John Paul (afterwards known as John Paul Jones) was born at Arbigland, in the Parish of Kirkbean, and in the stewartry of Kirkcudbright, Scotland, on 6 July 1747. Born John Paul, his father of the same name was a gardener; his mother’s name was Jean MacDuff, the daughter of a small farmer in the neighboring parish of New-Abbey. Of this marriage there were seven children. John was the fourth child. The first-born was William Paul, who went abroad early in life and settled and married in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Of the three daughters, only two will be noted; Janet, who married William Taylor, had one child, a daughter, Miss Janette Taylor, who so far as can be learned never married; and Mary Ann, who was twice married, first to a Mr. Young, and afterwards to Mr. John Louden (also written Lowden). The Lowdens moved to Charleston, South Carolina, some time after 14 January 1794, and the line continued there for at least three generations.
Henceforth John Paul will be referred to as John Paul Jones. He finished his schooling at twelve, and, determined to follow the sea, his relations bound him apprentice to a local ship owner. At the age of thirteen he made his first trip in the Friendship (1761) to Fredericksburg, Virginia; a second voyage there was made in 1762, each time visiting his brother William in whose home he read books and studied navigation; (a part of this house still stands). He next may have served for a short period as an acting midshipman in the British Navy [see Morison, pp. 418-419 for refutation of this]. It is known he served as third mate in the slaver King George of Whitehaven (near Kirkcudbright) and in another slaver Two Friends (1766) as chief mate. Disgusted with this inhuman traffic he left this ship in the West Indies and for a time joined a travelling theatrical troupe [Bradford and Morison make no mention of this] in the islands, returning home in 1768 in the brigantine John of Kirkcudbright. Enroute the captain and chief mate died of fever; Jones therefore took the command and brought her safely home. The owners gratefully gave him command and made him supercargo, when he was still only twenty-one.
Then followed two voyages to the West Indies and these owners decided to go out of business. Jones next obtained command of the Betsy and while lying off Tobago in the British West Indies (December, 1773) trouble arose among the crew, and in self-defense Jones was forced to kill one of the mutinous sailors who murderously attacked him. Reporting this to the local authorities ashore (where the feeling was high against him) Jones was advised to flee his ship and the island pending the next meeting of the admiralty commission, at which time he could return and stand trial.
From the time Jones left Tobago until midsummer in 1775, when he journeyed to Philadelphia to offer his services to a navy he visualized as forthcoming, very little is known and much is conjecture and hearsay. There are no contemporary documents or reliable evidence of any kind as to the reason “Jones” was added to his name; it certainly was not to hide his identity [this is a highly questionable assertion; Jones himself said he “returned incognito” to America]. A few writers have attempted to account for this blank period by the possibility that he left Tobago by boarding a pirate ship, unwittingly, perhaps [there is apparently no evidence of this].
Navy Career and The American Revolution
Jones began his naval career by hoisting with his own hands, 3 December 1775 [he helped fit out Alfred in November 1775], our first national flag (the Grand Union flag) — the first time it was ever hoisted — on board the first ship of the Continental Navy, the Alfred, lying off Philadelphia in the Delaware River, to which ship he had been ordered as First Lieutenant. Jones hoisted this flag about a month before it was hoisted by Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, over his headquarters 2 January 1776, at Prospect Hall, at the siege of Boston.
Jones took part in several gallant actions in the early stages of the war off the North American continent. On 10 May 1777, he was ordered to his first command, the Providence. Later he commanded a squadron with the Alfred as his flagship.
On 14 June 1777, Congress appointed Jones to command the Ranger, building at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He sailed for France 1 November, arriving at Nantes 2 December [capturing two ships en route].
The first recognition of the American flag by a foreign government occurred in Quiberon Bay, France, on 14 February 1778, when Vice Admiral La Motte Picquet, Commander of the French Fleet, returned the Ranger’s salute of 13 guns with 9 guns.
Following this Jones conceived the bold plan for an invasion [more of a hit-and-run raid on an important port] of England and raids on the coasts — in order to bring the war home to the British with the hope that their naval forces off the North American shores would be withdrawn, thus relieving the pressure against Washington’s sea supply lines. The Ranger sailed from Brest, 11 April and boldly headed for the Irish Sea, taking prizes en route. On 22 April Jones landed at Whitehaven, spike the guns at the fort and set fire to the shipping. The following day he made another surprise landing at St. Mary’s Isle with the plan to seize the Earl of Selkirk as hostage that he might be exchanged for the American seamen imprisoned in England, but Earl was absent. On the 24th the Ranger fell in with the British warship Drake and after a bloody fight lasting one hour and four minutes the enemy surrendered. The Drake was the first man-of-war to surrender to a Continental warship and thus the present Stars and Stripes had its baptism on the ocean with John Paul Jones. The Ranger returned to Brest with her prize and Jones became a hero to the French.
