Commodore Paul Jones

Brady Cyrus Townsend
Commodore Paul Jones

"While I remained eight months seemingly forgot by the court at Brest, many commissions, such as that in question, were offered to me; and I believe (when I am in pursuit of plunder) I can still obtain such an one without application to court.

"I hope, my lord, that my behaviour through life will ever entitle me to the continuance of your good wishes and opinion, and that you will take occasion to make mention of the warm and personal affection with which my heart is impressed toward his Majesty."

In no other letter among the many which I have examined does Jones appear in so brilliant and successful a light. His high-souled decision, and his dignified but explicit way of conveying it, alike do him the greatest credit. In the hands of such a man, not only his own honor but that of his country would be perfectly safe always. As usual, on the 16th of December, he inclosed a copy of his letter to Franklin with the following original comment:

"I hope," he said, "that the within copy of my letter to the Duc de la Vauguyon will meet your approbation, for I am persuaded that it never could be your intention or wish that I should be made the tool of any great r- whatever; or that the commission of America should be overlaid by the dirty piece of parchment which I have thus rejected! They have played upon my good humour too long already, but the spell is at last dissolved. They would play me off with assurance of the personal and particular esteem of the king, to induce me to do what would render me contemptible even in the eyes of my own servants! Accustomed to speak untruths themselves, they would also have me to give under my hand that I am a liar and a scoundrel. They are mistaken, and I would tell them what you did to your naughty servant. 'We have too contemptible an opinion of one another's understanding to live together.' I could tell them, too, that if M- de C- had not taken such safe precautions to keep me honest by means of his famous concordat, and to support me by so many able colleagues, these great men would not have been reduced to such mean shifts; for the prisoners could have been landed at Dunkirk the day that I entered the Texel, and I could have brought in double the numbers."

After annoying him with daily injunctions and commands, on the 16th of December Vice Admiral Rhynst finally commanded Jones to come on board his flagship and report his intentions. Jones promptly refused to obey this astonishing order, telling the Dutchman that he had no right to order him anywhere. Whereupon the vice admiral wrote to him as follows:

"I desire you by this present letter to inform me how I must consider the Alliance which you are on board of: whether as a French or American vessel. If the first, I expect you to cause his Majesty's commission to be shown to me, and that you display the French flag and pendant, announcing it by discharging a gun. If the second, I expect you to omit no occasion of departing, according to the orders of their High Mightinesses."

Jones had passed beyond the arguing point, and treated this communication with contempt. He rightly judged that the Dutch would not resort to force in the end, and he refused to go out to certain capture; indeed, he would not move until he was ready and a fair chance of escape presented itself.

When the French Commissary of Marine at Amsterdam, the Chevalier de Lironcourt, saw Rhynst's communication, which Jones sent to him, he suggested that Jones might waive the point and display French colors on his ship, disclaiming, at the same time, any ulterior motive not in consonance with the dignity of the commander, on the part of himself or his government, in this proposition. But Jones was not to be moved from the stand he had taken. The man of the world was becoming the dauntless citizen of the United States at last. He curtly told the Dutch admiral that he had no orders to hoist any other flag than the American, and that it only should fly from the gaff of his ship. He also told him that as soon as a pilot would undertake to carry out his ship he would leave. But his most significant action was to state emphatically to the vice admiral's flag captain, who came aboard the Alliance for an answer to his note of the 16th, that he was tired of the annoyances, insults, and threats which had been directed at him daily, and that they must be stopped in future, as he would receive no more communications from the vice admiral. He also requested the flag captain to say to his superior officer that, although the Dutch flagship mounted sixty-four guns, if she and the Alliance were at sea together the vice admiral's conduct toward him would not have been tolerated for a moment. I have no doubt that Jones meant exactly what he said, and I think the vice admiral was lucky in not being required to test the declaration. From this time until his departure no communications of any sort were received by Jones from his baffled and silenced tormentor.

