Commodore Paul Jones

Brady Cyrus Townsend
Commodore Paul Jones


On the 10th of November Jones sailed from Philadelphia to Havre in the packet Washington. Being detained by contrary winds, however, he put into Plymouth on the 30th of November, his first visit to England, save as an enemy, for many years. He there left the ship and went to London for a conference with Adams, the minister, who informed him that his dispatches for Franklin probably contained instructions for concluding the commercial treaty with England, and advised him to hasten. He therefore repaired immediately to Paris, where he arrived on the 4th of December. He was most kindly received by the Maréchal de Castries, the new Minister of Marine, and by the king and queen. Society, too, welcomed him with open arms. He immediately set about the task which had been allotted to him, with his characteristic energy. For a year and a half he successfully combated the various efforts of the French Government to make deductions from the amount realized from the sale of the prizes on one pretext or another, and on the 23d of October, 1784, de Castries at last approved of the account.

There were further delays, as usual, and the matter dragged until January, 1785, when he wrote to de Castries as follows:

"From the great number of affairs more important that engage your attention, I presume this little matter which concerns me, in a small degree personally, but chiefly as the agent of the brave men who served under my orders in Europe, may have escaped your memory. My long silence is a proof that nothing but necessity could have prevailed on me to take the liberty of reminding your Excellency of your promise."

As usual, his persistence at last received its reward in the shape of an order on the Royal Auditor at L'Orient for the money. He set out for L'Orient in July, and there stirred up a further nest of troubles, which, however, he managed to triumph over by the display of his usual qualities, and at the end of September, 1785, the account, amounting to one hundred and eighty-one thousand livres, etc., was paid to him.39 He charged no commission for collecting this money, but his expenses for the period of his sojourn in France were placed at the large sum of forty-eight thousand livres; to this was added thirteen thousand livres as his share of the prize money, making a total of sixty-one thousand livres, which he appropriated to himself. After paying certain persons then living in France who were entitled to share in the prize money, he turned over to Thomas Jefferson, who had succeeded Franklin, the sum of one hundred and twelve thousand livres, to be returned to the United States for the use of the officers and men entitled to participate in the distribution.

The charges that he made for his personal expenses were certainly very large, but there is not the slightest reason to infer, as has been insinuated, that he falsified the account-every reason to think the contrary, in fact. I have no doubt that he actually spent all that he claimed to have done-probably more, for he was as apt to spend as he was to fight-but the amount is greatly in excess of what should have been properly expended, or at least charged against the total for legitimate living expenses. As I have stated, however, he was supremely indifferent to money, his own or other people's, and it passed easily through his hands; although, so far as is known, he avoided debts and promptly paid his bills. He had great ideas as to the exalted nature of his position and the dignity of the country he represented, and he did not stint himself in anything. It was an expensive court, and he ruffled it royally with the best. He moved as an equal in an extravagant and gay society, and he allowed no considerations as to economy to restrain him from standing among the freest and highest. We need not censure him too severely in the premises, for the account was afterward investigated by Congress and his expenditures approved.

During his long stay in France the fertile mind of the chevalier was busied with various projects to advance his fortunes, among which was a design which he conceived in conjunction with the famous navigator and explorer Ledyard, who had gone around the world with the more famous Captain Cook. The two men proposed to engage in the fur trade in the then comparatively unexplored and unknown waters of the Pacific Ocean. The affair assumed a considerable state of forwardness, but was finally dropped on account of lack of necessary funds, the expenses proving much greater than either of the projectors had imagined they would be. In view of the vast fortunes which have been made subsequently in pursuance of this very idea, the conception throws an interesting light upon the keen business quality of the commodore's mind.40 As a light relaxation he had his bust made by the celebrated sculptor Houdon, copies of which he presented, with wide generosity, to a number of his friends. The bust was made at the instance of the French Masonic lodge of Three Sisters, of which he was an honored member.

