Commodore Paul Jones

Brady Cyrus Townsend
Commodore Paul Jones

Jones was exasperated by all these happenings almost to the breaking point. In one letter he says: "I think of going to L'Orient, being heartily sick of Brest." I should think he would be! As days passed without bringing him any nearer to the fruition of his hope, he became more modest in his demands and propositions. One significant phrase culled from one of his letters well indicates the bold, dashing character of the man: "I do not wish to have command of any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm's way."7 In the sentence which follows this statement, we get another touch of that entire consciousness of his own ability and high quality which, though warranted, it were better, perhaps, for his reputation if it were not so evident in his writing: "I know, I believe, that this is no other person's intention. Therefore, buy a frigate that sails fast and is sufficiently large to carry twenty-six or twenty-eight guns on one deck."

His state of mind may well be understood from this citation: "I have, to show my gratitude to France, lost so much time, and with it such opportunities as I can not regain. I have almost killed myself with grief."

Chafing, fretting, writing letters, the time dragged on. At last he addressed to the Minister of Marine, M. de Sartine, this emphatic protest and statement which he calls, and justly, an explicit letter. It is certainly sufficiently definite and clear, and shows that rank and position did not deter him from a free and somewhat sarcastic expression of his grievances and wrongs:

"Brest, September 13, 1778.

"Honoured Sir: When his excellency Doctor Franklin informed me that you had condescended to think me worthy of your notice, I took such pleasure in reflecting on the happy alliance between France and America that I was really flattered, and entertained the most grateful sense of the honour which you proposed for me, as well as the favour which the king proposed for America, by putting so fine a ship as the Indien under my command, and under its flag, with unlimited orders.

"In obedience to your desire, I came to Versailles, and was taught to believe that my intended ship was in deep water, and ready for sea; but when the Prince [de Nassau] returned I received from him a different account; I was told that the Indien could not be got afloat within a shorter period than three months at the approaching equinox.

"To employ this interval usefully, I first offered to go from Brest with Count D'Orvilliers as a volunteer, which you thought fit to reject. I had then the satisfaction to find that you approved in general of a variety of hints for private enterprises which I had drawn up for your consideration, and I was flattered with assurances from Messieurs de Chaumont and Baudouin that three of the finest frigates in France, with two tenders and a number of troops, would be immediately put under my command; and that I should have unlimited orders, and be at free liberty to pursue such of my own projects as I thought proper. But this plan fell to nothing in the moment when I was taught to think that nothing was wanting but the king's signature.

"Another much inferior armament from L'Orient was proposed to be put under my command, which was by no means equal to the services that were expected from it; for speed and force, though both requisite, were both wanting. Happily for me, this also failed, and I was thereby saved from a dreadful prospect of ruin and dishonour.

"I had so entire a reliance that you would desire nothing of me inconsistent with my honour and rank, that the moment you required me to come down here, in order to proceed round to St. Malo, though I had received no written orders, and neither knew your intention respecting my destination or command, I obeyed with such haste, that although my curiosity led me to look at the armament at L'Orient, yet I was but three days from Passy till I reached Brest. Here, too, I drew a blank; but when I saw the Lively it was no disappointment, as that ship, both in sailing and equipment, is far inferior to the Ranger.

"My only disappointment here was my being precluded from embarking in pursuit of marine knowledge with Count D'Orvilliers, who did not sail till seven days after my return. He is my friend, and expressed his wishes for my company; I accompanied him out of the road when the fleet sailed, and he always lamented that neither himself nor any person in authority in Brest had received from you any order that mentioned my name. I am astonished therefore to be informed that you attribute my not being in the fleet to my stay at L'Orient.

"I am not a mere adventurer of fortune. Stimulated by principles of reason and philanthropy, I laid aside my enjoyments in private life, and embarked under the flag of America when it was first displayed. In that line my desire of fame is infinite, and I must not now so far forget my own honour, and what I owe to my friends and America, as to remain inactive.

"My rank knows no superior in the American marine. I have long since been appointed to command an expedition with five of its ships, and I can receive orders from no junior or inferior officer whatever.

