s carpenter, one Maxwell, flogged. Maxwell lodged a complaint against Paul which was dismissed by a vice-admiralty court at Tobago, but, returning to Scotland aboard a different ship, Maxwell died at sea. His father in turn filed a complaint of murder with the Scottish authorities and when the John made harbor in Scotland her captain was arrested and confined. He was soon released on bail so that he might return to the Indies to obtain evidence clearing him of the charge, and a few days afterwards Paul was received as a member in the St. Bernard Lodge of Freemasons at Kirkcudbright, something that stood him in good stead later in life.

Paul was successful in clearing himself of the imputation of murder and in 1772 the charges were dismissed, but they were never entirely forgotten. His principals nevertheless had faith in Captain Paul, and in October 1772 he was given command of the ship Betsy of London in the Indies trade. In 1773 he made his second voyage aboard her, and, again at Tobago, was faced with a crew rebellious because Paul would not given them an advance on their wages. In the ensuing melée Paul ran the “ringleader” through with his sword. Faced with another charge of murder, Paul was advised to leave Tobago, probably because the dead man was a native of the place and the authorities could not guarantee Paul’s safety.

Paul’s immediate movements are unknown but probably his first action was to change his name. John Paul now disappeared from history, and “John Jones” appears in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1774 at the time of his brother’s death. He was fortunate also in finding there Dr. John K. Read, the nephew of Mrs. Benjamin Franklin and an enthusiastic Freemason who undoubtedly opened doors for him in Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson was also an early acquaintance and carried letters from Read to “John Jones” in Philadelphia. Jones was in the city not later than September 1775 and there resurrected his natal identity by becoming “John Paul Jones.” It was by that name that he was commissioned the first Lieutenant in the United States Navy on 7 December 1775. Even before then, on 3 December, he had the temporary command of the 24-gun frigate Alfred and he personally raised her first flag, the Union Jack.

Jones’ war-time career has been extensively treated and it is not proposed to recount it here except in outline. He was present as a Lieutenant aboard the Alfred in the new navy’s first venture, a looting expedition to New Providence in the Bahamas in the Spring of 1776. Off Rhode Island the returning American fleet of some seven vessels was mauled by the single British warship, H.M.S. Glasgow which also managed to escape, though damaged. The affair was not well-managed, but Jones seems to have commended himself therein as on 10 May 1776 he was given command of the American sloop Providence.

On 8 August 1776 Congress expressed continued confidence in Jones by promoting him to Captain. He retained command of the Providence until October when he was given the Alfred. With his small fleet he harried British ships from Nova Scotia to the Indies, capturing prizes and their cargoes. When in the new year Jones learned that he was ranked far down the seniority list of naval captains his protests were successful principally because of this successful record.

On 14 June 1777 Jones was put in command of the sloop Ranger with orders to sail her to France, where he would be given the frigate Indien, but on his arrival in December he was disappointed to learn that the frigate had been sold to the French government. While his fate was being sorted out by the American commissioners in Paris, Jones made friends of Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, and an enemy of Arthur Lee. Inevitably, Jones’ affairs met delay after delay. In January 1778 he was able to obtain from Franklin and Deane orders of so general a nature, and couched in such vague terms, that they were capable of almost any interpretation. He sailed first to Quiberon Bay to escort some American merchantmen. There he had the satisfaction of receiving from Chef d’Escadre LaMotte-Piquet the first international naval salute to the new flag of the United States. On 10 April Jones sailed from Brest for the Irish Sea.

Thus began one of Jones’ most famous sea adventures. His basic plan was his own statement to Congress: “When an Enemy thinks a design against them is improbable, they can always be surprised and attacked with advantage.” His intention was to raid a British seaport, then to capture an important personage who would be exchanged for American prisoners. First he descended on Whitehaven, between Dumphries and Liverpool, spiked the guns of its fort and unsuccessfully tried to burn its shipping. He then sailed into his home waters where he hoped to capture the Earl of Selkirk. The Earl was from home, but Jones’ raiders were received by his Countess, who found herself powerless to prevent their carrying away the family silver. She offered, and they accepted, a glass of wine before departing, hurredly, ere the neighborhood could be aroused. The Countess lost no time in informing Mr. Craik at Kirkbean what “a gardener’s son of yours” had been up to. From Brest, on 8 May 1778, Jones wrote the Countess a letter of explanation and apology and offered to return the plate, which he did at his own expense after the war was over.