Early in 1787, upon the advice of Jefferson, he determined to repair to Denmark to see what he could do to further the payment of the claim for indemnity, amounting to forty thousand pounds, caused by the delivery of the prizes of his famous squadron to the English at Bergen. He had reached Brussels on his journey to Copenhagen when he decided to return to America for two reasons: In the first place, Jefferson had no authority to approve the account of the commodore in the matter of prize money recently received from France. He had simply acted as a medium of transmittal of the balance handed him to the United States. The Treasury Board of Audit, to which the account and the accompanying balance had been submitted, strongly disapproved of the large item covering personal expenses, and Jones, when he heard their views, felt it incumbent upon him to return to America immediately to insure the acceptance of his statement and the adjustment of the account. In the second place, another motive for his return was on account of lack of funds. He had expected to receive at Brussels remittances from some investments in bank stock in the United States to enable him to proceed to Copenhagen, but they were not forthcoming. It would appear that he had spent all of his prize money, etc., which indicates his careless extravagance in monetary matters.41 Accordingly, he abandoned his Danish trip for the time, and returned to the United States in the spring of 1787.

His explanations of his personal expenditures, while they may not have convinced the auditors, were apparently satisfactory to Congress, to which the matter had been referred, for his accounts were soon approved, and Congress did him a singular honor in passing the following resolutions, which certainly could never have been adopted if there had been in the minds of any of the members the least cloud upon his financial reputation:

"Resolved, That a medal of gold be struck, and presented to the Chevalier Paul Jones in commemoration of the valor and brilliant service of that officer in the command of a squadron of American and French ships under the flag and commission of the United States, off the coast of Great Britain, in the late war; and that the Honourable Mr. Jefferson, Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States at the court of Versailles, have the same executed with the proper devices."

The fact that eight years had elapsed since the event commemorated shows that this action of Congress was not the result of any sudden enthusiasm, but was deliberate and therefore more valuable. In addition to this unique tribute to his worth and services, the same august body addressed the following personal letter to the king, Louis XVI:

"Great and beloved Friend: We, the United States, in Congress assembled, in consideration of the distinguished mark of approbation with which your Majesty has been pleased to honour the Chevalier John Paul Jones, as well as from a sense of his merit, have unanimously directed a medal of gold to be struck and presented to him, in commemoration of his valour and brilliant services while commanding a squadron of French and American ships, under our flag and commission, off the coast of Great Britain in the late war.

"As it is his earnest desire to acquire knowledge in his profession, we cannot forbear requesting your Majesty to permit him to embark in your fleets of evolution, where only it will be probably in his power to acquire that knowledge, which may hereafter render him most extensively useful.


"Permit us to repeat to your Majesty our sincere assurances that the various and important benefits for which we are indebted to your friendship will never cease to interest us in whatever may concern the happiness of your Majesty, your family, and people. We pray God to keep you, our great and beloved friend, under his holy protection.

"Done at the City of New York, the sixteenth day of October, in the year of our Lord 1787, and of our sovereignty and independence the twelfth."

This was presumably a reply to the official communication of De Sartine which has been cited before. So far as I know, Jones remains to this day the only officer so commended. Before this action of Congress he had written the following letter to Jay, the Secretary of State, which may have suggested the official letter to the French king:

"… My private business here being already finished, I shall in a few days re-embark for Europe, in order to proceed to the court of Denmark. It is my intention to go by the way of Paris, in order to obtain a letter to the French Minister at Copenhagen, from the Count de Montmorin, as the one I obtained is from the Count de Vergennes. It would be highly flattering to me if I could carry a letter with me from Congress to his most Christian Majesty, thanking him for the squadron he did us the honour to support under our flag. And on this occasion, sir, permit me, with becoming diffidence, to recall the attention of my sovereign to the letter of recommendation I brought with me from the court of France dated 30th of May, 1780. It would be pleasing to me if that letter should be found to merit a place on the journals of Congress. Permit me also to entreat that Congress will be pleased to read the letter I received from the Minister of Marine, when his Majesty deigned to bestow on me a golden-hilted sword, emblematical of the happy alliance, an honour which his Majesty never conferred on any other foreign officer..

"It is certain that I am much flattered by receiving a gold sword from the most illustrious monarch now living; but I had refused to accept his commission on two occasions before that time, when some firmness was necessary to resist the temptation; he was not my sovereign. I served the cause of freedom, and honours from my sovereign would be more pleasing. Since the year 1775, when I displayed the American flag for the first time with my own hands, I have been constantly devoted to the interests of America. Foreigners have, perhaps, given me too much credit, and this may have raised my ideas of my services above their real value; but my zeal can never be overrated.

