Commodore Paul Jones

Brady Cyrus Townsend
Commodore Paul Jones

"Had the earl been on board the Ranger the following evening he would have seen the awful pomp and dreadful carnage of a sea engagement, both affording ample subject for the pencil, as well as melancholy reflection for the contemplative mind. Humanity starts back from such scenes of horror, and can not sufficiently execrate the vile promoters of this detestable war.

"'For they, 'twas they unsheathed the ruthless blade, And Heaven shall ask the havoc it has made.'

"The British ship of war Drake, mounting twenty guns, with more than her full complement of officers and men, was our opponent. The ships met, and the advantage was disputed with great fortitude on each side for an hour and four minutes, when the gallant commander of the Drake fell, and victory declared in favor of the Ranger. The amiable lieutenant lay mortally wounded, besides near forty of the inferior officers and crew killed and wounded-a melancholy demonstration of the uncertainty of human prospects and of the sad reverses of fortune which an hour can produce. I buried them in a spacious grave, with the honors due to the memory of the brave.

"Though I have drawn my sword in the present generous struggle for the rights of men, yet I am not in arms as an American, nor am I in pursuit of riches. My fortune is liberal enough, having no wife and family, and having lived long enough to know that riches can not secure happiness. I profess myself a citizen of the world, totally unfettered by the little mean distinctions of climates or of country, which diminish the benevolence of the heart and set bounds to philanthropy. Before this war was begun, I had, at an early time in life, withdrawn from sea service in favor of 'calm contemplation and poetic ease.' I have sacrificed not only my favorite scheme of life, but the softer affections of the heart, and my prospects of domestic happiness, and I am ready to sacrifice my life also with cheerfulness, if that forfeiture could restore peace among mankind.

"As the feelings of your gentle bosom can not but be congenial with mine, let me entreat you, madam, to use your persuasive art with your husband, to endeavour to stop this cruel and destructive war, in which Britain can never succeed. Heaven can never countenance the barbarous and unmanly practice of the Britons in America, which savages would blush at, and which, if not discontinued, will soon be retaliated on Britain by a justly enraged people. Should you fail in this, and I am persuaded you will attempt it (and who can resist the power of such an advocate?), your endeavour to effect a general exchange of prisoners will be an act of humanity, which will afford you golden feelings on your deathbed.

"I hope this cruel contest will soon be closed; but, should it continue, I wage no war with the fair. I acknowledge their force, and bend before it with submission. Let not, therefore, the amiable Countess of Selkirk regard me as an enemy; I am ambitious of her esteem and friendship, and would do anything, consistent with my duty, to merit it. The honor of a line from your hand, in answer to this, will lay me under a singular obligation, and if I can render you any acceptable service in France or elsewhere I hope you see into my character so far as to command me, without the least grain of reserve. I wish to know the exact behaviour of my people, as I am determined to punish them if they have exceeded their liberty.

"I have the honor to be, with much esteem and with profound respect, madam, etc.,

"John Paul Jones."

The shrewd Franklin says of this extraordinary document: "It is a gallant letter, which must give her ladyship a high and just opinion of your generosity and nobleness of mind." But I seem to read a gentle laugh in the tactful words of the old philosopher. I like this epistle less than any of Jones' letters I have read, but it certainly does not merit the severe censures which have been passed upon it. No one would write such a letter to-day, certainly, but things were different then, and we need not too closely criticise the form and style of the document in view of its honest purpose and good intent.

As might have been expected, the Countess of Selkirk made no reply to this singular communication. To anticipate the course of events, and obviate the necessity of further discussion of this incident, it may be stated that more than a year after its capture Jones obtained possession of the plate through the prize court by strenuous effort, and by paying for it at an exorbitant valuation. The state of warfare then existing between France and England prevented the delivery of the silver for several years, though Jones made earnest efforts to get it into the hands of the Selkirks whenever apparent opportunity presented. It was not, however, until 1784, after peace had been declared, that the plate was restored to its original owners. It is stated that it was received by them in exactly the same condition as when it had been taken, even to the tea leaves which were still in the teapot! The receipt of the silver is thus acknowledged in a letter from Lord Selkirk:

"London, August 4, 1789.