"I have been here in the most tormenting suspense for more than a month since my return; and, agreeable to your desire, as mentioned to me by Monsieur Chaumont, a lieutenant has been appointed, and is with me, who speaks the French as well as the English. Circular letters have been written, and sent the 8th of last month from the English admiralty, because they expected me to pay another visit with four ships. Therefore I trust that, if the Indien is not to be got out, you will not, at the approaching season, substitute a force that is not at least equal both in strength and sailing to any of the enemy's cruising ships.

"I do not wish to interfere with the harmony of the French marine; but, if I am still thought worthy of your attention, I shall hope for a separate command, with liberal orders. If, on the contrary, you should now have no further occasion for my services, the only favour I can ask is that you will bestow on me the Alert, with a few seamen, and permit me to return, and carry with me your good opinion in that small vessel, before the winter, to America."

His intense, burning desire for action, however, did not permit him to degrade, as he thought, his Government and station by accepting the command of a privateer which was tendered to him. In the command of a speedy, smart privateer there is no limit to the plundering he might have done and the treasure he might have gained, if that had been what he wished. Many naval officers before and since his time have done this and thought it not derogatory to their dignity. It is therefore to Jones' credit that he was very jealous in this and many other instances on the point of honor of serving in no ship, under no flag, and with no commission save that of the United States. We shall see this spirit again and again. The citizen of the world was beginning to feel that the world as his country was hardly adequate to his needs; in theory it was a very pretty proposition, but in practice it was necessary to form and maintain a more definite and particular relationship. As a final effort to better his condition and secure that opportunity for which he thirsted, he prepared the following letter to the king:

"Brest, October 19, 1778.

"Sire: After my return to Brest in the American ship of war the Ranger, from the Irish Channel, his excellency Doctor Franklin informed me by letter, dated June the 1st, that M. de Sartine, having a high opinion of my conduct and bravery, had determined, with your Majesty's consent and approbation, to give me the command of the ship of war the Indien, which was built at Amsterdam for America, but afterward, for political reasons, made the property of France.

"I was to act with unlimited orders under the commission and flag of America; and the Prince de Nassau proposed to accompany me on the ocean.

"I was deeply penetrated with the sense of the honour done me by this generous proposition, as well as of the favour your Majesty intended thereby to confer on America. And I accepted the offer with the greater pleasure as the Congress had sent me to Europe in the Ranger to command the Indien before the ownership of that vessel was changed.

"The minister desired to see me at Versailles to settle future plans of operation, and I attended him for that purpose. I was told that the Indien was at the Texel completely armed and fitted for sea; but the Prince de Nassau was sent express to Holland, and returned with a very different account. The ship was at Amsterdam, and could not be got afloat or armed before the September equinox. The American plenipotentiaries proposed that I should return to America; and, as I have repeatedly been appointed to the chief command of an American squadron to execute secret enterprises, it was not doubted but that Congress would again show me a preference. M. de Sartine, however, thought proper to prevent my departure, by writing to the plenipotentiaries (without my knowledge), requesting that I might be permitted to remain in Europe, and that the Ranger might be sent back to America under another commander, he having special services which he wished me to execute. This request they readily granted, and I was flattered by the prospect of being enabled to testify, by my services, my gratitude to your Majesty, as the first prince who has so generously acknowledged our independence.


"There was an interval of more than three months before the Indien could be gotten afloat. To employ that period usefully, when your Majesty's fleet was ordered to sail from Brest, I proposed to the minister to embark in it as a volunteer, in pursuit of marine knowledge. He objected to this, at the same time approved of a variety of hints for private enterprises, which I had drawn up for his consideration. Two gentlemen were appointed to settle with me the plans that were to be adopted, who gave me the assurance that three of the best frigates in France, with two tenders, and a number of troops, should be immediately put under my command, to pursue such of my own projects as I thought proper; but this fell to nothing, when I believed that your Majesty's signature only was wanting.