"I should act inconsistently if I omitted to mention the dreadful situation of our unhappy fellow citizens in slavery at Algiers. Their almost hopeless fate is a deep reflection on our national character in Europe. I beg leave to influence the humanity of Congress in their behalf, and to propose that some expedient may be adopted for their redemption. A fund might be raised for that purpose by a duty of a shilling per month from seamen's wages throughout the continent, and I am persuaded that no difficulty would be made to that requisition."

This is the first mention of a matter which had recently come to his notice, and ever after engaged his attention-the dreadful situation of the Americans held captive in the Barbary States. The first public agitation for the amelioration of their unfortunate condition came from him, and the glorious little struggle by which the United States, a few years after his death, broke the power of these pirates, and alone among the nations of the world made them respect a national flag, had its origin in the love and sympathy of Paul Jones for the prisoner wherever he might be-a significant fact generally forgotten.

On the 25th of October Congress passed some strong resolutions on the subject of the failure of Denmark to pay the claim referred to above, and instructed Jefferson to dispatch the Chevalier Paul Jones to prosecute the claim at the Danish court, stating, however, that no final settlement or adjustment must be made without the approval of the minister. There was a decided difference between the two commissions with which Congress honored Jones.

In the first instance, in France, he was simply to obtain what had been actually received by the French Government from the sale of certain prizes; the amount in question was not in negotiation save for some allowances or deductions which did not greatly affect the total one way or the other. In other words, he was simply to collect, if he could, a just and admitted debt, and, after deducting expenses, divide it in accordance with a certain recognized principle so far as his own share, or the share of any one in Europe, was concerned, and remit the balance to Congress for action. In the second instance, he was charged with the more delicate and responsible work of pressing a claim for heavy damages based on the estimated value of prizes which the Danish Government had illegally returned to their original owners, the whole transaction on their part constituting an unfriendly and unlawful act, which could easily be magnified into a casus belli. In the first case he was to collect a bill for forty thousand dollars; in the second, to secure an admittance of obligation, establish the justice of a claim for five times the first amount, and force a payment. The second commission was the more honorable because the more responsible, and is another proof of the continued and, in fact, increased confidence in him which was felt by Congress.

The propriety, therefore, of associating him with Thomas Jefferson, by requiring the approval of the latter to any final settlements, can not be questioned. It can not be considered in any sense as a reflection upon Jones. It was the usual and common practice under such important circumstances to associate several negotiators to conduct the affair. The action was unfortunate, however, as it was made a pretext by the Danish Government for delaying the settlement. They had already compromised their contention of the legality of their action in giving up the ships by offering to settle with Franklin for ten thousand pounds, which offer had been refused.

One other incident of his stay in his country-the last visit he was destined to pay to it, by the way-brings upon the scene for the last time one of the principal actors in the drama of Jones' life. During his stay in New York, in the month of October, he was conversing with a friend while standing on Water Street, when Captain Landais, who had made his home in Brooklyn since his dismissal from the navy, approached them. Jones' back was turned, and when Mr. Milligan, his friend, told him of the advent of the Frenchman, he continued his conversation without turning around. Landais approached slowly, wearing a vindictive smile. When a few yards away from the two gentlemen, he halted, spat upon the pavement, remarked, "I spit in his face," and passed on. Mr. Milligan asked Jones if he had heard Landais' remark, and he replied that he had not. Nothing further was said about the incident at that time. Landais, however, circulated reports of the meeting derogatory to Jones' character, and in reply the chevalier published a statement of the occurrence signed by Mr. Milligan, and added that his respect for the public had induced him to establish the falsity of Landais' report by the testimony of the only witness present; he also stated that he should not condescend to take notice of anything further which might be said or done by his antagonist. From this circumstance arose the rumor that he had been publicly insulted-caned, in fact-without resenting it!42

During this period Jones, as usual, kept up his correspondence, especially with Madame de Telison, with whom his relations had evidently reached that intimate point to which I have referred on page 276. On June 23d she advised him of the death of her friend and protectress at court, the Marquise de Marsan. He wrote immediately, commending her to Jefferson, and at once dispatched the following letter to the lady herself:

"New York, September 4, 1787.