He had done all that mortal man could do to retain his prizes, to protract his stay in Dutch waters, to commit Holland to the side of the United States, to effect an exchange of prisoners, and to maintain the honor of the American flag. In doing this, on all sides he had been harassed and insulted beyond measure. It was therefore some consolation to him to receive on the 21st the following note of explanation and apology from De la Vauguyon:

"December 21, 1779.

"I perceive with pain, my dear commodore, that you do not view your situation in the right light; and I can assure you that the ministers of the king have no intention to cause you the least disagreeable feeling, as the honourable testimonials of the esteem of his majesty, which I send you, ought to convince you. I hope you will not doubt the sincere desire with which you have inspired me to procure you every satisfaction you may merit. It can not fail to incite you to give new proofs of your zeal for the common cause of France and America. I flatter myself to renew, before long, the occasion and to procure you the means to increase still more the glory you have already acquired. I am already occupied with all the interest I promised you; and if my views are realized, as I have every reason to believe, you will be at all events perfectly content; but I must pray you not to hinder any project by delivering yourself to the expressions of those strong sensations to which you appear to give way, and for which there is really no foundation. You appear to possess full confidence in the justice and kindness of the king; rely also upon the same sentiments on the part of his ministers."

To this letter Jones sent the following reply; he was a generous man, who bore no malice:

"Alliance, Texel, December 25, 1779.

"The Duke de Vauguyon.

"My Lord: I have not a heart of stone, but I am duly sensible of the obligations conferred on me by the very kind and affectionate letter that you have done me the honour to write me the 21st current.

"Were I to form my opinion of the ministry from the treatment that I experienced while at Brest, or from their want of confidence in me afterward, exclusive of what has taken place since I had the misfortune to enter this port, I will appeal to your Excellency as a man of candour and ingenuousness, whether I ought to desire to prolong a connection that has made me so unhappy, and wherein I have given so little satisfaction? M. de Chev. de Lironcourt has lately made me reproaches on account of the expense that he says France has been at to give me reputation, in preference to twenty captains of the royal navy, better qualified than myself, and who, each of them, solicited for the command that was lately given to me! This, I confess, is quite new and indeed surprising to me, and had I known it before I left France I certainly should have resigned in favour of the twenty men of superior merit. I do not, however, think that his first assertion is true, for the ministry must be unworthy of their places were they capable of squandering the public money merely to give an individual reputation! and as to the second, I fancy the court will not thank him for having given me this information, whether true or false. I may add here that, with a force so ill-composed, and with powers so limited, I ran ten chances of ruin and dishonour for one of gaining reputation; and had not the plea of humanity in favour of the unfortunate Americans in English dungeons superseded all considerations of self, I faithfully assure you, my lord, that I would not have proceeded under such circumstances from Groix. I do not imbibe hasty prejudices against any individual, but when many and repeated circumstances, conspiring in one point, have inspired me with disesteem toward any person, I must see very convincing proofs of reformation in such person before my heart can beat again with affection in his favour; for the mind is free, and can be bound only by kind treatment.

"You do me great honour, as well as justice, my lord, by observing that no satisfaction can be more precious to me than by giving new proofs of my zeal for the common cause of France and America; and the interest that you take to facilitate the means of my giving such proofs by essential services, claims my best thanks. I hope I shall not, through any imprudence of mine, render ineffectual any noble design that may be in contemplation for the general good.31 Whenever that object is mentioned, my private concerns are out of the question, and where I can not speak exactly what I could wish with respect to my private satisfaction, I promise you in the meantime to observe a prudent silence.


"With a deep sense of your generous sentiments of personal regard toward me, and with the most sincere wishes to merit that regard by my conduct through life."

The following extract from a letter to Robert Morris well indicates how his treatment by the French ambassador rankled:

"By the within despatches for Congress I am persuaded you will observe with pleasure that my connection with a court is at an end, and that my prospect of returning to America approaches. The great seem to wish only to be concerned with tools, who dare not speak or write truth. I am not sorry that my connection with them is at an end. In the course of that connection I ran ten chances of ruin and dishonour for one of reputation; and all the honours or profit that France could bestow should not tempt me again to undertake the same service with an armament, equally ill composed, and with powers equally limited. It affords me the most exalted pleasure to reflect that, when I return to America, I can say that I have served in Europe at my own expense, and without the fee or reward of a court,32 When the prisoners we have taken are safely lodged in France I shall have no further business in Europe, as the liberty of our fellow citizens who now suffer in English prisons will then be secured; and I shall hope hereafter to be usefully employed under the immediate direction of the Congress."