"Monsieur le Chevalier Paul Jones, à Paris.

"Sir: I received the letter you wrote to me at the time you sent off my plate, in order for restoring it. Had I known where to direct a letter to you at the time it arrived in Scotland I would then have wrote to you; but, not knowing it, nor finding that any of my acquaintance at Edinburgh knew it, I was obliged to delay writing till I came here, when, by means of a gentleman connected with America, I was told M. le Grand was your banker at Paris, and would take proper care of a letter for you; therefore, I inclose this to him.

"Notwithstanding all the precautions you took for the easy and uninterrupted conveyance of the plate, yet it met with considerable delays: first at Calais, next at Dover, then at London; however, it at last arrived at Dumfries, and I dare say quite safe, though as yet I have not seen it, being then at Edinburgh.

"I intended to have put an article in the newspapers about your having returned it; but before I was informed of its being arrived, some of your friends, I suppose, had put it in the Dumfries newspaper, whence it was immediately copied into the Edinburgh papers, and thence into the London ones. Since that time I have mentioned it to many people of fashion; and, on all occasions, sir, both now and formerly, I have done you the justice to tell that you made an offer of returning the plate very soon after your return to Brest; and, although you yourself was not at my house, but remained at the shore with your boat, that yet you had your officers and men in such extraordinary good discipline that your having given them the strictest orders to behave well, to do no injury of any kind, to make no search, but only to bring off what plate was given them; that in reality they did exactly as ordered, and that not one man offered to stir from his post on the outside of the house, nor entered the doors, nor said an uncivil word; that the two officers stayed not a quarter of an hour in the parlour and butler's pantry, while the butler got the plate together, behaved politely, and asked for nothing but the plate, and instantly marched their men off in regular order; and that both officers and men behaved in all respects so well that it would have done credit to the best disciplined troops whatever.

"Some of the English newspapers at that time having put in confused accounts of your expedition to Whitehaven and Scotland, I ordered a proper one of what had happened in Scotland to be put in the London newspapers, by a gentleman who was then at my house, by which the good conduct and civil behaviour of your officers and men was done justice to, and attributed to your order, and the good discipline you maintained over your people.

"I am, sir, your most humble servant,


It is a handsome acknowledgment, but I note with great pleasure the sailor writes better than the peer!


The Ranger and her prizes arrived at Brest at a propitious time, both for the fortunes of Jones and for those of his adopted country as well. The secret treaty of alliance between the confederated colonies and France had been signed on February 6th. The plenipotentiaries from the United States had been publicly received at Versailles on March 23d. On the same day the French ambassador left England, and the English ambassador, Lord Stormont, left France. The fleet of D'Estaing put to sea from Toulon a fortnight later. In two weeks the English fleet followed to American waters. The attempt was made on the part of the French to execute the brilliant strategic plan which Jones had devised, although, of course, the delay had rendered the effort fruitless.

The successful cruise of the Ranger, the rich captures she had made, the daring enterprises she had undertaken, the boldness and audacity of her commander in venturing with a little vessel of such trifling force into the very midst of the three kingdoms, and the brilliancy of his capture of a war vessel of nominally superior, and at least really equal, force, in a fair and open yardarm to yardarm fight, a thing to which the French navy was not accustomed, awakened the greatest admiration, and Paul Jones found himself in that most congenial of positions to him-and to almost any other man-of being the observed of all. On this expedition, his first real opportunity, he had demonstrated that he possessed an ability to plan, and a courage to carry out his conceptions, which put him in the front rank of the sea officers of his day. With one single vessel, laboring under every disadvantage conceivable, he had done what no European power or combination of powers had been able to accomplish in centuries, with all their resources at command. He had terrorized the whole English seaboard, and filled the United Kingdom with uneasiness and unrest.