"No language can convey to my fair mourner the tender sorrow I feel on her account! The loss of our worthy friend is indeed a fatal stroke! It is an irreparable misfortune, which can only be alleviated by this one reflection, that it is the will of God, whose providence has, I hope, other blessings in store for us. She was a tried friend, and more than a mother to you! She would have been a mother to me also had she lived. We have lost her! Let us cherish her memory, and send up grateful thanks to the Almighty that we once had such a friend. I can not but flatter myself that you have yourself gone to the king in July, as he had appointed. I am sure your loss will be a new inducement for him to protect you, and render you justice. He will hear you, I am sure; and you may safely unbosom yourself to him and ask his advice, which can not but be flattering to him to give you. Tell him you must look on him as your father and protector. If it were necessary, I think, too, that the Count d'A-, his brother, would, on your personal application, render you good services by speaking in your favour. I should like it better, however, if you can do without him. Mr. Jefferson will show you my letter of this date to him. You will see by it how disgracefully I have been detained here by the Board of Treasury. It is impossible for me to stir from this place till I obtain their settlement on the business I have already performed; and, as the season is already far advanced, I expect to be ordered to embark directly for the place of my destination in the north. Mr. Jefferson will forward me your letters. I am almost without money, and much puzzled to obtain a supply. I have written to Dr. Bancroft to endeavour to assist me. I mention this with infinite regret, and for no other reason than because it is impossible for me to transmit you a supply under my present circumstances. This is my fifth letter to you since I left Paris. The two last were from France, and I sent them by duplicates. But you say nothing of having received any letters from me! Summon, my dear friend, all your resolution! Exert yourself, and plead your own cause. You can not fail of success; your cause would move a heart of flint! Present my best respects to your sister. You did not mention her in your letter, but I persuade myself she will continue her tender care of her sweet godson, and that you will cover him all over with kisses from me; they come warm to you both from the heart!"


The Count d'A- referred to was the Count d'Artois, subsequently King Charles X. Madame de Telison was his natural aunt, and that Jones should fear any evil consequence to her from her speaking to him is a hideous commentary on the morals of the times. Mackenzie infers the possibility that the Marchioness de Marsan was really the mother of Madame de Telison, and from the assurance that she would have been a mother to him also, had she lived, he thinks it possible that Jones might have contemplated marrying his correspondent. The godson was possibly Jones' own child. Shortly after this, correspondence with Madame de Telison ceased temporarily. But when Jones finally returned to France their relations were resumed. Before he died he provided for her, and she was with him to the end.

On the 11th of November Jones left America for the last time, taking passage at New York on a vessel bound for Holland. He was landed in England, however, and after another interview with Adams at London, he repaired to Paris on the 11th of December, and presented his dispatches to Jefferson. Jefferson now communicated to him a project which had been under discussion between himself and de Simolin, the Russian ambassador at Versailles, looking to a demand for the services of Jones by the Empress Catherine II of Russia. Some recent disasters to the Russian fleet in the Black Sea in the war which she had been waging against the Turks had caused the minister to consider the possibility of securing the services of the distinguished sea captain. No definite action was taken by either party at that time, although Jones, after some persuasion, expressed his willingness at least to consider the situation. Indeed, the prospects were sufficiently brilliant to have dazzled any man; but nothing came of the matter then. Jones had other business to attend to. At the close of January, 1788, he received his credentials from Jefferson, and on the morning of the 2d of February, the day of his departure for Denmark, he breakfasted with a Mr. Littlepage, chamberlain to the King of Poland, and the Russian Minister, who informed him that he had seriously proposed to his sovereign that Jones be intrusted with the command of the Black Sea fleet. He had, in fact, written to her as follows:

"That if her Imperial Majesty should confide to Jones the chief command of her fleet on the Black Sea, with carte blanche, he would answer for it that in less than a year Jones would make Constantinople tremble."

He also informed the commodore that the empress had been much impressed with the proposition, and was disposed to look favorably upon it.

