John Paul Jones

From New World Encyclopedia

John Paul Jones on a postage stamp.

John Paul Jones (July 6, 1747–July 18, 1792) was America's first well-known naval hero in the American Revolutionary War. He did not rise above the rank of Captain in the Continental Navy. However, through his victory over the HMS Serapis with the frigate Bonhomme Richard, John Paul Jones remains the first genuine American Naval hero and a highly regarded battle commander. His seamanship, genius, and determination enabled him to defeat the Serapis during a monumental sea battle. It was then that Jones uttered the legendary and inspiring reply to the British surrender request, "I have not yet begun to fight!" His later service as an admiral in the Russian Navy brought success to Catherine the Great's empire in victory over the Turks in 1788. This enabled Russia to occupy all of Eurasia from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Maritime career

John Paul started his maritime career at the age of 12, sailing out of Whitehaven as apprentice aboard the Friendship. During his numerous journeys to Fredericksburg, Virginia, aboard this ship, Jones was likely able to visit his brother who had settled in the area. For the next several years he sailed aboard several different British merchant and slaver ships, including the King George in 1764 as third mate and the Two Friends as first mate in 1766.

After a short time in this business, Jones became disgusted with the cruelty in the slave trade. During the voyage, Paul abandoned his prestigious position on the profitable Two Friends in 1768 while docked at Jamaica. Jones found passage back to Scotland, and soon obtained another position. During his next voyage aboard the brig John, which sailed from port later in 1768, young John Paul’s career was quickly and unexpectedly advanced. When both the captain and a ranking mate suddenly died of yellow fever, John Paul managed to successfully navigate the ship back to a safe port. In reward for this impressive feat, the vessel’s grateful Scottish owners made him master of the ship, supplied him with the ship's crew, and gave him ten percent of the cargo,

John Paul Jones then led two voyages to the West Indies before running into difficulty. During his second voyage in 1770, John Paul viciously flogged one of his sailors, leading to accusations of his discipline being "unnecessarily cruel." While these claims were initially dismissed, John Paul’s favorable reputation was destroyed when the disciplined sailor died a few weeks later. Sources disagree on whether he was arrested for his involvement in the man’s death, but the devastating effect on his reputation is indisputable.

Leaving Scotland, John Paul commanded a London-registered vessel for a period of about 18 months, engaging in commercial speculation in Tobago. Facing increasing scrutiny for his questionable past, John Paul left his fortune behind and moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1773, taking charge of his recently-deceased brother’s estate there. At some point during this time he appended Jones to his name, possibly in an attempt to escape his troubled reputation.

Revolutionary War command

Early command

Jones left for Philadelphia shortly after settling in America to volunteer his services to the newly-founded Continental Navy, which later became the United States Navy. During this time, around 1775, the Navy and Marines were being formally established, and suitable officers and captains were in great demand. With the endorsement of Richard Henry Lee and influential members of the Continental Congress who knew of his abilities, Jones was the first man to be assigned to the rank of First Lieutenant in the Continental Navy on December 22, 1775.

Jones’ first assignment was aboard the frigate USS Alfred (30 guns, 300 men) sailing from the Delaware River in February 1776 to attack British merchant vessels in New Providence. The Alfred was one of six vessels, the frigate herself commanded by Commodore Esek Hopkins, the Navy’s Commander-in-Chief. It was aboard this vessel that Jones took the honor of hoisting the first American ensign over a naval vessel.

After returning from this successful voyage in April aboard the Alfred, Jones was assigned command on the sloop Providence (12 guns, 70 men). Congress had recently ordered the construction of thirteen frigates for the American Navy, one of which was to be commanded by Jones. In exchange for this prestigious command, Jones accepted his commission aboard the smaller Providence. During this six week voyage, Jones captured sixteen prizes and created significant damage along the coast of Nova Scotia. Jones’ next command came as a result of his proposed plan to the Marine Committee to destroy the British coal fleet at Isle Royale, and liberate the American prisoners being held there. On November 2, 1776, Jones set sail in command of Alfred to carry out this mission. This northern mission was successful, highlighted by his capture of the British Mellish, a vessel carrying a vital supply of winter clothing intended for British general John Burgoyne’s troops in Canada. In his autobiography, Jones claims,

this unexpected relief contributed not insignificantly to the success of the army at the Battle of Trenton (against the Hessians) that occurred immediately after my arrival in Boston.

Command of USS Ranger

Despite his successes at sea, upon arrival in Boston on December 16, 1776, Jones’ disagreements with those in authority reached a new level. While in port, the accomplished commander began feuding with Commodore Hopkins, whom Jones believed was hindering his advancement and talking down his campaign plans. As a result of this and other frustrations, Jones was assigned the smaller command, the newly constructed Ranger (18 gun frigate), on June 14, 1777 (the same day the new Stars and Stripes flag was adopted).

