Commodore Paul Jones

Brady Cyrus Townsend
Commodore Paul Jones

The National Assembly honored his memory by sending a deputation, headed by its president, to represent them at his funeral, which took place on the second day after his death, at eight o'clock in the evening. All his friends, including the Americans, were there as well. A French Protestant clergyman named Marron conducted the services and delivered a eulogy, but one sentence of which is worthy of quotation: "The fame of the brave outlives him; his portion is immortality."

It has been determined recently that the interment was made in the little cemetery reserved for those who died in the Protestant faith, situated at the corner of the Rue de la Grange aux Belles and Rue des Écluses Saint Martin-then in the suburbs, now in the heart of the city. The cemetery was officially closed on January 1, 1793. A canal was afterward cut through it and buildings erected upon the other, lots. The exact location of Jones' grave is unknown, and, as there were at least ten thousand people buried there, it would probably be a matter of great difficulty to find it, should the effort be made; and the expense would be considerable. The body, clad in an American uniform, was incased in a leaden coffin, with sword,54 etc., and unless all the elements have been dissipated by the action of the water it might be possible to identify his remains. Certainly there is no question, if satisfactory settlement could be had, that his remains should be brought to the United States, with all naval honors, here to be suitably interred and his grave marked by an appropriate monument. So far as I know, there has not even been so much as a memorial tablet erected to his memory in any part of the great country toward whose independence he contributed so much. A serious and ungrateful omission this, and, whether his remains be found or not, it is to be hoped that it may be soon rectified.55


Paul Jones was a small, slender man, somewhat under the middle stature, or about five feet five inches in height. As is frequently the custom with seamen, who pass much of their lives between decks, his shoulders were slightly rounded, and at first glance he seemed smaller than he was. In physique he was active and graceful, well proportioned and strong. Many portraits of him exist, some of them gross caricatures, representing him as the proverbial pirate of early days clad in fantastic costume, his belt bristling with pistols and knives, and depicting him in the act of slaying some terrified and helpless sailor; but it is from such representations as the painting by Peale,56 the bust by Houdon, the naval medal, and the miniature by the Countess de Lavendahl, that we get a correct idea of his appearance. His features were regular; his nose was straight, prominent, and slightly enlarged at the tip; his lips were elegantly curved. His head was well proportioned, and set firmly upon his shoulders; in spite of his stoop he held it erect, which gave him an intent, eager expression. His large black eyes were set deep in their sockets under heavy, arched eyebrows; in moments of action they sparkled with fire and passion. His hair was black and plentiful, and the darkness of his complexion had been intensified by years of exposure to wind and weather. His hands and feet were small and of good shape. He was always particular in his dress, which was of material as rich and in cut as elegant as his means permitted. Without being handsome, therefore, he was a man of distinctly striking and notable appearance in any society.

His habitual expression was thoughtful and meditative. His face was the face of a student rather than that of a fighter. As it looks out at us from the canvas of the past in Peale's portrait, there is a little touch of wonder and surprise in the soft, reflective eyes. The mystery of life is there. We feel that the man is speculating upon us, measuring us, wondering who and what we are. There is a gentle gravity about the face which is most attractive. In the profile on the medal and in the Houdon bust other qualities predominate. You catch a glimpse of the proud, imperious, dashing sailor in the uplifted poise of the head, the tense, straight line of the lips, and the firm, resolute chin; and there is a suggestion of humor, grim enough, in the whole face. The Countess de Lavendahl apparently depicts him in the role of a lover, fashionably attired and arrayed for conquest. In each of these representations we have the broad, splendid brow which typifies the mind that was in him. It is probable that these different portraits were each good likenesses, and that each artist, in accordance with his insight, wrought into his presentment what he saw in the man.

A man of abundant self-confidence, he was not easily embarrassed, and we find him at home as well in the refined and cultivated colonial society of North Carolina as upon the decks of a ship manned by the rudest and roughest of men. He bears himself with easy dignity at the courts of Russia and France, and is not discomfited in the presence of king, queen, or empress. His manners were easy and polite. There was a touch of the directness of the sailor and the fighter in his address, I doubt not, but his behavior was certainly that of a gentleman-quiet, dignified, somewhat haughty, but pleasing. This is established by the testimony of those who knew him, including the Englishwoman mentioned above; by traditions which have come down to us; by the fact that he was admitted into the most exclusive circles in various courts of Europe, and that he retained the place which had been accorded him through years of acquaintanceship. He has been called low, brutal, common, and vulgar, but such accusations are incompatible with the position he occupied. He might have been received, of course, but he never would have been not merely tolerated, but admired and sought after, if the charges were correct.