It is a remarkable thing that, during the perplexities and harassing incidents of his stay in the Texel, with the constant demands made upon him in every direction, the difficulties with which he had to cope, the responsibilities he assumed, the problems he had to solve, and the dangers grappled with, he found time to carry on such a voluminous and extraordinary correspondence as has been preserved. Among other documents he drew up a long memorial to Congress recounting his career and public services to date, which is of much service to those who strive to solve the enigma of his complex life and character. The tendency to lionize a hero was as prevalent then as now, and Jones was compelled by the exigencies of his situation to refuse many invitations of a social nature at Amsterdam and The Hague. "Duty," he says, "must take precedence of pleasure. I must wait a more favourable opportunity to kiss the hands of the fair." Certain young impressionable misses, after the custom of the day, indited poetical effusions to him. In the hurry and rush of business he could only find time in his replies to deplore the fact that so much was expected from him that he could not respond in rhyme to these metrical communications.


Christmas day passed gloomily enough, I imagine, for the Americans on the Alliance. There had been opportunities, of course, when it would have been possible for Jones to have made the mouth of the harbor, but his capture would have been inevitable. So, on one pretext or another, he delayed until the night of the 27th of December, when he weighed anchor and dropped down to the mouth of the Texel. Early the next morning in a howling gale he dashed for the sea. On the same day he sent the following note back to Dumas, and merrily proceeded on his way:

"I am here, my dear sir, with a good wind at east, and under my best American colours; so far you have your wish. What may be the event of this critical moment I know not; I am not, however, without good hopes. Through the ignorance or drunkenness of the old pilot the Alliance last night got foul of a Dutch merchant ship, and I believe the Dutchmen cut our cable. We lost the best bower anchor, and the ship was brought up with the sheet anchor so near the shore that this morning I have been obliged to cut the cable in order to get clear of the shore, and that I might not lose this opportunity of escaping from purgatory."

Though he had escaped from the Texel, his situation was one of extreme peril. It is claimed that no less than forty sail were on the lookout for him in the English Channel; and, besides those specifically detailed for the purpose, there were a number of ships and at least two great fleets at anchor in these narrow waters, which he would have to pass. I suppose that never before had so many vessels been on the lookout for a single ship as in this instance. It never seems to have occurred to the blockading ships that Jones would attempt to pass down the Channel; his safest course from the point of view of the ordinary man would have been through the North Sea and around Scotland and Ireland. But Jones was not an ordinary man, though the English refused to see the fact. Consequently, his bold course took them by surprise, and, as usual, by choosing apparently the most dangerous way he escaped. And the way of it was this: By the exercise of his usual seamanship Jones managed to hug the Flemish banks so closely that he passed to windward of the British blockading ships, which were driven to the northward by the same gale of which he had taken advantage.

The wind came strongly from the east, and under a great press of canvas the Alliance staggered away toward the south, keeping as close as possible to the weather shore until all danger from the immediate blockading fleet was avoided. Then Jones ran for the middle of the Channel, and the next day the Alliance passed through the straits of Dover and ran close to the Goodwin Sands, passing in full view of a large English fleet anchored in the Downs only three miles to leeward. On the day after, the 29th, the Alliance flew by the Isle of Wight, running near enough to take a good look at another fleet at Spithead.