The gallant men who had gone before him and accomplished so much with the Reprisal, the Revenge, and the others, had a worthy successor and superior in this little Scots-American, who, as a citizen of the world, in love with humanity, drew his sword for the cause of freedom. The French admired him, the English hated him. The American prisoners immediately felt the effect of his captures by the general amelioration of their unhappy condition, and Franklin at last realized that he had a man at hand upon whom he could depend to further his bold designs. When the news reached America, it was received with great joy, and the Naval Committee and the Congress generally knew they had made no mistake in sending Jones to Europe. The young navy looked to him with hope. His exploits were detailed and amplified in the cafés and on the boulevards of Paris, and were related with approbation even within the sacred confines of the court. He was the hero of the hour.

But there is a homely maxim exemplified by frequent experience that "Fine words butter no parsnips." It was true in this instance undoubtedly, and Jones learned that there was no necessary connection between glory and bread and butter. He was unable to procure actually necessary supplies for his crew. All the vessels of the Continental navy went to sea undermanned, ill-provided, and inadequately provisioned, and the ship's purser, as a rule, had no money. The seamen had not received their wages-no money at all, in fact, except that which Jones himself had advanced out of his own pocket. With the sanction of the Marine Committee he had made himself responsible for the regular payment of the wages of the men. His pocket was now empty, the last guineas having been given to the Irish fishermen aforementioned. His own resources were always drawn upon freely for the good of the service and his men; now they were entirely exhausted. His provisions had been consumed, he did not know where to get any more. In addition to his own people he had several prizes and over two hundred prisoners who had to be cared for, and who were a healthy and hungry lot.

When he arrived in France he had been authorized to draw upon the commissioners to the extent of twelve thousand livres, with the caution not to avail himself of the permission unless it were imperatively necessary. With great prudence, and by the exercise of rigid economy, he had avoided any inroad on the depleted and overtaxed fund of the commissioners. Something, however, had to be done in this instance, and without securing another authority, for which, indeed, time was wanting, so pressing were his needs, he made drafts upon the commissioners in the sum of twenty-four thousand livres, about five thousand dollars.

Meanwhile he subsisted his crew and prisoners through the generosity of the French naval authorities at Brest, which he secured by the pledge of his own private personal credit. The draft was dishonored. Certainly the commissioners were embarrassed almost beyond endurance by the demands upon them from every side, but this was a matter to which they should have given attention if it were humanly possible, for they were the only resource that Jones had. His condition was simply desperate. He knew not what to do nor where to turn. The following extract of a letter to the commissioners on the 27th of May exhibits his painful position:

"Could I suppose that my letters of the 9th and 16th current (the first advising you of my arrival and giving reference to the events of my expedition; the last advising you of my draft in favour of Monsieur Bersolle, for twenty-four thousand livres, and assigning reasons for the demand) had not made due appearance, I would hereafter, as I do now, inclose copies. Three posts have already arrived here from Paris since Comte d'Orvilliers showed me the answer which he received from the minister, to the letter which inclosed mine to you. Yet you remain silent. M. Bersolle has this moment informed me of the fate of my bills; the more extraordinary as I have not yet made use of your letter of credit of the 10th of January last, whereby I then seemed entitled to call for half the amount of my last draft, and I did not expect to be thought extravagant when, on the 16th current, I doubled that demand. Could this indignity be kept secret I should disregard it; and, though it is already public in Brest and in the fleet, as it affects only my private credit I will not complain. I can not, however, be silent when I find the public credit involved in the same disgrace. I conceive this might have been prevented. To make me completely wretched, Monsieur Bersolle has now told me that he now stops his hand, not only of the necessary articles to refit the ship, but also of the daily provisions. I know not where to find to-morrow's dinner for the great number of mouths that depend on me for food. Are then the Continental ships of war to depend on the sale of their prizes for a daily dinner for their men? 'Publish it not in Gath.'