Jones in reply said that he would undertake the command, under certain conditions, if the empress continued in the same mind, and set out with high hopes for Copenhagen. He reached that city on the 4th of March, and was royally received by the king and queen and principal people of the country; but in spite of every effort he found it utterly impossible to procure a satisfactory settlement of the claim. The shuffling Danish Government seized upon the flimsy pretext that he was not a plenipotentiary, since his powers were limited by the clause referred to above, and that since Congress had required that everything be referred to Paris, and final action should be taken at that point, there was no use negotiating with an agent. Completely thwarted in his attempts by this unfortunate clause, and having received a definite summons through Baron Krudner, the Russian ambassador at Copenhagen, to repair to Russia, Jones transferred the negotiations to Jefferson at Paris, which was, in fact, all he could do under the circumstances, and prepared to assume his new command.43 On the 8th of April, 1788, he wrote to Jefferson as follows:

"Sir: By my letters to the Count de Bernstorf, and his excellency's answer, you see that my business here is at an end. If I have not finally concluded the object of my mission, it is neither your fault nor mine; the powers I received are found insufficient, and you could not act otherwise than was prescribed in your instructions. Thus it frequently happens that good opportunities are lost when the supreme power does not place a sufficient confidence in the distant operations of public officers, whether civil or military. I have, however, the melancholy satisfaction to reflect that I have been received and treated here with a distinction far above the pretensions of my public mission, and I felicitate myself sincerely on being, at my own expense (and even at the peril of my life, for my sufferings from the inclemency of the weather, and my want of proper means to guard against it on the journey, were inexpressible; and I believe, from what I yet feel, will continue to affect my constitution), the instrument to renew the negotiation between this country and the United States; the more so as the honour is now reserved for you to display your great abilities and integrity by the completion and improvement of what Dr. Franklin had wisely begun. I have done, then, what perhaps no other person would have undertaken under the same circumstances; and while I have the consolation to hope that the United States will derive solid advantages from my journey and efforts here, I rest perfectly satisfied that the interests of the brave men I commanded will experience in you parental attention, and that the American flag can lose none of its lustre, but the contrary, while its honour is confided to you. America being a young nation, with an increasing commerce, which will naturally produce a navy, I please myself with the hope that in the treaty you are about to conclude with Denmark you will find it easy and highly advantageous to include certain articles for admitting America into the armed neutrality. I persuade myself beforehand that this would afford pleasure to the Empress of Russia, who is at the head of that noble and humane combination; and as I shall now set out immediately for St. Petersburg, I will mention the idea to her Imperial Majesty and let you know her answer.

"If Congress should think I deserve the promotion that was proposed when I was last in America, and should condescend to confer on me the grade of rear admiral from the day I took the Serapis (23d of September, 1779), I am persuaded it would be very agreeable to the empress, who now deigns to offer me an equal rank in her service, although I never yet had the honour to draw my sword in her cause, nor to do any other act that could directly merit her imperial benevolence. While I express, in the warm effusion of a grateful heart, the deep sense I feel of my eternal obligation to you as the author of the honourable prospect that is now before me, I must rely on your friendship to justify to the United States the important step I now take, conformable to your advice. You know I had no idea of this new fortune when I found that you had put it in train, before my last return to Paris from America. I have not forsaken a country that has had many disinterested and difficult proofs of my steady affection, and I can never renounce the glorious title of a citizen of the United States!

"It is true I have not the express permission of the sovereignty to accept the offer of her Imperial Majesty; yet America is independent, is in perfect peace, has no public employment for my military talents; but why should I excuse a conduct which I should rather hope would meet with general approbation? In the latter part of the year 1782 Congress passed an act for my embarkation in the fleet of his most Christian Majesty; and when, a few months ago, I left America to return to Europe, I was made the bearer of a letter to his most Christian Majesty requesting me to be permitted to embark in the fleets of evolution. Why did Congress pass those acts? To facilitate my improvement in the art of conducting fleets and military operations. I am, then, conforming myself to the views of Congress; but the role allotted me is infinitely more high and difficult than Congress intended. Instead of receiving lessons from able masters in the theory of war, I am called to immediate practice, where I must command in chief, conduct the most difficult operations, be my own preceptor, and instruct others. Congress will allow me some merit in daring to encounter such multiplied difficulties. The mark I mentioned of the approbation of that honourable body would be extremely flattering to me in the career I am now to pursue, and would stimulate all my ambition to acquire the necessary talents to merit that, and even greater favours, at a future day. I pray you, sir, to explain the circumstances of my situation, and be the interpreter of my sentiments to the United States in Congress. I ask for nothing; and beg leave to be understood only as having hinted, what is natural to conceive, that the mark of approbation I mentioned could not fail to be infinitely serviceable to my views and success in the country where I am going.