On the 1st of January Jones was out of the Channel, having passed in sight of, and almost in range, at different times in this bold dash for freedom, of several British ships of the line, just out of gunshot to leeward. During all this time he had not ceased to fly the American flag. I do not know of a more splendid piece of sea bravado than this dash of the Alliance from the Texel. The daring and gallantry of the man at first seemed to have led him into injudicious and dangerous situations when he took the Alliance so close to the English coast and the British fleets; but his effrontery was governed by that sound and practical sense which ever distinguished his conduct from mere unthinking recklessness, for no one would ever imagine that the escaping ship would take such a course, and those vessels on the lookout for him would probably be found where a less subtle commander would have endeavored to pass-off the Flemish coast and near the French shore, for instance. Be that as it may, the little Alliance, with her Stars and Stripes flapping defiantly in the great breeze in the face of the overmastering English ships, running the gantlet of her enemies, is a picture we love to think upon.

The ship was in a critical condition. Damages which she had incurred in her voyage from Boston to France were still unrepaired. Her trim had been altered for the worse by Landais' blunders, and the improper stowage of the ballast had dangerously strained her and greatly diminished her speed, which had originally been very high. There was no way these things could have been temporarily repaired in the Texel; in fact, but little could be done until the vessel reached France. Owing to the unsanitary regimen of Landais, disease had broken out at different times, and the ship had become so dirty that nothing short of a thorough disinfection would render her safe for her crew. She was much overcrowded with men, all actually or professedly American, and carried a hundred prisoners as well. There were two sets of officers on board-those originally attached to her and the officers of the Richard. Jealousy and bickerings between the two crews were prevalent. Naturally, they had no love for each other. The officers and men of the Richard could not forget the conduct of those on the Alliance, and they looked upon them with hatred and contempt. Sailorlike, the men of the Alliance reciprocated that feeling. It was the desire of every one, except Jones and a few others, to get to France at once, but the commodore wished to return with more prizes; so he bore away to the south and west, seeking for ships, impressing upon his discontented men that the Alliance was equal to anything under a fifty-gun ship! He was not fortunate on this occasion, however, and finally, to avoid a threatened gale, he ran into the port of Corunna in Spain, on the 16th of January, 1780, where he was kindly received and hospitably entertained. During this cruise, in spite of the responsibilities of his position, he found time to compose the following verses in reply to a similar communication which he had received from the daughter of M. Dumas (it will be remembered that he deplored his inability in the Texel to find time for his present occupation):

"Were I, Paul Jones, dear maid, 'the king of sea,' I find such merit in thy virgin song,

A coral crown with bays I'd give to thee,
A car which on the waves should smoothly glide along;
The Nereides all about thy side should wait,
And gladly sing in triumph of thy state,
'Vivat! vivat! the happy virgin Muse!
Of liberty the friend, who tyrant power pursues!'
"Or, happier lot! Were fair Columbia free
From British tyranny, and youth still mine,
I'd tell a tender tale to one like thee
With artless looks and breast as pure as thine.
If she approved my flame, distrust apart,
Like faithful turtles, we'd have but one heart;
Together, then, we'd tune the silver lyre,
As love or sacred freedom should our lays inspire.
"But since, alas! the rage of war prevails,
And cruel Britons desolate our land,
For freedom still I spread my willing sails,
My unsheath'd sword my injured country shall command.
Go on, bright maid! the Muses all attend
Genius like thine, and wish to be its friend.
Trust me, although conveyed through this poor shift,
My New Year's thoughts are grateful for thy gift."

I have read worse poetry than this, also better, but it is very creditable to the sailor. If the reader has a low opinion of it, let him essay some verse-writing himself.33

While at Corunna, the ship was careened and her bottom scraped as far as possible without docking her, and, having procured an anchor to take the place of the two lost in the Texel, Jones prepared to set forth once more. The 28th of January was fixed for his departure, but the discontent among the crew reached such a pitch that they positively refused to weigh anchor unless they received at least a portion of their pay or prize money. Nothing had been paid them from the time the ships had been put in commission until they reached the Texel. There Jones had received from Amsterdam a small sum of money, from which he advanced five ducats to each of the officers and one to each of the men. The amount, compared to their dues and needs, was so insignificant that many of the men threw the money into the sea in disgust-a very foolish but extremely sailorlike action.

