Commodore Paul Jones

Brady Cyrus Townsend
Commodore Paul Jones


After the sinking of the Richard, Jones turned his attention to the squadron. Those ships which had been in action were now ready for sea, so far, at least, as it was possible to make them, and it was necessary to make a safe port as soon as possible. He had now some five hundred English prisoners, including Captains Pearson and Piercy and their officers, in his possession. These equaled all the American seamen held captive by the English, and, with one of the main objects of his expedition in view, Jones earnestly desired to make a French port, in which case his prizes would be secure and he would be able to effect a proper exchange of prisoners. But the original destination of the squadron had been the Texel. It is evident that in sending the squadron into the Zuyder Zee Franklin shrewdly contemplated the possibility of so compromising Holland by the presence of the ships as to force a recognition from that important maritime and commercial power of the belligerency of the United States. This was the real purport of the orders. There was an ostensible reason, however, in the presence of a large fleet of merchant vessels in the Texel, which would be ready for sailing for France in October, and Jones' squadron could give them a safe convoy.

The events of the cruise had brought about a somewhat different situation from that contemplated in the original orders, and Jones was undoubtedly within his rights in determining to enter Dunkirk, the most available French port; in which event the difficulties which afterward arose concerning the exchange of prisoners and the disposition of the prizes would never have presented themselves. In the latter case, however, the hand of Holland might not have been so promptly forced, and the recognition accorded this country would probably have been much longer delayed, although in the end it would have come. But the balance of advantage lay with Jones' choice of Dunkirk.

For a week the ships beat up against contrary winds, endeavoring to make that port. Their position was most precarious. Sixteen sail, including several ships of the line, were seeking the audacious invaders, and they were likely to overhaul them at any time. The Frenchmen naturally grew nervous over the prospect. Finally, the captains, who had been remonstrating daily with Jones, refused to obey his orders any longer; and, the wind continuing unfavorable for France, they actually deserted the Serapis, running off to leeward in a mass and heading for the Texel.

The officers of the American squadron were fully aware of the assigned destination, although the deep reasons for Franklin's subtle policy had probably not been communicated to them. In view of this unprecedented situation, which may be traced distinctly to the concordat, there was nothing left to Jones but to swallow the affront as best he might, and follow his unruly squadron.

Landais had not yet been deposed from the command of the Alliance, because it would have probably required force to arrest him on the deck of his own ship, and an internecine conflict might have been precipitated in his command. On the 3d of October, having made a quick run of it, the squadron entered the Texel.

From the mainland of the Dutch Republic, now the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the state of North Holland thrusts a bold wedge of land far to the northward, between the foaming surges of the German Ocean on the one hand, and the tempest-tossed waters of the Zuyder Zee on the other. Opposite the present mighty fortifications of Helder, justly considered the Gibraltar of the North, which terminate the peninsula, lies a deep and splendid channel, bounded on the north side by the island of Texel, from which the famous passage gets its name. Through this ocean gateway, from time immemorial, a splendid procession of gallant ships and hardy men have gone forth to discover new worlds, to found new countries, to open up new avenues of trade with distant empires, and to uphold the honor of the Orange flag in desperate battles on the sea. Through the pass sailed the first great Christian foreign missionary expedition of modern times, when in 1624 the Dutchmen carried the Gospel to the distant island of Formosa, the beautiful.

Brederode and the wild beggars of the sea; Tromp, De Ruyter, van Heemskerk, De Winter, leading their fleets to battles which made their names famous, had plowed through the deep channel with their lumbering keels. Of smaller ships from these familiar shores, the little Half Moon, of Henry Hudson, and the pilgrim-laden Mayflower had taken their departure. But no bolder officer nor better seaman had ever made the passage than the little man on the deck of the battered Serapis on that raw October morning. It is a rather interesting coincidence that among the prizes of this cruise was one which bore the name of the Mayflower.

As the cables of the ships tore through the hawse pipes when they dropped anchor, Jones may have imagined that his troubles were over. As a matter of fact, they had just begun, and his stay in the Texel was not the least arduous nor the least brilliant period in his life. His conduct in the trying circumstances in which he found himself was beyond reproach. The instant that he appeared, Sir Joseph Yorke, the able and influential Minister of England at The Hague, demanded that the States-General deliver the Serapis and the Scarborough to him and compel the return of the English prisoners held by Jones, and that the American "Pirate" should be ordered to leave the Texel immediately, which would, of course, result in the certain capture of his ships, for the English pursuing squadron appeared off the mouth of the channel almost immediately after Jones' entrance.