Jones was not permitted to enjoy being a hero very long. He had trouble not only with the three American Commissioners at Paris, but the French authorities as well. He could not get for his men the prize money they had won; his draft for the food and clothing of his crew was not honored. Official red tape was partly responsible. Finally the Ranger was sent home to the States and he was promised a large vessel and squadron to make further incursions of the British coast. Little did he know what was ahead of him. Promise after promise made to him by the French Minister of Marine was followed by as many disappointments. Never before or since has any naval officer tried so hard to get a ship and to get to sea! When it became known that Jones had prepared a letter to the King setting forth all the broken promises and that he had a plan whereby the letter would reach Louis XVI personally, action came quickly [this is a simplistic explanation; there is no evidence of this blackmail]. By the King’s order a ship was eventually found — an old and rotten, poor-sailing East Indianman [Jones chose the vessel as the best available one; it was not forced upon him]. Jones’ efforts to convert this old ship into a man-of-war were truly heroic. Various parts of France were searched for suitable guns; sails, spars and rigging had to found, to say nothing of collecting a crew — forbidden to enlist Frenchmen, a motley lot eventually was got together. Jones begged, borrowed and took where he could to find the articles needed to get to sea. His squadron of seven ships finally sailed from the anchorage in the roads of L’Orient on 14 August 1779.
Ill luck continued to haunt him. By the time he had sailed around the British Isles, circling Ireland to the westward and north about Scotland, and had arrived at the next to the last rendezvous all but two ships had deserted him [in reality, two ships were detached and later rejoined Jones]. His rendezvous was the waters off Flamborough Head, a promontory on the east coast of England near the Scottish border. John Paul Jones arrived there on 23 September 1779, only eight days before the cruise was to end at Texel and the expected Baltic fleet of merchantman had not been encountered. The crisis of Jones’ life had arrived.
On this day John Paul Jones’ luck changed; he rose to supreme distinction. Sighting the superior British frigate Serapis convoying a fleet of forty-odd merchant ships around Flamborough Head; Jones stood directly for her and engaged as soon as possible. He captured his opponent after his own vessel had been practically shot out from under him and she later sank, despite the pumps and every effort to save her.
This action beginning at sunset, with the full moon just rising, lasted nearly four hours, the two vessels being lashed together, starboard side to starboard side. Not only was it the most brilliant sea fight of the war, but one the most remarkable single ship actions in history. Finally, with the Bonhomme Richard’s hold filled with 4 to 5 feet water, gaining despite the pumps, in a sinking condition; with all her guns out of action except 3 nine-pounders; with her hull holed in many places and decks all but shot away; with half of crew killed or wounded; including several officers; with fire raging in many places and fast approaching the magazines; with rudder and much of the rigging shot away, lying helpless to maneuver — the Captain of the Serapis hailed Jones: “Do you surrender?” Captain Pearson immediately had his reply twofold over the roar of the battle as Jones and his men boarded the Serapis shouting his immortal words: “Surrender? I have not yet begun to fight!” [It is questionable that he used these exact words. Although he said something similar to his well-known quote, he said it much earlier in the battle, not near the end of the fight.].
With the end of the war with Great Britain came the end of our first Navy. Jones and his brother officers together with their valiant crews were honorably discharged; their ships were broken up or sold; the personnel was left to shift for themselves; we were never going to have any more wars — we had won our freedom — and why go to the expense of a Navy? Jones was never given the rank of rear admiral which he thought he had won — intrigues and jealousy prevented it.
After the peace, our government appointed Jones as its agent abroad to negotiate and settle our prize money claims; doing so he acted as a diplomat. In this he was partially successful.
While in Paris he received a flattering invitation to enter the service of Catherine II of Russia, then engaged in war against the Turks (1788). He accepted with the permission of our government but never, as he put it, “Can I renounce the glorious title of the citizen of the United States.” Going to Russia was the one great mistake of his life and hastened his death. While most successful professionally, jealousies, and intrigues forced him to leave Russia, and he returned to Paris.
Death and Legacy
Broken in spirit and health, Jones died on 18 July 1792, age 45. No one was with him at the moment of death — when discovered a few hours later, he was found lying across the bed “with his feet on the floor.”