On 24 April Jones sighted H.M.S. Drake near Carrickfergus. The British sloop sent a lieutenant to investigate the stranger, which promptly made him a prisoner. In the ensuing action of an hour or more Jones captured the sloop with a loss of three dead and five wounded. The Drake lost four killed, nineteen wounded and her 133 officers and men were taken prisoner. Jones towed His Majesty’s ship, then sent her a prize to Brest. Jones’ raid captured seven prizes and took two hundred prisoners in the twenty-eight days he was abroad, and his popular reputation soared. But he could not get another command. Finally, in February 1779 Sartine, the French minister of marine, offered the Americans the 40-gun Le Duc de Duras, lately an East Indiaman. Jones hesitated but finally accepted, and renamed the ship Le Bonhomme Richard in compliment to Dr. Franklin.

The Americans and French initially planned a series of raids on British towns and ports, the troops to be commanded by Lafayette, but this was abandoned in favor of continued sea-raids. Jones left France on 14 August 1779 with a fleet of seven sail and circumnavigated the British Isles to the West, taking seventeen prizes. By September he was off the east coast of Yorkshire and at Flamborough Head discovered the British Baltic fleet of more than forty ships, convoyed by H.M.S. Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough. This was to be Jones’ most famous fight. He lashed his ship to the Serapis and in a three-hour fight subdued and took her prisoner; the Bonhomme Richard was so badly damaged that Pearson, Captain of the Serapis, asked if Jones had surrendered, to receive the reply, “I have not yet begun to fight !” His ship sank the second day after the battle, but Jones transferred his flag to the captured ship, sailed her into Holland on 3 October with his squadron, and took over the captured Alliance.

When Jones reached Paris in April he found his fame had preceded him, and he was received everywhere. The Masonic Lodge of the Nine Sisters especially honored him by commissioning his bust by Jean Antoine Houdon. This is probably the most famous portrait of the man to come down to us and was much later to play a quite unexpected part in Jones’ biography. From King Louis he received a gold-hilted sword and the Ordre du Mérite Militaire, to be presented to Jones, with Congress’ consent, on his return to Philadelphia. After this triumph Jones returned to L’Orient to find that the Alliance had been given to the insane French Captain Pierre Landais by Arthur Lee. Jones transferred to the Ariél and sailed for America in December. On the way he captured the British privateer Triumph which however escaped him. This was Jones’ last battle under the American flag.

Jones arrived at Philadelphia in February, 1781, and on 14 April was formally thanked by the Congress and permitted to receive the French Order, with the title of “Chevalier”, the only American to receive that distinction. On 26 June he was given command of the first and only 74-gun ship of war, the America, then on the stocks at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Jones spent more than a year there completing the ship. By then the war was virtually over and there was no need for her; Congress presented her to Louis XVI in gratitude, and as a replacement for the King’s ship La Magnifique, wrecked in Boston harbor. Jones now had no command, and Congress had no idea of what to do with him. In November 1782, at his own suggestion, the Chevalier was permitted to sail with the French fleet of Lieutenant-Général des Armées Navales Louis Philippe de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil to study naval strategy and maneuvers; his cabin-mate was Lieutenant Général Antoine Charles du Houx, Baron de Vioménil, second in command to Rochambeau and many of the officers aboard had also been at the Siege of Yorktown. News of the Treaty of Paris reached the fleet in the Indies and Jones returned to Philadelphia aboard a merchant ship by May 1783. He recruited his damaged health among the Moravians at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Although there is no question that Jones was an original member of the Society of the Cincinnati of Pennsylvania, there is something of a mystery attached to it. The organizational meeting of the Society was held on 4 October 1783, but it appears that the “Parchment Roll” was not ready for signing until 13 October, for the Minutes say,

Eighty five Members were present, who all signed the Institution of the Society of the Cincinnati.

Jones was certainly still in America at that time. However, the Minutes for 21 March 1785 [emphasis supplied] state,

Resolved, That Chevalier John Paul Jones, Colo. [Ephraim] Blaine, & Captn. [Joseph] Howell be admitted. members of this Society.

On that date Jones was certainly in Europe, for on 1 November 1783 the Chevalier had been commissioned by Congress as the agent there for collecting maritime prize money due him and the men of his commands during the war. On 10 November Jones embarked at Philadelphia for France aboard the General Washington, Joshua Barney [an Original Member of the Society], Master.

With the usual bureaucratic delays, Jones finally was successful in his mission, but it was not until 1787 that he returned to the United States for the last time. It is suggested that it was after this return that Jones signed the Roll of the Society of the Cincinnati of Pennsylvania:

Paul Jones – embarked in the Continental Navy in 1775, was unanimously elected Captain of the Line by Congress in 1781 and served through the whole of the Revolution.