Sir Joseph made the point-and it was a pretty one-that by the terms of past treaties prizes taken by ships whose commanders bore the commission of no recognized power or sovereign were to be returned to the English whenever they fell into the hands of Holland. This placed the States-General in a dilemma. Paul Jones would show no commission except that of America; indeed, he had no other. In Sir Joseph's mind the situation was this: The States-General would comply with the terms of the treaty or it would not. If it did, he would get possession of the ships and of Jones as well. If it did not, the logic of events would indicate that the States-General considered the commission which Paul Jones bore as being valid, in that it was issued by a sovereign power. This would be in effect a recognition of belligerency. In other words, the shrewd British diplomatist was endeavoring to force the hand of the States-General. To determine the position of Holland with regard to the revolted colonies of Great Britain was a matter of greater moment than to secure Paul Jones or to receive the two ships, the loss of which, except so far as it affronted the pride of England, was of no consequence whatever. The States-General, however, endeavored to evade the issue and postpone the decision, for, while their "High Mightinesses" refused to cause the ships to be given up, they ordered Jones to leave the harbor at once, and they earnestly disclaimed any intention of recognizing the revolted colonies.

As a matter of fact, since there were two parties in the government of Holland, and two opinions on the subject, they could come to no more definite conclusion. Jones was intensely popular with the people, and the democratic opinion favored the immediate recognition of American independence, and protested against any arbitrary action toward him and his ships. The Prince of Orange and the aristocratic party took the contrary view, and they pressed it upon him as far as they dared. Realizing the precarious nature of his stay in Holland, Jones immediately set to work with his usual energy to refit the ships, especially the Serapis. Dispatching a full account of his cruise and his expedition to Franklin, he went in person to Amsterdam to facilitate his desire. A contemporary account states that he was dressed in an American naval uniform,24 wearing on his head, instead of the usual cocked hat, a Scotch bonnet edged with gold lace.

When he appeared in the exchange he received a popular ovation, which naturally greatly pleased him. However, he modestly strove to escape the overwhelming demonstrations of admiration and approval with which he was greeted, by retiring to a coffee room, but he was compelled to show himself again and again at the window in response to repeated demands from crowds of people assembled in the street who desired a sight of him. He was made the hero of song and story, and one of the ballads of the time, a rude, rollicking, drinking song, very popular among sailors, which celebrates his exploits, is sung to this day in the streets of Amsterdam.25 So delighted were the Dutch with the humiliation he had inflicted upon their ancient enemy that some of the principal men of the nation, including the celebrated Baron van der Capellen, subsequently noted for his friendship for America (evidently not in harmony with the aristocratic party), entered into a correspondence with him, which must have been highly flattering to him, from the expressions of admiration and approval with which every letter of the baron's abounds. They desired to receive at first hand an account of his exploits. In response to this request Jones had his report to Dr. Franklin copied and sent to van der Capellen, together with other documents illustrative of his career, accompanied by the following letter:

"On Board The Serapis At The Texel,
"October 19, 1779.

"My Lord: Human nature and America are under a very singular obligation to you for your patriotism and friendship, and I feel every grateful sentiment for your generous and polite letter.

"Agreeable to your request I have the honour to inclose a copy of my letter to his Excellency Doctor Franklin, containing a particular account of my late expedition on the coasts of Britain and Ireland, by which you will see that I have already been praised far more than I have deserved; but I must at the same time beg leave to observe that by the other papers which I take the liberty to inclose (particularly the copy of my letter to the Countess of Selkirk, dated the day of my arrival at Brest from the Irish Sea), I hope you will be convinced that in the British prints I have been censured unjustly. I was, indeed, born in Britain, but I do not inherit the degenerate spirit of that fallen nation, which I at once lament and despise. It is far beneath me to reply to their hireling invectives. They are strangers to the inward approbation that greatly animates and rewards the man who draws his sword only in support of the dignity of freedom.