"The prince royal sent me a messenger, requesting me to come to his apartment. His royal highness said a great many civil things to me-told me the king thanked me for my attention and civil behaviour to the Danish flag while I commanded in the European seas, and that his Majesty wished for occasions to testify to me his personal esteem, etc. I was alone with the prince half an hour. I am, with perfect esteem, etc."

It is a quaint letter, but not conspicuous for modesty on the part of the writer. But it is memorable for its passionate and determined assertion of citizenship, and evidence that his entry into the Russian service, temporarily, was due not to his own motion, but to the suggestion of Thomas Jefferson, who highly approved of his acceptance of the offer of Catherine. Inasmuch as his action has been called in question, such approbation as that of Jefferson is of great value. Congress did not confer upon him the desired rank, as should have been done, and, besides, his statement was not quite correct.

Krudner had offered him the rank of captain commandant, equal to that of major general in the army, and placed at his disposal one thousand ducats for the expenses of his journey. He promptly demurred at the proposed rank of captain commandant, or major general, and refused to accept the sum offered for his traveling expenses. It was forced upon him by the insistence of Krudner, however, and he finally received it. He made no use of it at that time, keeping the money intact, and intending to return it in case he should find it necessary on his arrival in Russia to decline the proffered station. He made but few stipulations with her Majesty's agent before entering upon the journey to St. Petersburg, and these were that in the service of the empress he should never be compelled to bear arms against either the United States or France; that he should be at all times subject to recall by Congress; and, as we have seen in his letter to Jefferson, he was particular to assert that under no circumstances would he renounce "the glorious title of a citizen of the United States." The man of the world and the disinterested lover of human liberty had long since come to a local habitation and name, and henceforth he never failed to assert his citizenship in America.

39Nearly $40,000, equivalent in that day to much more than at present.
40Quite what might have been expected from a "canny Scot." But it must not be forgotten that the chevalier had been a trader before he became a fighter.
41Very unlike a "canny Scot" in this instance.
42After his dismissal Landais resided in Brooklyn, where he lived in very straitened circumstances on a small annuity, the income upon an advance of four thousand dollars from Congress on account of arrears of prize money due him, which amount was to be deducted from his share of whatever was recovered from Denmark. His income was about two hundred dollars a year, but by strict economy it sufficed him. He is reputed to have cherished a high feeling of independence, and would never consent to receive a gift he was unable to return. Toward the close of his life he was a constant petitioner for five thousand dollars with interest, which he conceived to be still due him on account of the Danish claim. Every other year he contrived to visit the seat of government to plead his cause in person. On one occasion, having heard that a member of Congress had spoken slightingly of him, he put on his faded Continental uniform, buckled on his small sword, repaired to the gallery of the House of Representatives, and expressed his readiness to meet any gentleman who wished for an honorable satisfaction. His quaint figure, so attired, was often seen on the streets of New York. He used to carry his hat in his hand for hours in the street, out of respect to his lawful monarch, executed by the rebels of France! He never ceased to affirm that he, and not Paul Jones, had captured the Serapis. He died in 1818 at the age of eighty-seven years, and was buried in St. Patrick's Cathedral churchyard. He had probably returned to the Roman Catholic Church, which he is said to have abjured on his entry into the American service. One of his biographers tells us that he was a cadet of the family of a younger son of the youngest branch of one of the oldest, proudest, and poorest families in Normandy; that, owing to his lack of court interest, which was due to his poverty, he was kept for thirty years a midshipman in the French navy. The same ingenious apologist makes the following quaint comment on the respective actions and qualities of Landais and Jones:
43Negotiations on this claim were protracted for over sixty years. In June, 1847, the Danish Government formally and finally denied the validity of the claim, and it has not been paid. Congress, however, on March 21, 1848, provided for the payment of the prize money involved, to the heirs of Paul Jones and other persons entitled to share in the distribution of the fund.
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