It was the generosity of the foreigner (Pierre Francois Simmonneau) who paid the funeral expenses and provided for the body to be preserved by being placed in a lead casket, filled with alcohol, in case his country cared to bring the remains to the United States. He was buried in a cemetery in outskirts of Paris.
In 1899, General Horace Porter (a graduate of Military Academy at West Point), our ambassador to France, began a diligent and tireless search for John Paul Jones’ lost and forgotten grave. He was aided by the French government and in 1905 the undertaking ended in success. The body had been wonderfully preserved and positive identification was possible. A squadron of United States warships was sent to bring the hero to Annapolis and on 6 July (his birthday) 1905, John Paul Jones passed once again in triumph through the streets of Paris with French and American military escort. On 24 April 1906, commemorative services were held in Dahlgren Hall at the United States Naval Academy, participated in by President Theodore Roosevelt, the French Ambassador, other high civil military representatives, and twelve thousand people.
The following inscription is placed in the marble floor in the front of sarcophagus:
JOHN PAUL JONES, 1747-1792; U.S. NAVY, 1775-1783. HE GAVE OUR NAVY ITS EARLIEST TRADITIONS OF HEROISM AND VICTORY. ERECTED BY THE CONGRESS, A.D. 1912.
The assembled Congress sitting in New York, 16 October 1787, voted unanimously to award John Paul Jones a gold medal. He was the only naval officer of our Continental Navy to be so honored. Thomas Jefferson, our minister to Paris, was instructed by Congress to arrange for appropriate design and devices of the medal, to select the medalist and when the medal had been struck to send the two steel dies to the Congress. At this time the art of the medalist was at its prime and the French artists were the most skillful. Jefferson selected Augustine Dupre, the medalist to the King of France.
The gold-hilted sword presented by Louis XVI, King of France, to John Paul Jones to commemorate his victory over H.M.S. Serapis, 23 September 1779, was among his personal effects when death occurred (as was his service sword).
On 27 November 1770 “John Paul” (more than three years before “Jones” was added to his name in America) became a member of the St. Bernard Masonic Lodge of Kirkcudbright near his birthplace. He had attended the local masonic lodge of Fredericksburg, Virginia (1774-1775) to which Washington had long been a member. On 16 August 1779, John Paul Jones made application to become affiliated with the Masonic Lodge of Les Neuf Soeurs (the Nine Sisters), at Paris. Two of the foremost men of the age were the members of this lodge, Dr. Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire. On 1 May 1780, the Lodge of the Nine Sisters (the Nine Muses) held a great festival and received Jones into its membership. At the same time it commissioned one of the world’s greatest sculptors, Jean Antoine Houdon, to make a life size marble bust of Jones.
The plight of the captains and crews of out merchantmen who had been captured and made slaves by the Barbary States was well known as was Jones’ interest in them. It was but natural, therefore, that when Jefferson became the first Secretary of State in Washington’s cabinet, that our foreign policy should concern itself with the fate of our imprisoned sailors; and it was also natural that Jefferson should recall John Paul Jones’ interest in them. In this crypt is the original parchment commission signed by both Washington and Jefferson, 1 June 1792, appointing John Paul Jones a Commissioner of the United States to the Dey and Government of Algiers to “negotiate” a Treaty for the Ransoming of the American Captives. Accompanying the commission was an eleven-page autographed letter signed by Jefferson to John Paul Jones of the same date (1 June 1792) giving Jones the previous history of the policy of the United States and its futures policy with regard to the Barbary Corsais seizing our merchant ships in the Mediterranean because of refusal to pay tribute, etc. Jefferson refers to the necessity of secrecy and that he even filled in the blank spaces on the commission himself to insure secrecy; that only the President and himself knew of the commission being issued but that Thomas Pinkney, newly-appointed minister to England, who would bring him the letter and the commission would be informed. It will be noted that the words “with the advice and consent of the Senate” are omitted in this commission — one issued when the Senate is not in session. This practice continues to this day and in the navy such commissions are known as “gunboats” — one so commissioned can draw the salary and wear the uniform of the rank but at the next session of the Senate must be confirmed. Jefferson and Washington purposely chose a time when the Senate was not in session so that secrecy could be insured. The label on the case indicated the donors. The eleven-page letter referred to is in the Museum’s manuscript collection and the commission is also owned by the Naval Academy Museum.
After the French defeat at Trafalgar, Napoleon is said to have remarked, “Had Jones lived to this day, France might have had an Admiral.”