In saying this, I do not wish to be understood as being oblivious of his faults. As occasion has demanded, I have not hesitated to call attention to them. He was irritable and impatient, captious and quarrelsome, at times variable and inconsistent. We find him addressing a superior at one time in terms that are almost too respectful, and in his next communication writing with a blunt frankness of a superior to an inferior. This frequently caused him trouble, inasmuch as he usually had to deal with men who were his superiors in birth and station, though not to be compared with him in talents and education. The limitations of his humble origin account for this variant attitude to the world's so-called great.

His great fault was his vanity. It was a weakness, like some of his other qualities, colossal. It manifested itself in every way that vanity can manifest itself. No defense can be uttered. We recognize the fact and note it with pain, but in the presence of his great qualities pass it by, after calling attention to the strange fact that other and more famous sailors, including the greatest man who ever fought a ship or squadron, Lord Nelson, were under the spell of the same weakness-and other greater weaknesses. No character in history is without weakness. There was but One who manifested no weakness, not even on a cross.

His mind was a well-furnished one. From boyhood he had cultivated the studious habit with which he was endowed in large degree, with the assiduity and perseverance of a Scotsman. He was thoroughness itself; whatever he attempted he did so well that he usually left nothing further to be desired. His brain was alert and active. He was quick-witted, and not devoid of humor, although there is always a touch of sternness in his persiflage. His letters fall into two classes. When he wrote under pressure of strong emotion or excitement, he expressed his personality with his pen as adequately as he did in his actions; his remarks were short, sharp, direct, logical, and in good taste; his style was vigorous and perspicuous. On the other hand, he frequently descended, especially when addressing women, into verbosity, and verbosity of that most intolerable species known as fine writing-witness his letter to Lady Selkirk. As a phrase maker many of his sentences ring with his spirit. "I do not wish to have command of any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm's way"; "I have not yet begun to fight"; "I have ever looked out for the honor of the American flag"; "I can never renounce the glorious title of a citizen of the United States," are some of his sayings which have passed into history, and might appropriately serve for inscriptions on the four sides of his monument, when a too tardy people pay him the honor of erecting one.57


He spoke French well and wrote it better. He found no difficulty in making himself understood in France, and that language was used entirely in his Russian campaign. In an age when everybody scribbled verse he wrote poetry which is creditable to him. It has been remarked that it was much better verse than Nelson wrote. Like many other naval officers of that day, he played the flute and had a taste for music. He was undoubtedly a member of the Presbyterian Church by baptism in infancy, and although, so far as is known, he was not actively in communion with any religious organization during his life, he was in no sense an irreligious man. "They that go down to the sea in ships that do business in great waters," who see "the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep," are rarely ultimately indifferent to religion. They are superficially careless, perhaps, but they are neither skeptics nor atheists.58 Nothing could be sweeter and more gentle than his letters to his sisters with their unequivocal recognition of the Power above which shapes our ends.

In a day when seamen-and no less the naval officer than the merchantman-considered a capacity for picturesque and plentiful profanity a mark of professional aptitude, he was distinguished by refraining from oaths and curses. Mark the words: "Do not swear, Mr. Stacy-in another moment we may all be in eternity-but let us do our duty." Uttered in the heat of action, and in a critical moment, the sentence is as rare as it is beautiful, and it somehow reminds me of the dying words of Nelson in the cockpit of the Victory. He was clean-mouthed and clean-hearted. I do not wish to say that he was immaculate, a saint, or anything of that sort, but there is no man of similar upbringing, who lived in his day, and under such circumstances, whose life appears to be cleaner. There is a total absence of sensuality in his career. In over thirteen hundred letters which have been examined, there is not a coarse or indelicate allusion; no double entendre ever sullies his pages, and the name of no woman is mentioned save in terms of respect. It is probable that his amour with Madame de Telison passed the bounds of Platonic friendship or romantic admiration, and it is possible that they did have a child; but even this is by no means certain, and the conclusion may do him an injustice.

