(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Evan Thomas’s John Paul Jones is a rousing and readable biography of one of the most romantic heroes of the American Revolution. This is a book that may appeal to readers of C. S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian. Jones led a life that was brief but adventurous. He won the most famous ship-to-ship duel of his era. He achieved this and other victories while wrestling with bad ships, bad crews, and bad weather. Author Thomas is a sailor, and he has sought out expert advice on the complexities of eighteenth century ships and navigation. The result is that he brings a richness of detail and understanding to his accounts of Jones’s cruises. Thomas’s book could succeed simply as an exciting read; however, he probes more deeply than the heroic surface of Jones’s story.

John Paul Jones was a complicated man. He wrestled throughout his life with flaws in his character which often led him into trouble and hurt his career. He made friends easily but usually ended up quarreling with them. Longing for love, he settled for serial womanizing. Obscurely born, he longed for fame and social distinction. He delighted in gaudy uniforms and the title of chevalier bestowed on him by the French during the Revolutionary War. The name by which he is known is a name that he gave himself. Thomas observes that, like the nation he served, this hero was self-created. John Paul Jones was a new man for a new era.

He was born John Paul near Kirkbean, Scotland, in 1747. His father was head gardener to William Craik, Laird of Arbigland. His mother was Craik’s former housekeeper. There was a rumor that Craik was the boy’s real father. This fostered tension between the gardener and his master. Aware of his father’s humiliation, John Paul grew up resentful of the artificial barriers that stood between him and the wellborn, such as Craik.

As a boy, Paul was determined to become a gentleman. Early on he looked to the nearby sea for a profession. He dreamed of becoming an officer in the Royal Navy, but in the eighteenth century one had to have social connections to secure a naval commission, and Paul had none. He was forced to settle for an apprenticeship aboard a merchant ship. Here, at the age of thirteen, aboard a small two-masted brig some eighty feet long, he began to learn the rudiments of seamanship. Paul worked hard. He kept himself as neat and clean as possible and avoided hard drink. His captain took him aside and started to instruct him in the art of navigation. Paul crossed the Atlantic eight times in three years in this little ship.

Then, in 1764, the ship was sold, and Paul found himself unemployed. The only work that he could find was a position as third mate aboard a slave ship. For three years the young Scot sailed the infamous “middle passage,” bringing loads of captive Africans to plantations in the Caribbean. No record exists of what Paul thought of this traffic, but later in life he voiced a detestation of the institution of slavery. Having had enough, in 1767 Paul asked to be discharged at the port of Kingston, Jamaica. He took passage home in a small brig named the John. Along the way, both the captain and first mate died of fever. Paul was the only man left who could navigate, and he successfully brought the ship home. He was rewarded by being made her captain.

Paul, at the age of twenty-one, had achieved a fair measure of respectability. He was a good ship’s captain, and he began to put aside some money, but he aspired to more. He tried to associate with naval officers, but any affability on their part could not bridge the social gulf between them and the master of a merchantman. With authority, Paul also began to show some faults that would lead him into trouble throughout the rest of his life. As a man who had risen through his own efforts, and who resented the artificial boundaries of class that still stood in his way, Captain Paul was sensitive to any slights or opposition, and he nursed a volatile temper. As a captain he was exacting but fair in the treatment of his men; however, he lacked the ability to win the hearts of a crew, either through an easy familiarity or swagger and dash.

On a voyage in 1770, John Paul ran into trouble with a young carpenter’s mate named Mungo Maxwell. This man came from a good family in a town not far from Captain Paul’s birthplace. Maxwell grew increasingly insubordinate. Finally, his patience exhausted, Paul ordered Maxwell flogged. Maxwell complained loudly when the ship reached Tobago. An admiralty court found in favor of Captain Paul. However, when Paul returned to Scotland, he was hauled off to jail because of the influence of Maxwell’s parents. He eventually cleared himself, but this humiliating experience embittered him.

Another crisis, in 1773, nearly led to Paul’s ruin. Bad luck on a run to Tobago resulted in expensive repairs to his ship and the ruin of his cargo. Paul invested what money he had in a new cargo, hoping for better things on the...

(The entire section is 2028 words.)