"America has been the country of my fond election from the age of thirteen, when I first saw it.26 I had the honour to hoist, with my own hands, the flag of freedom, the first time that it was displayed on the Delaware, and I have attended it with veneration ever since on the Ocean; I see it respected even here, in spite of the pitiful Sir Joseph, and I ardently wish and hope very soon to exchange a salute with the flag of this Republick. Let but the two Republicks join hands, and they will give Peace to the World."

Among the documents transmitted was the famous letter to Lady Selkirk, of which sententious epistle he evidently remained inordinately proud. In acknowledging this courtesy van der Capellen wrote as follows:

"The perusal of the letters with which you have favoured me has done the very same effect upon me that his Excell. Dr. Franklin expected they would do on the Countess of Selkirk, as you are represented in some of our Newspapers as a rough, unpolished sailor, not only, but even as a man of little understanding and no morals and sensibility, and as I think the 4 papers extremely fit to destroy these malicious aspersions, I must take the liberty of asking your permission to publish them in our gazettes. The public will soon make this very just conclusion that the man honoured by the friendship and intimacy of a Franklin can not be such as you have been represented.27 There are three points on which you will oblige me by giving some elucidation, 1st. whether you have any obligations to Lord Selkirk? 2d. whether Lady Selkirk has accepted your generous offer? 3d. whether you have a commission of France besides that of the Congress? 'Tis not a vain curiosity that incites me to be so importunate; no, sir, the two first questions are often repeated to me by your enemies, or, at least, by prejudiced people; and as to the last, a relative of mine, a known friend of America, has addressed himself to me for information on that subject, which he will be glad to have before the States of his province, of which he is a member (but not yet, as I am, expelled the house), be assembled.

"You will greatly oblige me by sending me as soon as possible such information as you will think proper to grant.

"You may rely on our discretion; we can keep a secret, too. I am in a great hurry, with the most perfect esteem …"

The baron's statement gives us a contemporary opinion-one of entire approbation, by the way-of the letter to Lady Selkirk, and it shows us that our great-grandfathers looked at things with different eyes from ours.

In reply, Jones dispatched the following letter a month later:

"Alliance, Texel, November 29, 1779.

"My Lord: Since I had the honour to receive your second esteemed letter I have unexpectedly had occasion to revisit Amsterdam; and, having changed ships since my return to the Texel, I have by some accident or neglect lost or mislaid your letter. I remember, however, the questions it contained: 1st, whether I ever had any obligation to Lord Selkirk? 2dly, whether he accepted my offer? and 3dly, whether I have a French commission? I answer: I have never had any obligation to Lord Selkirk, except for his good opinion, nor does know me nor mine except by character. Lord Selkirk wrote me an answer to my letter to the Countess, but the Ministry detained it in the general post office in London for a long time, and then returned it to the author, who afterward wrote to a friend of his (M. Alexander), an acquaintance of Doctor Franklin's then at Paris, giving him an account of the fate of his letter to me & desiring him to acquaint his Excellency and myself that if the plate was restored by Congress or by any public Body he would accept it, but that he would not think of accepting it from my private generosity. The plate has, however, been bought, agreeable to my letter to the Countess, and now lays in France at her disposal. As to the 3rd article, I never bore nor acted under any other commission than what I have received from the Congress of the United States of America.28

"I am much obliged to you, my Lord, for the honour you do me by proposing to publish the papers I sent you in my last, but it is an honour which I must decline, because I can not publish my letter to a lady without asking and obtaining the lady's consent, and because I have a very modest opinion of my writings, being conscious that they are not of sufficient value to claim the notice of the public. I assure you, my Lord, it has given me much concern to see an extract of my rough journal in print, and that, too, under the disadvantage of a translation. That mistaken kindness of a friend will make me cautious how I communicate my papers.

"I have the honour to be, my Lord, with great esteem and respect,

"Your most obliged,

"And very humble servant."