When one remembers that from a tender age he was deprived of those gentle restraints imposed by pious and loving family ties, his character is remarkable. I have observed in much experience with men that when the check put upon humanity by the Church, by association with good women, and by keeping in touch with law-abiding society is removed, and men are assembled far from these things in camps or ships, where the principal requirement is a stern obedience to law, and the atmosphere strictly masculine, they are apt to think, say, and do things to which they would never descend under ordinary circumstances. Jones had been a sailor-an apprentice boy at that-at twelve years of age; for sixteen years thereafter he had never been off blue water for more than a few months. Five years of that time he had been on a slaver, beginning as third mate at sixteen and quitting as chief mate at twenty-one, and of all the degrading, brutal influences to which humanity could be subjected there was nothing that equaled the horrors of a ship in the slave trade. The tough moral fiber of the Scotsman stood him in good stead here, for the thing which with a boy's indifference he could countenance, he could not endure as a man.

And this brings us to another of his qualities, which awakens our interest-his intense love of liberty. Probably it began with the slave trade; at any rate, it was always and everywhere present with him. Practically his first military effort was an attempt to set free American prisoners, and his last commission from the United States was the appointment to effect the release of the unfortunate Americans held by the Barbary States. Thus he fought not merely for the establishment of civil liberty and national independence, but with an eye single to the individual prisoner, and his spirit was sufficiently catholic to make him kindly disposed even when the prisoners were trophies of his prowess. His pleading at L'Orient, when he was left with the dishonored draft, mutinous crew, and over one hundred prisoners, was as much for those Englishmen whom the fortune of war had thrown into his power as for his own people.

Like most men of fierce passions and quick temper, he did not long cherish animosities. He was not a good hater, and this very quality sometimes led him into mistaken kindness. He was a humane man, in no sense the cruel and bloodthirsty warrior of popular imagination. He is thankful, for instance, after the descent on Whitehaven, that there was no loss of life on either side, and we have no reason to doubt the genuineness of his outburst of gratitude when peace was declared, although it left him without occupation.

He had a good head for business also. In spite of his roving life he succeeded in amassing considerable property, and his success as a trader before he entered the naval service had been better than the average. In fact, his merchant services resulted in an unbroken line of testimonials not only to his capacity but to his probity and trustworthiness as well. As a negotiator or diplomatist he was open, straightforward, persistent, and unusually successful. A solid foundation of good qualities must have been laid by his homespun mother in those twelve years in which she watched over and shaped the future character of the boy.

While he was too much of a wanderer ever to form those deep and abiding social ties which are the delight of old age and reflection-though to youth matters of indifference-yet his various duties brought him into intimate association with great men all over the world, and there is a universal testimony from them as to his worth. They were not blind to his faults, but they saw the worthiness of the man beneath them. Franklin, the keen philosopher and diplomat, who knew him best, esteemed him most; but Robert Morris, the incorruptible financier; Thomas Jefferson, the great Democrat; Gouverneur Morris, the accomplished man of the world; John Adams, the shrewd statesman; and Washington, the first of them all, esteemed and admired him, and considered themselves honored in his friendship. Richard Dale, his great subordinate, who had been with him in times that tried men's souls, entertained the most devoted feelings of attachment toward him, and Cooper, who knew Dale personally, tells us that to the day of his death he never lost his affectionate regard for his old captain. The terms of their intimacy when not on duty permitted Dale to address Jones by the friendly name of Paul, and Cooper chronicles the peculiar tenderness with which he uttered the word in his old age.