Jones arrived at New York in July 1787, chiefly to settle his prize-money accounts. He was received with accolades which included a unique action by Congress in granting him the only gold medal awarded for naval actions during the Revolution. His last stay in America was not a long one: he received Congress’ commission to negotiate with the Danish king over prize-money, and sailed for Europe on 11 November 1787.

The Danish mission was unsuccessful, but while in Paris Jones received a proposal that was to provide him with yet another identity. On 4 May 1788 Catherine II, Empress of Russia wrote that Paul Jones had entered her service, thus becoming Kontradmiral Pavel Ivanovich Jones. It was the Empress’ hope that Jones would be the necessary ingredient for transforming her rather disorganized Black Sea fleet into the winning factor in the second Russo-Turkish War, which had begun in August 1787. As it turned out Jones’ efforts entirely failed: he was no match for the plots and counter-plots that fuelled Catherine’s court and her international military forces: the few successes that he scored were credited to others. Finally, a fictitious charge of rape was circulated against him, Jones was furloughed, in effect dismissing him from Catherine’s service, and in May 1790 he returned to Paris, having gained only the Cross of the Order of St. Anne for his pains.

Jones was not hard up financially, although he had little ready cash, and he rented an apartment in the rue de Tournon, near the Luxembourg Palace.. The revolution in France had begun, the Bastille had fallen, and the women had marched on Versailles whence the royal family had been escorted to Paris by Lafayette. Jones was uninterested, unsympathetic, and perhaps too ill to care. Gouverneur Morris, the American Minister in Paris, was equally unsympathetic to Jones as his diary makes clear. Lafayette was an old friend, but was at the summit of his French career and unavailable to Jones. As Jones was still technically in Catherine’s service, much of his correspondence went to her on the subject of her wars. She did not reply and instructed her minister in Paris, “Tell him to go and mind his business in America.”

By 1792 the French Revolution was approaching its climax. At the same time the United States entered its seventh year of negotiations with the Dey of Algiers for the release of twenty-one American hostages captured on the high seas when American commerce found itself no longer protected by the British Navy. All approaches failed, largely because of the Dey’s greed, the United States’ virtual lack of a navy and its inability to pay the necessary tribute. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who had met John Paul Jones in 1775, and probably President Washington also, recalled Jones’ well-known concern with the American prisoners of the revolution and they apparently felt that he could deal with a situation which had defeated a succession of negotiators. On 1 June 1792 the two signed a commission giving Jones full power to negotiate the release of the prisoners, and the next day Washington appointed Jones United States Consul for Algeria.

On 18 July 1792 John Paul Jones died in Paris. In the days when it commonly took six weeks to sail the Atlantic he never knew that American confidence in him was still great. Gouverneur Morris wrote Jones’ will for him and with others visited him on his last day, but the Chevalier John Paul Jones died alone in his bedroom. The American Minister gave instructions for Jones to be buried as privately and cheaply as possible but the French Legislative Assembly, hearing of the matter, sent an official delegation. The Commissaire of the section, thinking certainly that the United States would reclaim the body, had it sealed in lead and preserved in alcohol when it was buried in a Protestant Cemetery outside the walls of Paris. On 20 October Jones’ decorations and sword were sold at auction, and Gouverneur Morris wrote that he bought in the decorations, including that of the Society of the Cincinnati; they have since been lost.

That was the end of the story until 1899 when Horace Porter, United States Ambassador to France, began a search for Jones’ burial place which had since his death been built over by the expanding city. That it was eventually found is a testimony to Porter’s determination, with which he was able to infect the necessary authorities to the extent necessary for official cooperation. A body was found, and the determination of its identity was due as much to Houdon’s bust of the Chevalier as to the measures taken in 1792 to preserve Jones’ remains.

In 1905 Jones’ body was brought back to the United States with honor and entombed in the Chapel of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. The tomb is probably the most elaborate ever prepared in the United States. There are his sword, modern replacements of his decorations, and the marble bust of Jones made by Houdon for the Duc d’Orleans. Of the original terracotta bust a number of copies were made, many of which have survived in various museums, including Jefferson’s “Monticello” and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington. In 1912 the Congress authorized the erection in Washington of a memorial to Jones. It stands in West Potomac Park, near Seventeenth Street and Independence Avenue, S. W.: a bronze statue by Charles Henry Niehaus, standing before a tall marble panel bearing reliefs and his words, “Surrender ? I have not yet begun to fight!”