"Another armament, composed of cutters and small vessels, at L'Orient, was proposed to be put under my command, to alarm the coasts of England and check the Jersey privateers; but happily for me this also failed, and I was saved from ruin and dishonour, as I now find that all the vessels sailed slow, and their united force is very insignificant. The minister then thought fit that I should return to Brest to command the Lively, and join some frigates on an expedition from St. Malo to the North Sea. I returned in haste for that purpose, and found that the Lively had been bestowed at Brest before the minister had mentioned that ship to me at Versailles. This was, however, another fortunate disappointment, as the Lively proves, both in sailing and equipment, much inferior to the Ranger; but, more especially, if it be true, as I have since understood, that the minister intended to give the chief command of an expedition to a lieutenant, which would have occasioned a very disagreeable misunderstanding; for, as an officer of the first rank in the American marine, who has ever been honoured with the favour and friendship of Congress, I can receive orders from no inferior officer whatever. My plan was the destruction of the English Baltic fleet, of great consequence to the enemy's marine, and then only protected by a single frigate. I would have held myself responsible for its success had I commanded the expedition.

"M. de Sartine afterward sent orders to Count D'Orvilliers to receive me on board the fleet agreeably to my former proposal; but the order did not arrive until after the departure of the fleet the last time from Brest, nor was I made acquainted with the circumstance before the fleet returned here.

"Thus have I been chained down to shameful inactivity for nearly five months. I have lost the best season of the year, and such opportunities of serving my country and acquiring honour as I can not again expect this war; and, to my infinite mortification, having no command, I am considered everywhere an officer cast off and in disgrace for secret reasons.

"I have written respectful letters to the minister, none of which he has condescended to answer; I have written to the Prince de Nassau with as little effect; and I do not understand that any apology has been made to the great and venerable Dr. Franklin, whom the minister has made the instrument of bringing me into such unmerited trouble.

"Having written to Congress to reserve no command for me in America, my sensibility is the more affected by this unworthy situation in the sight of your Majesty's fleet. I, however, make no remark on the treatment I have received.

"Although I wish not to become my own panegyrist, I must beg your Majesty's permission to observe that I am not an adventurer in search of fortune, of which, thank God, I have a sufficiency.

"When the American banner was first displayed I drew my sword in support of the violated dignity and rights of human nature; and both honour and duty prompt me steadfastly to continue the righteous pursuit, and to sacrifice to it not only my own private enjoyments, but even life, if necessary. I must acknowledge that the generous praise which I have received from Congress and others exceeds the merit of my past services, therefore I the more ardently wish for future opportunities of testifying my gratitude by my activity.

"As your Majesty, by espousing the cause of America, hath become the protector of the rights of human nature, I am persuaded that you will not disregard my situation, nor suffer me to remain any longer in this unsupportable disgrace.

"I am, with perfect gratitude and profound respect, Sire, your Majesty's very obliged, very obedient, and very humble servant,

"J. Paul Jones."

This letter, at once dignified, forceful, respectful, and modest, was inclosed to Dr. Franklin with the request that it should be delivered to the king. The deference paid to Franklin's opinion, the eager desire to please him, the respect in which he held him, is not the least pleasing feature of Jones' character, by the way. The letter in question was withheld by Franklin with Jones' knowledge and acquiescence, and the king, it is probable, never saw it. There was, in fact, no necessity for its delivery, for the appeals, prayers, and importunities had at last evoked a response. The minister, worn out by the persistence of Jones, determined, since none of the French naval vessels were available, to buy him a ship and assemble a squadron and send him forth.

The inquiry naturally arises why the French Government should care to go to the trouble and expense of doing this. Before the war was declared their action was understandable, but afterward the then operating cause disappeared. Yet there was another reason aside from the fact that M. de Sartine was willing to keep his promise if he could, and that was this:

It was not the custom to harry, plunder, and ravage the seacoasts in the wars between France and England. Military or naval forces were the sole objects of attack, and by a specific though unwritten law of custom, the efforts of the rival combatants were confined to ships of war, fortifications, and armies, and, of course, to merchant vessels belonging to the enemy. The peaceful seashore towns were generally let alone unless the inhabitants in exposed localities provoked retaliation by aggression-a thing they usually took good care not to do. To introduce the practice would be unfortunate and nothing would be gained, by France especially. The King of France, however, was more than willing to have the coasts of his neighbor ravaged, if no retaliation on his own unprotected shores were provoked thereby. No convention of any sort, expressed or understood, existed between Great Britain and the United States which would prevent such action on the part of the Americans. Great Britain was making a bloody ravaging warfare on the coasts of North America, and, never dreaming of reprisal, paid no attention whatever to this law of war, save when it suited her to do so, on our seaboard. Franklin and the commissioners wisely realized that the only way to stop this merciless and brutal burning and plundering was to let the enemy experience the thing himself. They were therefore in entire accord with the desire of the French king. To produce the result he would furnish the squadron, they the flag. It was a charming arrangement from the king's point of view. Consequently the reason for the encouragement given Jones is apparent, and the determination of the minister is therefore explained and understood.