The nice delicacy of his conduct in refusing to permit the publication of a letter to a lady without her consent goes very far toward redeeming the absurdity of the letter itself. While this interesting correspondence was going on, events of great moment were transpiring. In the first place, Captain Pearson was protesting against his detention as a prisoner in the most vehement way, and otherwise behaving in a very ill-bred manner. When the commodore offered to return him his plate, linen, and other property, which had been taken from the Serapis, he refused to accept it from Jones; but he intimated that he would receive it from the hand of Captain de Cottineau! Jones had the magnanimity to overlook this petty quibbling, and returned the property through the desired channel. Pearson, like Jones, was of humble origin; but, unlike Jones, he never seems to have risen above it. On October 19th he addressed the following note to Jones:

"Pallas, Tuesday Evening, October 19, 1779.
"Captain Jones, Serapis.

"Captain Pearson presents his compliments to Captain Jones, and is sorry to find himself so little attended to in his present situation as not to have been favoured with either a Call or a line from Captain Jones since his return from Amsterdam. Captain P … is sorry to say that he can not look upon such behaviour in any other light than as a breach of that Civility, which his Rank, as well as behaviour on all occasions entitles to, he at the same time wishes to be informed by Captain Jones whether any Steps has been taken toward the enlargement or exchange of him, his officers and people, or what is intended to be done with them. As he can not help thinking it a very unprecedented circumstance their being keeped here as prisoners on board of ship, being so long in a neutral port."

He received in return this decided and definite reply:

"Serapis, Wednesday, October 20, 1779.
"Captain Pearson.

"Sir: As you have not been prevented from corresponding with your friends, and particularly with the English ambassador at The Hague, I could not suppose you to be unacquainted with his memorial, of the 8th, to the States-General, and therefore I thought it fruitless to pursue the negotiation for the exchange of the prisoners of war now in our hands.

"I wished to avoid any painful altercation with you on that subject; I was persuaded that you had been in the highest degree sensible that my behaviour 'toward you had been far from a breach of civility.' This charge is not, Sir, a civil return for the polite hospitality and disinterested attentions which you have hitherto experienced.

"I know not what difference of respect is due to 'Rank,' between your service and ours; I suppose, however, the difference must be thought very great in England, since I am informed that Captain Cunningham, of equal denomination, and who bears a senior rank in the service of America, than yours in the service of England, is now confined at Plymouth in a dungeon, and in fetters.

"Humanity, which hath hitherto superseded the plea of retaliation in American breasts, has induced me (notwithstanding the procedure of Sir Joseph Yorke) to seek after permission to land the dangerously wounded, as well prisoners as Americans, to be supported and cured at the expense of our Continent. The permission of the Government has been obtained, but the magistrates continue to make objections. I shall not discontinue my application. I am ready to adopt any means that you may propose for their preservation and recovery, and in the meantime we shall continue to treat them with the utmost care and attention, equally, as you know, to the treatment of our people of the same rank.

"As it is possible that you have not yet seen the memorial of your ambassador to the States-General, I enclose a paper which contains a copy, and I believe he has since written what, in the opinion of good men, will do still less honour to his pen.

"I can not conclude without informing you that unless Captain Cunningham is immediately better treated in England, I expect orders in consequence from His Excellency Dr. Franklin; therefore, I beseech you, Sir, to interfere."

The States-General having refused to consent to the restoration of the ships and the surrender of the prisoners, Paul Jones went to The Hague for the purpose of pleading his own cause; and there, through the representations of the French ambassador, the Duc de la Vauguyon, received permission from their High Mightinesses to land the more dangerously wounded among his prisoners and crew as well, numbering over one hundred, in order that he might better care for them and establish them in more comfortable quarters than the crowded ships permitted.


From motives of humanity, in view of the condition of the prisoners, Sir Joseph Yorke acquiesced in this arrangement. It was first proposed that Jones should land them and establish a hospital at Helder; but the magistrates of that town objecting to the proposition, a fort on the Texel was assigned to him, of which the entire charge was committed to him. Colonel de Weibert, with a sufficient force to garrison the works, was placed in command of the fort.

