John Paul Jones

John Paul Jones (1747-1792), American Revolutionary War officer, was a great fighting sailor and a national hero.

Like any master mariner in the 18th century, John Paul Jones was in the fullest sense the captain of his ship. He ruled by authority as well as by skill and personality. The rigging, the navigation, the ordnance, and the internal discipline were all his concerns. He was a proud man, slight and wiry, intellectually alert, and as tough with rowdy seamen as he was suave and urbane with Parisian women.

Becoming a Mariner

Born in Scotland as John Paul, he was a seafarer by the age of 12. He turned up in Virginia and took the surname Jones, for disguise, after killing a mutinous sailor in self-defense in 1773. Because he was already a veteran merchant captain, the Continental Congress commissioned him a lieutenant in 1775 and promoted him to captain the next year. Cruising as far north as Nova Scotia, he took more than 25 prizes in 1776.

It was in the European area, however, that Jones won lasting acclaim. In 1777 he sailed to France in the Ranger, and in Paris he found American diplomat Benjamin Franklin sympathetic to his strategic objectives: hit-and-run attacks on the enemy's defenseless places and abduction of a prominent person to compel the British government to exchange American seamen rotting in English jails. If this master of a single cruiser was scarcely able to alter the course of the war, he was able to bring the impact of the struggle home to the enemy's civilian population. Early in 1778 Jones sailed boldly into the Irish Sea and also assaulted the port of Whitehaven, Scotland—not since 1667 had a British seaport suffered such humiliation; a second raid on St. Mary's Isle failed to bag Lord Selkirk as a hostage, for Selkirk was away from home.

Battling the Serapis

France became America's ally, but Jones had to be satisfied with a good deal less than he had hoped for in men and ships. With an old, clumsy vessel renamed Bon Homme Richard (in honor of Franklin) as his flagship, in the summer of 1779 Jones led a small squadron around the coasts of Ireland and Scotland, taking several small prizes. Then, off the chalk cliffs of Flamborough Head on September 23, he fell in with a large British convoy from the Baltic, escorted by the Serapis (50 guns) and the Scarborough (20 guns).

The most spectacular naval episode of the Revolution followed—a duel between the decrepit Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis, a sturdy, new, copper-bottomed frigate. After each captain, in standard tactical fashion, sought unsuccessfully to get across his opponent's bow to deliver a broadside, Jones managed to lash his ship to the Serapis in order to grapple and board. Jones's sharpshooters soon drove the enemy from the Serapis's deck with their rain of musket and grenade fire, but below the deck the enemy cannon roared on, wrecking the Bon Homme Richard's topsides. The English captain's nerve gave way when his main mast began to tremble, and he struck his colors. Jones abandoned the sinking Richard, took over the Serapis, and along with the Scarborough, which had fallen to his other vessels, sailed to Holland.

Back in France, Jones was the toast of Paris. His personal life seems to have scandalized John Adams, who was shocked at Jones's suggestion that the taking of a French mistress was an excellent way to learn the language. Whatever his personal life, Jones's naval conquests were over.

Postwar Life

Most of Jones's postwar life was spent in Europe. He made a final visit to the United States in 1787, when Congress unanimously voted to award him a gold medal for his outstanding services. He was the only naval officer of the American Revolution so honored. Soon afterward he accepted a commission in the Russian navy and was put in command of a Black Sea squadron with the rank of rear admiral. That rank, which he had eagerly but unsuccessfully sought in America, was the bait that had lured him to Russia. He fought in the Linman campaign against the Turks, but the jealousies and intrigues of rival officers limited his effectiveness, and in 1790 he returned to Paris.

In 1792 U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson wrote to tell him that President George Washington had appointed Jones a commissioner to negotiate with Algiers for peace and the release of imprisoned American citizens. Jones, whose last years were pathetic, never lived to receive the letter. With few friends because he was a colossal egotist, Jones saw his health steadily decline before his death on July 18, 1792. He was buried in Paris. His remains were finally found in 1905 and brought to Annapolis, Md., where they are entombed in the crypt of the Naval Academy chapel.

Further Reading on John Paul Jones

Most biographies of Jones are filled with myth and misinformation; the first to set the record straight is Lincoln Lorenz, John Paul Jones (1943). But the character of the master mariner is best seen in Samuel E. Morison's Pulitzer Prize-winning John Paul Jones (1959), a magnificent book by a distinguished sailor-historian. Recommended for general historical background are Gardner W. Allen, A Naval History of the American Revolution (2 vols., 1913), and Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Major Operations of the Navies in the American War of Independence (1913).