"My officers, as well as men, want clothes, and the prizes are precluded from being sold before farther orders arrive from the minister. I will ask you, gentlemen, if I have deserved all this. Whoever calls himself an American ought to be protected here. I am unwilling to think that you have intentionally involved me in this dilemma, at a time when I ought to expect some enjoyment.

"Therefore I have, as formerly, the honour to be, with due esteem and respect, gentlemen, yours, etc."

How he managed under such circumstances he relates in a journal which he prepared in later years for submission to the King of France.

"Yet during that time, by his [Jones'] personal credit with Comte D'Orvilliers, the Duc de Chartres, and the Intendant of Brest, he fed his people and prisoners, cured his wounded, and refitted both the Ranger and the Drake for sea."

He could, of course, have relieved himself of some of his burden by turning over his prisoners to France, but, as that country was still nominally neutral, the people he had captured would have been set free at the demand of England. As long as he held possession of them it was possible that the circumstance would force an exchange for Americans-a thing the commissioners had been bent upon since their arrival in Europe. The English Government had long since sanctioned and carried out the exchange of soldiers, but for arbitrary and inadequate reasons seamen stood upon a different footing apparently. When Franklin previously wrote Lord Stormont, the British ambassador, offering to exchange one hundred men captured by the Reprisal for an equal number of American seamen held in English prisons, no answer was made to his letter; a second letter brought forth the following curt reply:

"The king's ambassador receives no applications from rebels, unless they come to implore his Majesty's mercy."

To this insulting and inexplicable message the following apt and dignified reply was made:

"In answer to a letter which concerns some of the material interests of humanity, and of the two nations, Great Britain and the United States of America, now at war, we received the inclosed indecent paper, as coming from your lordship, which we return for your lordship's more mature consideration."

Of course, the ostensible reason for refusing this exchange was that the captured seamen were traitors, and as such had no belligerent rights, yet how they differed from soldiers it is impossible to see. Indeed, the English authorities went so far as to call them pirates, and they could not have treated them worse-short of hanging them-if they had actually merited the opprobrious title. The real reason, however, lay in the hope that the Americans, having no place in France in which to confine their prisoners, would be compelled to set them free. This hope was frequently justified, and it was not until March, 1779, that the persistent determination of Franklin brought about a complete general recognition of the principle of exchange for which he had so valiantly contended, although he had been partially successful on particular occasions before that time. Jones knew the situation perfectly, and so with his usual grim determination he held on to his precious prisoners.

The prize agents were dilatory and incompetent. The seamen, lacking food, clothes, salary, and prize money, were naturally mutinous and discontented. But Jones repressed the crews, hurried up the sales, and managed at last to weather all his troubles.

The malcontent Simpson was a constant incentive to discord and mutiny, and he was finally removed to a French guardship, called the Admiral, where he was well treated and allowed the freedom of the deck. While there, he behaved in such a contumacious manner that D'Orvilliers, the French commander, sent him to the prison of the port. All his expenses during this interval were paid by Jones himself; indeed, when he did not pay personally, nobody did. There was nothing sordid or avaricious in Jones' character. He was greedy for glory and fame and reputation, but he cared nothing whatever for money. To dismiss a tiresome subject, Jones, with extraordinary complaisance, finally accepted Simpson's apologies and released him on his parole not to serve in the navy until he had been regularly tried by a court-martial. He even went further than this. He offered to relinquish the command of the Ranger to him in order that he might take her back to the United States and there take his trial.