Meanwhile, the charges against Landais, having been formulated and signed, were dispatched to Franklin, who, with the consent of the French Government, ordered him to resign the command of the Alliance and repair immediately to Paris. Before he left the Texel the erratic Frenchman compelled Captain de Cottineau to accord him the honor of a duel. As Landais was an expert swordsman, he succeeded in severely wounding his less skillful but far more worthy antagonist. Elated by this exploit, the mad Frenchman sent Jones a challenge also. In reply to Landais' note, the commodore, Marius-like, promptly dispatched men to arrest him; but Landais got wind of the attempt and hastened to escape, taking up his departure for Paris. During the stay in the Texel Jones succeeded in effecting the exchange of Captain Pearson for Captain Gustavus Cunningham, whom he had at last the pleasure of receiving upon his own ship.29 Meanwhile, with true British persistence, Sir Joseph kept at the States-General, and it in turn pressed upon Jones, who imperturbably passed the matter on to the French ambassador and Dr. Franklin.

On the 12th of November, to relieve a situation which had become well-nigh insupportable, the French Government, with the consent of Franklin, directed that the command of the Serapis should be given to Captain de Cottineau, and that all the other vessels, except the Alliance, to which the French had no claim, should hoist the French flag, and that the Americans should be sent on board the Alliance, which should be turned over to Paul Jones. To his everlasting regret, Jones had to obey the heartbreaking order, and in one moment found himself deprived of his command and his prizes taken from him. It was a crushing blow, but he had no option save to bear it as best he could. The exchange was effected at night, and the next morning, when the Dutch admiral sent his flag captain on board the Serapis to attempt his usual bullying, he was surprised to see the French flag flying from her gaff end, and to be informed that she was now the property of France, as were all the other ships except the Alliance. Proceedings at once, therefore, fell to the ground as regarded all the ships but the American frigate. There was no possible reason for giving up the ships of the French king to the British Government, so Sir Joseph Yorke necessarily, although with a very bad grace, dropped the matter, and a short time after the French ships and the prizes sailed with the merchant fleet under a strong Dutch convoy for France, where they all arrived safely. Yorke persisted, however, in attempting to secure the person of Jones, it is gravely alleged, through the efforts of private individuals, kidnappers or bravos. At any rate, he redoubled his representations regarding the Alliance, and his efforts to force the departure of the ship that she might fall into the hands of the waiting English.

The Serapis had been thoroughly overhauled and refitted, and the other ships, with the exception of the Alliance, were in good shape. By his unsailorly antics and foolish arrangements Landais had almost destroyed the qualities of that noble frigate. She was in a dreadful condition. Thirteen Dutch men-of-war, all of them two-deckers, or line of battle ships, had assembled in the Texel to enforce the orders of the States-General, which, on the 17th of November, by a specific resolution directed the Admiralty Board at Amsterdam to command Jones to let no opportunity escape to put to sea, as the approach of winter might make his departure inconvenient or impossible if he delayed longer. Vice-Admiral Rhynst, who had succeeded Captain Rimersina (like van der Capellen, another friend of the United States) in the command of the Dutch fleet, was peremptorily ordered to permit no delay which was not unavoidable in the carrying out of these orders. He was instructed and empowered to use force if necessary. Outside the harbor there was a constantly increasing number of English ships, so that Jones found himself "between the devil and the deep sea." He was not to be intimidated, however, and he absolutely refused to go out at all until he was ready, sending Admiral Rhynst a rather boastful letter to the effect that he could not engage more than three times his force with any hope of success, but were the odds any less he should go out at once. M. Dumas, the French commissary and the agent of the United States at The Hague, had been directed to proceed to the Texel and do what he could for Jones, and an interesting correspondence was carried on between them and the French ambassador on the subject of Jones' departure. With clear-eyed diplomacy and stubborn resolution the American held on; go he would not until he was ready! It was, no doubt, very exasperating to the Dutch, and they did everything possible save using force to get rid of their unwelcome visitor.

The Alliance, as has been stated, was in an unseaworthy condition. An old-fashioned sailing vessel was as complex and delicate a thing as a woman; rude, brutal, and unskillful handling had the same effect on both of them-it spoiled them. Jones at once began the weary work of refitting her so far as his limited resources provided. The powder which had been saved from the wreck of the Richard replaced the spoiled ammunition of the Alliance. Two cables had been borrowed from the Serapis, and such other steps taken as were possible. When the squadron was turned over to France the prisoners, except those already exchanged by agreement between Jones and Pearson, also were directed to be surrendered to the French Government, who immediately exchanged them with the English for an equal number of French prisoners, promising Franklin that they would presently exchange a corresponding number of French prisoners for the Americans. But Jones resolutely refused to give up all of his prisoners. In spite of protests and orders he re-embarked the hundred men who had been recovering from their wounds in the fort on the Texel, and taking all the Americans of the squadron, so that the Alliance was heavily overmanned, he made his preparations to get away.

