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  Text: John Paul Jones (1747 - 1792).  
Image: portrait of John Paul Jones. by Bob Blythe

John Paul Jones was America's greatest Revolutionary naval commander and founder of America's naval tradition. He was born simply John Paul, the son of an estate gardener in Scotland in 1747. At the age of 13, John Paul was apprenticed to a ship owner and began his career at sea. He immediately entered into the Atlantic trade that linked England, America, the West Indies, and Africa. He was a crew member on at least three slaving voyages to Africa and grew to hate the traffic in human cargo. At the age of 21, on a voyage from Jamaica to Scotland, John Paul took command of the brig John when her captain and first mate died from fever, bringing ship and crew safely into port.

John Paul was well on his way to success as a merchant sailor when disaster struck. In 1773 on the island of Tobago, mutinous sailors looking for advance pay attacked him. In defending himself, John Paul killed one of the men. Convinced that he could not get a fair trial on the island, he escaped to America and took the name - John Paul Jones - that would make him famous. He arrived in America at a time when the conflict with Britain over taxes and self-government was reaching a boiling point. Familiar from birth with Great Britain's harsh treatment of the Scottish people, Jones was immediately sympathetic to America's quest for liberty. After war broke out in 1775, Jones volunteered for service in the brand-new Continental Navy.

Having long been protected by the powerful British navy, America began the Revolutionary War without naval power of any kind. Congress acted quickly to convert merchant ships to ships of war and to begin building new ships for the navy. With his sea-going background and the support of a North Carolina congressman, Jones was quick to see service. After a brief stint as second in command of the Alfred, Jones in May 1776 took command of the sloop Providence, which mounted 21 guns. Jones soon captured 16 British vessels on a single cruise.

Promoted to the rank of captain, Jones took command of the Alfred and soon had more prizes. In April 1778, as captain of the Ranger, he was cruising the waters close to Britain. Jones conceived the bold plan of attacking the town of Whitehaven on the west coast of England. He hoped to capture an important individual and then negotiate the exchange of American naval prisoners being held as common criminals in English jails (see sidebar). The raid on Whitehaven did little damage, but it rattled the British to think that the American navy could reach them at home.

Jones's greatest victory came in September 1779. He now commanded a fleet of five ships. His flagship, a 40-gun frigate, was a converted French merchant ship. Jones re-named it the Bonhomme Richard, in honor of Benjamin Franklin (Bonhomme Richard being the French translation of Franklin's Poor Richard). Jones knew that in the fall, rich British fleets from the West Indies and the Baltic returned to England, and he planned to take one or both. On September 23rd, the 41 ships of the Baltic convoy came into view off the east coast of England. As the merchant ships ran for safety, the two escorting British warships, Serapis and Countess of Scarborough, squared off against the Bonhomme Richard and another American ship, the Pallas.

"Prizes" in a deadly game
At the time of the American Revolution, when nations were at war, all of the enemy's ships, military and civilian, were considered fair game. When warships and privateers (privately owned ships authorized to make war) took enemy shipping, the captain and crew shared with their government any proceeds from the sale of the captured ships and cargoes. A ship taken in warfare was known as a prize, and could indeed yield rich rewards to the victorious sailors. But, the root of the conflict with Britain was that she did NOT consider America an independent nation and so she refused to grant America the customary rights of a nation at war. Britain viewed sailors in the Continental Navy as pirates and tossed them in jail as common criminals. It was this policy that John Paul Jones sought to overturn by attacking English towns.

After three hours of maneuvering, the Bonhomme Richard rammed the Serapis, and Jones tied the two ships together. They poured deadly cannon fire into each other for two hours. When the British captain, Richard Pearson, asked if the Americans were ready to surrender, Jones roared back, "I have not yet begun to fight!" An American grenade then exploded below decks on the Serapis and it was the British who surrendered. The Bonhomme Richard was damaged beyond repair, so Jones transferred his flag to the Serapis, bringing it and the Countess of Scarborough to Holland as prizes. Jones's courage and resourcefulness in this fight brought him international recognition.

American plans to provide Jones with a large new ship never materialized. At the war's conclusion, Jones urged Congress to maintain a strong navy as the best insurance against future conflicts. The new nation had neither the funds nor the desire to do so, and the Continental Navy soon disbanded. After brief but distinguished service in the Russian navy against the Turks in 1788-1789, Jones went to Paris, where he met old friends and made plans to buy a country estate in America. His health declined, though, and he died in France on July 18, 1792, at the age of 45. More than one hundred years later, his remains were returned to the United States and placed in a magnificent sarcophagus in the chapel of the Naval Academy in Annapolis. His tomb has become a shrine to this founding father of the United States Navy.

To learn more:

Norma Jean Lutz, John Paul Jones: Father of the U.S. Navy (New York: Chelsea House, 1999) (for young readers).

Samuel Eliot Morison, John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography (Boston: Little, Brown, 1959); reprint available from Naval Institute Press.

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