While these efforts were pending, the commissioners, misunderstanding their tentative character, restored Simpson to the command of the Ranger, unconditionally, much to Jones' disgust. He was quite willing to relinquish the command of his little ship, because the King of France had requested the commissioners to allow France to avail herself of the services of Jones in a naval expedition which was projected. But that such contumacy and lack of subordination as had been exhibited by Simpson should go unpunished, and that he should receive the absolute command of the ship as a reward for his action, and should be allowed to return home without even an investigation, was not only harmful to the service, but an apparent reflection upon himself-though, of course, nothing was further from the commissioners' thoughts, as they specifically declared. In the end Jones acquiesced in the situation, and the matter was dropped. Simpson was never employed in the service after he returned home.

The famous action between the Arethusa and the Belle Poule, on June 17th, having made it clear to every observer that war between France and England was inevitable, though the formal declaration was not issued until the following September, the first enterprise which it was desired Jones should undertake under the auspices of France was proposed to him by Franklin as follows:

"The Jersey privateers," he says, "do us a great deal of mischief by intercepting our supplies. It has been mentioned to me that your small vessel, commanded by so brave an officer, might render great service by following them where greater ships dare not venture their bottoms; or, being accompanied and supported by some frigates from Brest, at a proper distance, might draw them out and then take them. I wish you to consider of this, as it comes from high authority."

It was not a particularly brilliant prospect; all the hard work and dangerous labor was to be performed by Jones, and the glory was to be reaped by the French frigates; but, with a noble disinterestedness in his desire to serve his country, he at once expressed his perfect willingness to co-operate. Before anything came of it, however, Franklin offered him the command of the Indien, in the following letter:


"Dear Sir: I have the pleasure of informing you that it is proposed to give you the command of the great ship we have built at Amsterdam. By what you wrote to us formerly, I have ventured to say in your behalf, that this proposition would be agreeable to you. You will immediately let me know your resolution; which, that you may be more clear in taking, I must inform you of some circumstances. She is at present the property of the king; but, as there is no war yet declared, you will have the commission and flag of the States, and act under their orders and laws. The Prince de Nassau will make the cruise with you. She is to be brought here under cover as a French merchantman, to be equipped and manned in France. We hope to exchange your prisoners for as many American sailors; but, if that fails, you have your present crew to be made up here with other nations and French. The other commissioners are not acquainted with this proposition as yet, and you see by the nature of it that it is necessary to be kept a secret till we have got the vessel here, for fear of difficulties in Holland, and interception; you will therefore direct your answer to me alone. It being desired that the affair rest between you and me, perhaps it may be best for you to take a trip up here to concert matters, if in general you approve the idea.


"I was much pleased with reading your journal, which we received yesterday."

This is the first mention of the Prince of Nassau-Siegen, who will appear prominently hereafter, and be described in his proper place. Jones was naturally delighted with the flattering prospects, and at once wrote to the prince, acquainting him of the pleasure he anticipated in having him associated with him. A few days later Franklin wrote Jones again as follows:

"Passy, June 10, 1778.

"Dear Sir: I received yours of 1st instant, with the papers inclosed, which I have shown to the other commissioners, but have not yet had their opinion of them; only I know that they had before (in consideration of the disposition and uneasiness of your people) expressed an inclination to order your ship directly back to America. You will judge from what follows whether it will not be advisable for you to propose their sending her back with her people, and under some other command. In consequence of the high opinion the Minister of the Marine has of your conduct and bravery, it is now settled (observe, that it is to be a secret between us, I being expressly enjoined not to communicate it to any other person), that you are to have the frigate from Holland, which actually belongs to Government, and will be furnished with as many good French seamen as you shall require. But you are to act under Congress commission. As you may be likely to have a number of Americans, and your own are homesick, it is proposed to give you as many as you can engage out of two hundred prisoners, which the ministry of Britain have at length agreed to give us in exchange for those you have in your hands. They propose to make the exchange at Calais, where they are to bring the Americans. Nothing is wanting to this but a list of yours, containing their names and rank; immediately on the receipt of which an equal number are to be prepared, and sent in a ship to that port, where yours are to meet them.