After making the necessary preparations, Jones sailed for France on November 1, 1777, with orders to assist the American cause however possible. The American commissioners in France (Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Arthur Lee) listened to Jones’ strategic recommendations. They assured him the command of L'Indien, a new vessel being constructed for America in Amsterdam. Britain, however, was able to divert the L'Indien away from American hands, by exerting pressure to ensure its sale to France instead (who had not yet allied with America). Jones was again left without a command, an unpleasant reminder of his stagnation in Boston from late 1776 until early 1777. It is thought that it was during this time that Jones developed his close friendship with Benjamin Franklin, whom he greatly admired. In 1778 he was accepted, together with Benjamin Franklin, to the Masonic Lodge "Les Neuf Sœurs."

On February 6, 1778, France signed their Treaty of Alliance with America, formally recognizing the independence of the new American republic. Eight days later, Captain Jones' Ranger became the first American Navy vessel to be saluted by the French, with a nine gun salvo fired from Admiral Piquet’s flagship. Jones wrote of the event, "I accepted his offer all the more for after all it was a recognition of our independence."

Finally, on April 17, 1778, Jones set sail from Brest, France for coastal Britain. Strong winds forced Jones to head towards Ireland instead, leading to a famous encounter with HMS Drake, a 20 gun Royal Navy sloop.

Controversy aboard Ranger

After learning of Drake's location from captured sailors, Jones' first intention was to attack the vessel in broad daylight, resting at dock in Carrickfergus, Ireland. His sailors, represented by the ship’s first lieutenant Thomas Simpson, refused to follow the captain’s order. After this failed attack, Jones was forced away from Drake by foul weather, also miraculously managing to avoid detection.

With Ranger’s main objective frustrated for the time being, Jones convinced his crew to participate in an assault on Whitehaven, the same town where his maritime career began. Jones notes the crew’s reluctance, stating, "their aim, they said, was gain not honor…instead of encouraging the morale of the crew, they excited them to disobedience; they persuaded them that they had the right to judge whether a measure that was proposed to them was good or bad." Jones led the assault with two boats of fifteen men at midnight, hoping to sink all Whitehaven’s ships anchored in harbor (numbered between 200–400), before setting the town itself ablaze. Jones managed to terrorize the town. Local records mention only minor fire damage to a coal transporter as wet weather prevented the fire spreading.

Continuing on from Whitehaven, Jones hoped to hold for ransom the Earl of Selkirk on St. Mary’s Isle, off his birthplace, Kirkcudbrightshire. The Earl, Jones reasoned, could be exchanged for American sailors impressed into the Royal Navy. When the Earl was discovered to be absent from his estate, Jones claims he intended to return directly to his ship and continue seeking prizes elsewhere. Jones also claims his crew, led by Lt. Simpson, intended to "pillage, burn and plunder all they could," instead of leaving peacefully. Ultimately, Jones allowed the crew to seize a silver plate set adorned with the family’s emblem to placate their desires, but nothing else. The plate would be later returned to the Earl of Selkirk on August 4, 1785.

Return to Brest

Jones set sail to make another attempt at the Drake still anchored in Carrickfergus. This time the ships engaged in combat; Jones was victorious, capturing the Drake after an hour-long battle which cost the British captain his life. Lieutenant Simpson was given command of Drake for the return journey to Brest. The ships separated during the return journey as Ranger chased another prize.

Ranger’s capture of Drake was one of the American Navy’s few significant military victories during the Revolution, and was of immense symbolic importance, demonstrating as it did that the Royal Navy was far from invincible. Jones was the first American commander ever to claim victory over a military combatant. By overcoming such odds, Ranger’s victory became an important symbol of the American spirit and served as an inspiration for the permanent establishment of the American Navy after the Revolution.

Bonhomme Richard and Seraphis

In 1779, Captain Jones took command of USS Bonhomme Richard, a merchant ship rebuilt and given to America by the French shipping magnate, Jacques-Donatien Le Ray. On September 23, 1779, a five ship squadron included the 42 gun Bonhomme Richard, 32 gun Pallas, 32 gun Alliance, 12 gun Vengeance, and Le Cerf engaged a merchant convoy off the coast of Flamborough Head, East Yorkshire. The 44 gun British frigate HMS Serapis and the 22 gun Countess of Scarborough counter-engaged, scattering the attacking squadron and allowing the merchants to disengage and attempt escape. Vengeance and Le Cerf unsuccessfully pursued the convoy.

Bonhomme Richard, Pallas, and Vengeance engaged the British warships. The 44 gun Serapis engaged the smaller 42 gun Bonhomme Richard. After the first pass, the Seraphis raked the BonHomme Richard causing devastating damage. Realizing that his ship was smaller and clumsier than the Seraphis, Jones filled his sails as if to escape, quickly turned in to the wind, luffed and brought his ship smashing bow to stern and stern to bow against the Seraphis. "Heave grapnels!" commanded Jones. The captain of the Serapis, Richard Pearson reacted quickly and ordered a full broadside. Seraphis had by now twice raked Bonhomme Richard with broadsides which cut her mainmast and holed her below the waterline, taking individual hits in return. The gun deck of the Bonhomme Richard was ripped apart by this blast. Jones' gunnery officer Lieutenant Dale's few surviving gunners scrambled topside with hand weapons. One of the gunners, seeing the slaughter in the deck cried, "Quarter! Quarter!" Legend has it that Jones immediately shot the gunner dead.[1]

Engraving based on the painting "Action Between the Serapis and Bonhomme Richard" by Richard Paton, published 1780.

