John Paul Jones
Article abstract: Known in his own time for his daring raids on British territory and spectacular engagements with British vessels during the American Revolutionary War, Jones is now widely regarded as the founder of the United States Navy.
John Paul Jones was born John Paul on July 6, 1747, in Arbigland, in the parish of Kirkbean, Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland. (Only as an adult did he take the surname by which he is known.) He was the fifth child of the estate gardener and the housekeeper; growing up in Galloway, near Solway Firth, he evinced an early interest in the sea. At a very early age, he was apprenticed as ship’s boy in a merchantman trading in the West Indies and the American Colonies. Over the next several years, he learned navigation, improved his speech and writing, and learned gentleman’s manners; on stop-overs in Virginia, he stayed with his elder brother William, a tailor in Fredericksburg, and developed an abiding attachment to America. At age seventeen, he shipped for a time on slavers, but, by 1768, he was master of a merchant brig. Two years later, he became a Mason, in Kirkcudbright, and, in 1772, he was commander and part owner of a large merchant vessel sailing from London (where he then lived) to the West Indies. By the time he was twenty-five, he had made twenty-five hundred pounds and wrote often of his desire to become a gentleman farmer in Virginia.
Jones was somewhat below average height, at five feet five inches, with hazel eyes, sandy brown hair, high cheekbones, a sharp nose, and a cleft chin. He dressed well, read good literature, and developed a fairly elaborate writing style, also composing poetry; from an early age, he showed a determination to rise both economically and socially. Without money or family connections in an age when both were usually necessary for advancement, he achieved much, despite obstacles and opposition, by dint of hard work and ability. Yet his own character was also sometimes a handicap: He had a violent temper; he took offense easily, incessantly bombarded others with complaints and unsolicited advice; and he was a perfectionist and an egotist.
In Tobago in October, 1773, during an altercation with his crew, John Paul (apparently accidently) killed the ringleader; fearing a trial by a jury of the crew’s friends, he fled with only fifty pounds. For the next twenty months, there is little real information available about him; by late 1775, he was in America, had used the name John Jones, and had met some influential North Carolina and Virginia politicians. He was unemployed; Lexington and Concord made it impossible for him to get access to his funds in Tobago, and so on December 7, 1775, John Paul Jones was commissioned a first lieutenant in the Continental navy and assigned to the ship Alfred.
The Alfred was part of the Continental navy’s five-ship fleet, which, on its first cruise, captured some cannon and powder at Nassau in the Bahamas, and damaged HMS Glasgow. On August 8, 1776, Jones was commissioned a captain and given command of the sloop of war Providence, taking sixteen prizes and destroying fisheries on the Nova Scotia coast. A second cruise in October, in command of the Alfred, also yielded several prizes.
From its beginnings, the Continental navy was plagued with serious difficulties. Not only did it suffer, as did the Continental army, from inadequate financing, but it also usually came off second best in competition with privateers, which offered crews less danger, looser discipline, and larger shares of prize money. Furthermore, advancement went to those with powerful friends and local connections, as Jones discovered when Congress, on October 10, 1776, placed him number eighteen on the seniority list and gave him command of the Providence rather than one of the thirteen new frigates then being built. As most of these frigates never got to sea, that was fortunate for Jones. He had no success, however, in getting Congress to listen to his ideas on naval strategy: to draw off the superior British fleet from American coasts by attacking undefended British areas, rather than by using American warships as commerce destroyers.
Amid the confusion, political intrigue, and charges and countercharges which usually enveloped Congress’ naval arrangements, Jones was given command of the 110-foot, square-rigged sloop of war Ranger, on June 14, 1777 (the same day that Congress adopted the stars and stripes as the United States flag). It was November 1 before the Ranger could be fitted out to sail, during which time Jones had a coat of arms made and met, in Boston, the poet Phyllis Wheatley. Having taken some prizes with the Ranger, Jones was in Paris in early December, where he met the American commissioners and became involved in the convoluted Euro-American diplomacy of the Revolutionary period. Having rerigged the Ranger completely (as he always did with his ships) to obtain greater speed and maneuverability, Jones left Brest on April 10, 1778. At dawn on April 23, Jones raided his old home port of Whitehaven, doing little material damage but considerably boosting morale. Later that morning, he landed near his old home in an attempt to capture the Earl of Selkirk as a hostage, to force Britain to exchange naval prisoners (whom, unlike army captives, the British considered pirates and refused to exchange). As the earl was not home, some of the men prevailed on Jones to let them go to the mansion and take the family silver from the countess. The next day, as Jones remained in the same waters, there occurred a spectacular battle with the sloop of war HMS Drake. Using a tactic frequent with him, Jones moved close to the enemy vessels while his ship was disguised by covered gun ports and because officers’ and crew’s uniforms were similar to those of the British navy. The raid and the victory over HMS Drake provoked a general popular panic in British coastal areas, drove up shipping insurance rates, infuriated Britain, and made Jones well-known from then on.
France, however, was not as enthusiastic about Jones’s cruise as he had hoped, and for the next nine months he could get no new command, while experiencing major problems concerning the disposition of the prizes and the disinclination of the crew and some of the officers to accept naval discipline and naval, rather than financial, goals for future operations. Jones’s own personality made things no smoother, and his irritation was increased by the lack of any official recognition of his exploits and by the fact that the French navy kept most of the British fleet in home waters while the remainder operated freely in American waters while Jones remained idle. Finally, in February, 1779, the French government gave Jones command of a refitted forty-gun East Indiaman, which, after six months of diplomacy and hard work, was finished and named the Bonhomme Richard (after Jones’s friend Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard”). Jones had a squadron as well: the American frigate Alliance (commanded by Captain Pierre Landais) and three French ships (the frigate Pallas, the brig Vengeance, and the cutter Le Cerf). He was to make a diversion in northern England while a combined Franco-Spanish invasion fleet descended on southern England. As the projected invasion petered out without even a battle, Jones’s exploits were to receive great attention.
Jones’s cruise around the British Isles began in August with the taking of several prizes, an abortive attempt (because of a contrary wind in the Firth of Forth) to demand ransom from Leith (the defenseless port of Edinburgh), and a general alarm of the coastal population. The other captains refused to attack Newcastle; such general insubordination and lack of cooperation were common in fleets of the time, especially if the commander, like Jones, was unconventional. The Richard’s officers and crew, however, were enthusiastic and loyal. On September 23, off Flamborough Head on...
(The entire section is 3335 words.)