Among the French who respected and admired him, the gallant and impetuous Lafayette is pre-eminent. That warm-hearted representative of the haute noblesse of France sought opportunities for service with the commodore, and never failed to express his affection for him in the most unequivocal words. Among others were Rochambeau, the soldier; Malesherbes, the great advocate, defender of his king; the Baron de Viomenil, who led the French assaulting column at Yorktown; and Admirals d'Orvilliers, de Vaudreuil, and d'Estaing. Among other foreign friends were van der Capellen, the Dutch statesman and diplomat and friend of America; of Russians, Krudner and Grimm; and the immortal Kosciusko, of Poland. His acquaintance with these men was no mere passing contact, but was intimate and personal; and his relations in most instances were not temporary and casual, but lasting and permanent. Laughton, the English authority in naval history, in his famous sketch entitled "Paul Jones, 'the Pirate'"59 says that Jones' moral character may be summed up in one word-detestable! He calls him a renegade and a calculating liar, incapable of friendship or of love, and says that, "Whenever his private actions can be examined, they must be pronounced to be discreditable; and as to many others that appear to be so, there is no evidence in favor except his own unsubstantial and worthless testimony." It is not an indictment against Jones alone that Professor Laughton so lightly writes, but against the great men who, with infinitely better opportunities for observation than any of his biographers have enjoyed, have not been slow to call him their friend. Is it to be conceived for a single moment that Franklin, Jefferson, Lafayette, the Morrises, or any of the others, would have associated with, corresponded with, and publicly praised a vulgar blackguard? Would such a man, however successful, have been admitted to any society whatsoever? Or, having in the first flush of joy at the news of his tremendous victory been so admitted, could such a man have retained his position for thirteen years-until he died, in fact? Nonsense! He looked like a gentleman; he wrote like a gentleman; whenever his words have been recorded we find he spoke like a gentleman, and he certainly fought like one.

Never was a man so calumniated. His actions were so great that intense interest was felt in his career from the day of his arrival in Europe, and after his death quantities of sketches of him appeared, many of which are still extant. They are of the chap-book order-the dime novel of the day-and usually contain an awe-inspiring picture, and relate a tale in which smuggling, gambling, falsehood, theft, rape, murder, and everything else that is vile, are included. Laughton seems to have arrived at his estimation of Jones by accepting these scandalous tales as authentic, and building his biography of material culled from these disgraceful and discredited sources. No man can conceal his real character for any great length of time, especially a man in official station, who lives in the white light of public criticism. If Jones were the creature that Laughton describes him, it would appear somewhere in some serious page of his own. He was a most voluminous correspondent-Philip II was not a more indefatigable letter writer than he-and he spoke of the subjects under discussion with a sailor's frankness. Why is it that none of these things are evident? He was foolish sometimes, but never base. It is too late to write down in a few careless words the great men who entertained so high an opinion of the commodore. But Professor Laughton is not alone in his opinions. Indeed, his conclusions appear to represent a general English sentiment. So great a novelist as the gentle Thackeray calls Jones a traitor, and the popular opinion even in this day does not seem to have changed. In the current number of the London Academy60 he is again called a "pirate." Let us settle this question at least.


What is a pirate? Says President Woolsey: "Piracy is robbery on the sea, or by descent from the sea upon the coast, committed by persons not holding a commission from, or at the time pertaining to, any established state. It is the act (1) of persons forming an organization for the purpose of plunder, or with malicious intent; but who, inasmuch as such a body is not constituted for political purposes, can not be said to be a body politic; (2) of persons who, having in defiance of law seized possession of a chartered vessel, use it for the purpose of robbery; (3) of persons taking a commission from two belligerent adversaries. The reason for ranking these latter among pirates is that the animus furandi is shown by acting under two repugnant authorities. It has been held by some that a vessel which takes commissions even from two allies is guilty of piracy, but others regard such an act only as illegal and irregular."61

Chancellor Kent calls piracy "robbery, forceful plunder, or murder by marauders on the high seas in the spirit and intent of universal hostility." The Century Dictionary defines it as follows: "Specifically in the law of nations, the crime of depredations or willful and aggressive destruction of life and property, committed on the seas by persons having no commission or authority from any established state. As commonly used, it implies something more than a simple theft with violence at sea, and includes something of the idea of general hostility to law."