There were many patriotic men on these ships who merit the approbation and deserve the gratitude of their country. They had shown, especially those belonging to the Richard, a most desperate courage in most trying scenes. They had performed services upon which no monetary value could be placed, and had subjected themselves to dangers which no mere pecuniary consideration could have tempted them to face. It may at first, therefore, seem surprising that they should have so resolutely demanded their pay and prize money, even to the extent of mutinying for it; but it is a common experience that men who will freely offer themselves for the most dangerous undertakings, and who really are actuated by the strongest kind of patriotism, will quarrel and rebel, and even fight, for the petty amounts promised them by way of wages, which in themselves neither could tempt them to, nor repay them for, the sacrifices they had cheerfully undergone. Frankly, I have the greatest sympathy with the point of view of the unpaid soldiers or sailors of the past, and I quite understand their demands and complaints under such circumstances.


Perhaps there is an association of ideas between fighting for the liberties of one's country and demanding one's dues. Both are a revolt against injustice and oppression. The mind of the common sailor, especially of that day, was not calculated to draw nice distinctions, and he could see little difference between fighting for liberty and demanding that the country whose independence he periled his life to establish should show the small appreciation of his devotion involved in paying his scanty wages and not withholding his lawful prize money. Jones struggled for rank, station, reputation, opportunity; these men could aspire to no higher station than they already filled, and their corresponding effort was for the money justly due them.

The Richard's men had lost practically everything except the clothes they stood in when their ship went down, and their personal needs were necessarily very great. The original crew of the Alliance were under the impression that Jones had reserved from the small sum he had received at Amsterdam a considerable portion for himself. There is not the slightest evidence to warrant this supposition. The commodore was the most prodigal and generous of men, and his whole career evidences his entire willingness to devote his own personal property to the welfare and wages of his men. He finally persuaded the crew to get under way by promising to run direct to L'Orient, where he hoped they would undoubtedly receive their prize money. With this understanding the crew consented to work the ship to that point, and their departure was accordingly taken on the 28th.

When the vessel was fairly at sea, however, Jones summoned the officers to the cabin and proposed that they should cruise two or three weeks in those waters before making their promised port. I am afraid that the commodore allowed the possibility of taking some valuable prizes and perhaps another British frigate to incline him to break his promise to his men. His interview in his cabin with his officers was an interesting one. With all the eloquence of which he was a master-and he was able to speak convincingly and well on congenial subjects-he placed before them the possibilities presented, appealed to their patriotism, their love of fame, and as a last resort pointed out the further monetary advantage of another rich prize-Iago's argument! If they were successful in taking another frigate they would shed still greater luster upon their names, and put money in their pockets. The officers, however, bluntly refused to be persuaded. They emphasized the mutinous and discontented state of the crews, who had only sailed under Jones' positive promise to take them immediately to L'Orient; pointed out that many of the men had not proper clothing with which to endure the severe winter weather, and that they themselves were in a destitute condition.

Their natural reluctance to fall in with his plans infuriated Jones. Rising from the chair upon which he had been sitting, with an emphatic stamp of his foot he dismissed them with a sneering contempt in the following words:

"I do not want your advice, neither did I send for you to comply with your wishes, but only by way of paying you a compliment, which was more than you deserve by your opposition. Therefore, you know my mind; go to your duty, each one of you, and let me hear no more grumbling!"

The Alliance cruised for some days to the westward of Cape Finisterre, but, as the quarreling between the two crews ran higher than ever, and as Jones had failed to keep his promise, thus adding to their discontent, when they fell in with the American ship Livingstone, laden with a valuable cargo of tobacco, Jones gave over his attempt, and decided to convoy her to L'Orient, where he arrived on the 10th of February, 1780. That he should gravely have contemplated action with a British frigate with his ill-conditioned ship and mutinous crew shows the confidence he felt in his own ability. I have no doubt that, unprepared as she was, if the Alliance had fallen in with an English ship Jones would have been able to persuade his men to action, and with anything like an equal force the results would have been satisfactory.

31Italics mine.
32Italics mine.
33For another specimen of Jones' verse-writing, see page 277.
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