With Bonhomme Richard burning and sinking, it is believed her ensign was shot away, The British commander shouted, "Have you struck?" asking if Bonhomme Richard had struck her colors. Jones cried out to the British captain declaring, "I have not yet begun to fight!" Jones' ship having rammed Serapis and tied up to her, his marksmen in the rigging cleared Seraphis' decks so a boarding party could cross and effect her capture. The hand to hand fighting continued for more than three hours. Finally the British captain Pearson struck his colors and the fighting was over. The cost of victory was high. Bonhomme Richard sank. Half his crew was lost. But it was this action more than any other during the American Revolutionary War which established the American Navy as a fighting force of the first order.[2]

Meanwhile the 22 gun Countess of Scarborough engaged the 32 gun Pallas and was eventually captured, both ships taking extensive damage. The Vengeance went after the merchant shipping accompanying.

In the following year, the King of France honored Jones with the title "Chevalier." Jones accepted the honor, and desired the title to be used thereafter: when the Continental Congress in 1787 resolved that a medal of gold be struck in commemoration of his "valor and brilliant services" it was to be presented to "Chevalier John Paul Jones." He also received from Louis a decoration of "Order of Military Merit" and a sword. By contrast, in Britain at this time, he was usually referred to as a pirate.

Russian Service

In June 1782, Jones was appointed to command the 74-gun America, however Congress decided to give the America to the French as replacement for the wrecked Le Magnifique. As a result, he was given assignment in Europe in 1783 to collect prize money due his former hands. At length, this too expired and Jones was left without prospects for active employment, leading him in 1788 to enter into the service of the Empress Catherine II of Russia who placed great confidence in Jones.

Jones avowed his intention, however, to preserve the condition of an American citizen and officer. As a rear admiral aboard the 24-gun flagship Vladimir, he took part in the naval campaign in the Liman (an arm of the Black Sea, into which flow the Southern Bug and Dnieper rivers) against the Turks. Although he successfully commanded the Black Sea Squadron, court intrigues forced Jones to leave Russia.

Final years

In May 1790, Jones arrived in Paris, where he remained in retirement during the rest of his life.

In June of 1792, Jones was appointed United States Consul to treat with the Bey of Algiers for the release of American captives. Before Jones was able to fulfill his appointment he died face down on his bed in his third-floor Paris apartment, No. 42 Rue de Tournon on July 18. A small procession of servants, friends and loyal soldiers walked his body the four miles for the burial. He was buried in Paris at the Saint Louis Cemetery and forgotten. In 1905, Jones' remains were optimistically identified by US Ambassador to France Gen. Horace Porter. He had searched for six years to track down Jones' body despite using faulty copies of Jones' burial record. Thanks to the kind donation of a French admirer, Pierrot Francois Simmoneau, who donated over 460 francs for an alcohol lead coffin for Jones, Porter knew what to look for in his search. He set about to hire workers to help explore the labyrinth of tunnels under the streets. The body was found with relative ease and was extremely well preserved.

Jones' body was ceremonially removed from his interment in the charnel house "for alien Protestants," and brought to the United States aboard Brooklyn, escorted by three other cruisers. On approaching the coast, seven battleships joined the procession escorting Jones' body back to America. His remains were finally re interred in a sarcophagus at Annapolis, Maryland in the United States Naval Academy Chapel in 1913. The ceremony was presided over by President Theodore Roosevelt.


  1. Cross, Wilbur and John B. Hefferman. 1960. Naval Battles and Heroes. Pages 22-23. American Heritage, eds. New York: American Heritage Publishing. ISBN 0060213760
  2. Cross, p.23

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bowen-Hassell, E. Gordon, Dennis Michael Conrad, and Mark L. Hayes. 2003. Sea raiders of the American Revolution: the Continental Navy in European waters. Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, Dept. of the Navy. ISBN 9780945274490
  • Sperry, Armstrong. 1953.John Paul Jones, fighting sailor. New York: Random House. ISBN 9780394803395
  • Thomas, Evan. 2003. John Paul Jones: sailor, hero, father of the American Navy. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9780743205832
  • Walker, Frank. 2007. John Paul Jones: maverick hero. Staplehurst: Spellmount. ISBN 9781862273757
  • Walsh, John Evangelist. 1978. Night on Fire: the first complete account of John Paul Jones's greatest battle. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 9780070679528

External links

All links retrieved August 3, 2022.


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