By any of these definitions can Paul Jones be called a pirate? It will be readily seen that the charge hangs upon the question as to whether Jones held a commission from an established state. In fact, the determination of that point settles the matter. He was regularly commissioned a captain in the navy of the United States, as we have seen.62 Was the United States an established power, a sovereign state? The United States began to be with the Declaration of Independence. To quote Woolsey again: "The sovereignty of a state dates from its de facto existence, and does not depend upon its recognition by foreign powers. Thus the sovereignty of the United States was complete from July 4, 1776, not 1782, when the English Government recognized, not granted, its independence." If the United States had not a legal existence as a sovereign power competent to wage war, and therefore to issue commissions to naval officers, until the treaty of peace, England would have granted independence thereby, instead of which she recognized a long-accomplished fact. Moreover, the British Government, long before peace was declared, had conceded belligerent rights to the revolted colonies, after much protestation. But necessary privileges of belligerency are those of raising forces and commissioning officers whose status as individual belligerents is determined by the recognition. None of the American prisoners taken from time to time were hanged as rebels or traitors, nor would such action have been permitted by the British people, if it had been seriously entertained by the king. Even if they had captured Paul Jones, the English, in all their fury, would not have dared to treat him as a pirate. Upon the point of law there is no justification for the charge. Paul Jones' commission was as valid a document as any under which a naval officer ever sailed. The sovereignty of the United States had been recognized long before the termination of the war by France, Spain, and Holland, and Frederick the Great, by opening the port of Dantzic to American ships, had practically committed himself to that side; although the failure of any or all of these to do so would not have abrogated our de facto existence as a nation.

But, turning from the subject of the commission as established, let us examine the other phases involved in the charge. Piracy consists of murder and robbery in a spirit of universal hostility toward humanity (the animus furandi of Woolsey's paragraph). Jones directed his attacks at England alone. There was no killing unless in open combat; no robbery except by taking ships and property in open warfare, and surely Jones' conduct with regard to Selkirk's plate was not that of a robber or a pirate! By the law of nations a pirate, whatever his nationality, is subject to the jurisdiction of any country. Thus, an English pirate caught by the French Government, or a French pirate caught by the English Government, would be summarily dealt with without the slightest reference to the country of his nationality. If Jones had been a pirate France would either have made short work of him, or else have incurred the odium of humanity as an abettor of piracy.

His acts were not those of an irresponsible person or a body of people who sent him forth with malicious intent, but were undertaken for distinctly political purposes at the instance of an undoubted body politic. These purposes were: (1) The protection of our coasts by showing the vulnerability of the coasts of England. (2) The stoppage of the ravages on our seaboard, by demonstrating some of their horrors in the land of the ravagers. (3) The securing of prisoners by which the principle of exchange should be established, and thus our citizens released from a captivity in which they were treated with scant regard to the laws of humanity. (4) The breaking up of the enemy's commerce and the impairment of his material resources, so that the burden of consequences would induce him to end the war and recognize our independence. (5) The making of a diversion in the north which would facilitate the proposed grand operations of the French and Spanish fleets in the south. These are legitimate motives in the highest sense. They are of the deepest importance, and they constitute a brief catalogue of his accomplishments. Add to the list the shattering of British prestige by his hard and successful fighting, and mention the way he contrived to force the Netherlands finally to declare for the United States, and we have a catalogue of achievements of which any one might be proud.63

There was no thought in Jones' mind of private gain. Prize money had accrued from captures from time immemorial, but Jones was ambitious of distinction, and as anxious to worthily serve his country as Farragut or Sampson, and the question of prize money was purely a minor one with him. If gain had been his object, a privateering commission which he was urged to accept in France-and which he could undoubtedly have received in America-but which he rejected with disdain, would have given him greater opportunity than he ever enjoyed of acquiring wealth. His whole career, in fact, shows him to have been absolutely indifferent to money. He never hoarded or amassed it, and, though he received large sums from time to time, he usually spent it in generous profusion as fast as it came in. Had professional advancement been his sole desire, he would have accepted the rank of Capitaine de Vaisseau-that is, a captain of a ship of the line-which d'Orvilliers had offered to procure for him, from which he might have progressed to the highest naval rank, instead of which he chose to remain in command of the petty little Ranger. How Laughton can deny his enthusiasm for America when, with but little hope of reward, he periled his liberty and his life in her service, and absolutely refused under any circumstances to withdraw from that service, I fail to understand.64

He did not, in defiance of law, charter a vessel for the purpose of waging private war. On the contrary, his ship was provided by the French king, and commissions for those officers who had not been commissioned directly by Congress, as had Jones himself, were issued by Franklin, who possessed the unquestioned power to do this by the specific action of Congress. Indeed, such was Franklin's power, that when he displaced Landais from his command he did not hesitate to overrule a commission issued by Congress under circumstances of peculiar importance, and he was upheld by that body when his action was called in question.