"If by this means you can get a good new crew, I think it would be best that you are quite free of the old, for a mixture might introduce the infection of that sickness you complain of. But this may be left to your own discretion. Perhaps we shall join you with the Providence, Captain Whipple, a new Continental ship of thirty guns, which, in coming out of the river of Providence, gave the two frigates that were posted to intercept her each of them so heavy a dose of her 18- and 12-pounders that they had not the courage or were not able to pursue her. It seems to be desired that you will step up to Versailles (where one will meet you), in order to such a settlement of matters and plans with those who have the direction as can not well be done by letter. I wish it may be convenient to you to do it immediately.

"The project of giving you the command of this ship pleases me the more as it is a probable opening to the higher preferment you so justly merit."

In obedience to this request Jones went privately to Versailles, where he spent some time in consultation with the commissioners and the French ministry discussing the exchange of prisoners, and proposed several plans of attack by which his services could be utilized. These plans well indicate the fertility of imagination, the resourceful genius, and the daring hardihood of the man. One of them was for making another descent upon Whitehaven, another was to attack the Bank of Ayr and destroy or ransom that town; another was to burn the shipping on the Clyde. Expeditions on the coast of Ireland were suggested. London might be distressed, he thought, by cutting off the supplies of coal from Newcastle; but the most feasible projects were the capture or destruction of the West Indian or Baltic fleets of merchantmen or the Hudson Bay ships.

The Minister of Marine, M. de Sartine, lent an attentive ear to all of the plans which were proposed, and Jones returned to Brest with high hopes that he should be soon employed in an expedition to carry out one or the other of these plans with adequate means to do it well. It is quite likely that the minister was as earnest and honest in his intentions as the king in his desire to make use of Jones, but the formal declaration of war rendered it possible to prosecute the enterprises which had been suggested by Jones, if it were thought expedient to attempt them, under the French flag and with French officers. As France had only intended to use him under the cover of the American flag to harass England before war was declared, and as that could now be done openly under her own flag, they did not see the same necessity for his services as before.

The matter of finding employment for him was further complicated by the fact that since a state of actual war existed the ministry was besieged with applications from numbers of French officers for command, and the ships which had been proposed for Jones were naturally appropriated to the French themselves. Even if a command could have been found for the American, there would have been a natural disinclination, so great as to be nearly prohibitive of success, on the part of the French officers to serving under a foreigner. Time brought him nothing but disappointment, and the high hopes he had cherished gradually waned.

Always a persistent and voluminous letter writer, in his desperation he overwhelmed everybody with correspondence. Inaction was killing to him. Not to be employed was like death itself to a man of his intensely energetic temperament. His pride would not permit him to return to the United States and seek a command when he had specifically announced, in a letter to Congress by the returning Ranger, that the King of France asked that he might make use of his services, and therefore no command in America need be reserved for him; and yet he now found himself a hanger on the outskirts of a court and a ministry which had no further use for him.

The delicate situation of the commissioners, who had been themselves scarcely more than on sufferance, did not permit them, in the interests of expediency and diplomacy, to insist as strongly as they would have liked to do, that the king and the ministry should keep their engagement with Jones, which was, of course, an engagement with them and with the United States. Diplomacy and persuasion were the only weapons at their command. They certainly made good use of them. Franklin, pending something else, procured the minister's order that Jones should be received on the great French fleet of D'Orvilliers, which was about to put to sea to engage the English fleet under Keppel. He was very desirous of availing himself of this invitation, which he himself sought, for it would give him an opportunity he could not otherwise hope to enjoy, of perfecting himself in naval tactics and the fine art of maneuvering and governing a great fleet. He never allowed anything to interfere-so far as he was able to prevent it-with his advancement in professional study. The permission, however, to D'Orvilliers' great regret, arrived too late, for the fleet sailed without him. The French admiral seems to have appreciated the American captain, and to have highly esteemed him. It is stated that the delay in transmitting the permission was intentional, and was due to the jealousy of the French naval service.

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