At this time the Duc de la Vauguyon, by the direction of De Sartine, made Jones the offer of a French naval letter of marque, which might have protected the captain of the Alliance on her proposed homeward passage, and have removed all legal cause of objection as to her stay in the Texel. To this proposition, which he considered insulting, Jones made the following characteristic answer:

"My Lord: Perhaps there are many men in the world who would esteem as an honour the commission that I have this day refused. My rank from the beginning knew no superior in the marine of America; how then must I be humbled were I to accept a letter of marque! I should, my lord, esteem myself inexcusable were I to accept even a commission of equal or superior denomination to that I bear, unless I were previously authorised by Congress, or some other competent authority in Europe. And I must tell you that, on my arrival at Brest from the Irish Channel, Count D'Orvilliers offered to procure for me from court a commission of 'Capitaine de Vaisseau,' which I did not then accept for the same reason, although the war between France and England was not then begun, and of course the commission of France would have protected me from an enemy of superior force.

"It is a matter of the highest astonishment to me that, after so many compliments and fair professions, the court should offer the present insult to my understanding, and suppose me capable of disgracing my present commission. I confess that I never merited all the praise bestowed on my past conduct, but I also feel that I have far less merited such a reward. Where profession and practice are so opposite I am no longer weak enough to form a wrong conclusion. They may think as they please of me; for where I can not continue my esteem, praise or censure from any man is to me a matter of indifference.30

"I am much obliged to them, however, for having at last fairly opened my eyes, and enabled me to discover truth from falsehood.

"The prisoners shall be delivered agreeable to the orders which you have done me the honour to send me from his excellency the American ambassador in France.

"I will also with great pleasure not only permit a part of my seamen to go on board the ships under your excellency's orders, but I will also do my utmost to prevail with them to embark freely; and if I can now or hereafter, by any other honourable means, facilitate the success or the honour of his Majesty's arms, I pledge myself to you as his ambassador, that none of his own subjects would bleed in his cause with greater freedom than myself, an American.

"It gives me the more pain, my lord, to write this letter, because the court has enjoined you to prepare what would destroy my peace of mind, and my future veracity in the opinion of the world.

"When, with the consent of the court, and by order of the American ambassador, I gave American commissions to French officers, I did not fill up those commissions to command privateers, nor even for a rank equal to that of their commissions in the marine of France. They were promoted to rank far superior. And why? Not from personal friendship, nor from my knowledge of their services and abilities (the men and their characters being entire strangers to me), but from the respect which I believed America would wish to show for the service of France.

24By resolution of the Marine Committee, dated September 5, 1776, this was, for captains"A coat of blue cloth with red lapels, slashed cuffs, a stand-up collar, flat yellow buttons, blue breeches, and a red waistcoat with yellow lace." In Jones' case the "flat yellow buttons" were made of gold and the lace was woven of the same precious tissue. Nothing was too good for him, for the rank he supported, and the cause he upheld.
25See Appendix No. IV.
26Italics mine.
27Italics mine.
28Italics mine.
29As this is the last appearance of Pearson in our pages, it may be interesting to note that when he returned to England he was knighted for "his gallant defense of the Serapis against a greatly superior force"; in addition to which the merchants of London presented him, and Captain Piercy as well, with very valuable services of plate for their efficient protection of their convoy. Pearson afterward rose to high rank in the British service. He certainly had protected his convoy, for all of them escaped, and the gratitude of the merchants was natural. On the other hand, he had been beaten by an inferior force, and merited no honors on that score. As a matter of fact, the Serapis alone, to say nothing of the Countess of Scarborough, was nearly a match for Jones' whole squadron. Suppose, for instance, that Jones had been in command of the Serapis and Pearson of the Richard. Does anybody doubt that Jones could have beaten the Richard, the Alliance, and the Pallas with the Serapis alone? But it is unprofitable to discuss this question further. When Jones heard of these honors, he is reported to have made the following remark:
30Italics mine.
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