Nor did Jones take a commission from two belligerent adversaries-that is, he had no commission from England which he threw up to accept that of the United States. He had never served in the English navy in any capacity. There were officers in the United States land service who had held English commissions and yet accepted American commands, but Jones was not one of them. He had never, until he entered the Russian service, sailed under any commission save that of the United States, and one of the noblest acts of his life was his indignant repudiation of a French letter of marque when his acceptance of it was considered the only way of saving his head. Nothing could induce him to declare the Alliance a French ship in those hazardous moments in the Texel when he was menaced by the Dutch fleet on one side and the English fleet on the other, nor would he even temporarily hoist the French flag on that ship. He did not even commit the so-called illegal and irregular act of accepting a commission from two allies, for he refused a French commission again and again. This certainly constitutes a clear and overwhelming refutation of the charge of piracy. Indeed, on the question of piracy, Jones' own ingenious comment is not without interest. Laughton has called attention to it in the following words:

"Paul Jones strongly objected to the word as applied to himself; he had, he said, looked in the dictionary and found the definition of pirate to be 'an enemy against mankind.' Now, he was not the enemy of mankind, but only the enemy of England. With a tu quoque argument, not wanting in ingenuity, he urged that, as England was then at war with the whole of America, the greater part of Europe, and much of Asia, not to speak of a part of Africa, she, in point of fact, came as near being the enemy of mankind as could well be conceived-that England was therefore the pirate, not Paul Jones."

Why was it that the English called him a pirate, put a price on his head, and attempted to compass his death or capture by private hands? Why was it that he evoked such widespread animosity, and became the object of a hatred which has not exhausted itself to this day? Surely not because he had been a British subject! All who fought on the American side had been British subjects. Jones had removed to America and had determined to settle there before the war broke out. Why should any one attempt to insinuate that the same feelings which actuated Adams, Washington, and Patrick Henry did not operate to make him espouse the colonial cause? He was as fond of freedom as they, and as anxious to promote it.

54This sword was, of course, not that presented to him by the King of France. After Jones' death his heirs gave this famous sword to Robert Morris. Morris, in turn, presented it to Commodore John Barry, at that time senior officer of the United States Navy. By him it was bequeathed to his friend Commodore Richard Dale, once of the Bon Homme Richard, and it now remains in the possession of his great-grandson, Mr. Richard Dale, of Philadelphia.
55Why a monument has not been erected to Jones I can not understand. It would be a noteworthy object for individual and national effort, and in no better way could we commit ourselves to the fame and achievements of the great captain, and forever stamp with disapproval those calumnies with which envy seeks to sully the name of our first great sailor.
56The frontispiece of this volume.
57Some of his phrases in his Russian letters remind me of Shakespeare's Henry V.
58I have known hundreds of sailors more or less intimately, and I have never met one who might be included in either of those melancholy classes.
59Studies in Naval History, by John Knox Laughton, M. A., Professor of Modern History at King's College, London, and Lecturer on Naval History at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, etc., 1887.
60July 6, 1900.
61Woolsey, International Law, section 144, page 233.
62And not a captain of a special ship, as was sometimes the case, but a captain in the service, and therefore eligible to command any ship. See page 75.
63The following interesting document was found in his papers; it enumerates a few of the things he did"In 1775, J. Paul Jones armed and embarked in the first American ship of war. In the Revolution he had twenty-three battles and solemn rencontres by sea; made seven descents in Britain and her colonies; took of her navy two ships of equal, and two of superior force, many store ships, and others; constrained her to fortify her ports; suffer the Irish volunteers; desist from her cruel burnings in America, and exchange, as prisoners of war, the American citizens taken on the ocean, and cast into the prisons of England, as 'traitors, pirates, and felons!'"
64Notwithstanding this, he was as ambitious of glory, honor, and fame to himself in the service of his country as Nelson was. They were both of them
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