Jones received word early in November through the commissioners, with a solemn assurance from De Sartine, that a suitable ship would be purchased for him at the expense of France and a squadron assembled under his supreme command. Let those who would reproach Jones for his part in this plan remember that (as in his previous cruise) he only carried out the orders of Franklin. There was no sentimental nonsense about the old Quaker. He knew what was the best remedy for the deplorable conditions in America, and he grimly prepared to apply it. He had no illusions in the premises at all; it was a pure matter of business, and with sound policy he so treated it. Jones' appeals, be it understood, were only for a ship or ships and an opportunity to get into action with the enemy. His orders were outside of his control. All he had to do as a naval officer was to carry them out to the best of his ability when he received them. Therefore a censure of Jones is a censure of Franklin.

It was first designed to employ Jones and his proposed squadron for a descent upon Liverpool, for which purpose five hundred men from Fitzmaurice's Irish regiment were to be taken on the ships. Pending the assembling of the squadron, and while Jones was busily engaged in seeking for a proper vessel for himself in various French ports, Lafayette arrived from America, and sought the command of the land forces of the proposed expedition. His desire was a notable tribute to the sailor, by the way. The change was most agreeable to Jones, to whom, of course, the reputation and abilities of Lafayette were well known, and who would naturally prefer association with such a distinguished man in the undertaking, but, as usual, there were delays on the part of the minister.

Jones traveled about from port to port, looking at different ships which it was proposed to purchase for him. The minister offered him the Duc de Broglie, a large new ship lying at Nantes, capable of mounting sixty-four guns. He inspected her, and would have taken her gladly, but he felt utterly unable properly to man such a large ship, and he was reluctantly compelled to dismiss her from consideration. There was also at Nantes a smaller ship, the Ariel, of twenty guns, which had been captured from the English, which he was willing to accept if nothing better turned up. Another vessel that he looked at was a great old-fashioned merchant ship, lying dismantled at L'Orient, which had been some fourteen years in the India trade, and was very much out of repair. She was called the Duc de Duras. Jones thought she might do in default of anything else, and he so informed the minister.

However, in spite of the promises that had been made and reiterated to him, and the determination which had been arrived at, nothing was done. His visits of inspection were fruitless, his propositions were disregarded as before. Furthermore, the plan to send Lafayette with him fell through because France was at that time projecting a grand descent in force upon England, and Lafayette was designated to command a regiment in the proposed undertaking. Like other similar projects, the plan was never put in operation. Though France did enter the Channel with sixty-six French and Spanish ships of the line, she did not accomplish as much with this great armada as Paul Jones did with the little squadron he finally was enabled to assemble.

Meanwhile he was at his wits' end. The year had nearly passed and nothing had been done. He had been put off with promises until he was desperate. Chance, it is stated, threw in his way one day, as he sat idle at Nantes, gloomily ruminating on the prospect, or lack of it, and almost making up his mind to go back to the United States in the first vessel that offered and seek such opportunity for service as might arise there, a copy of Franklin's famous book of maxims, called Poor Richard's Almanac. As the harassed little captain sat listlessly turning its pages, his eyes fell upon this significant aphorism:

"If a man wishes to have any business faithfully and expeditiously performed, let him go on it himself; otherwise he may send."

The truth of the saying inspired him to one final effort before he abandoned European waters. He went to Versailles in November, 1778, for one last visit, and there settled the matter. His determination and persistence at last, as it had many times before, brought him success. De Sartine directed the purchase of the Duras, which Jones, from his love for Franklin and the circumstance just related, with the consent of the minister, renamed the Bon Homme Richard, that being the French equivalent for Poor Richard, or Good Man Richard, which was the caption of the almanac.

De Sartine appointed as the agent and commissary of the king for the purchase and refitting of the Duras and the other vessels of the squadron, and for the disposal of any prizes which might be taken, in short, as his representative with entire liberty of action, Monsieur le Ray de Chaumont. This gentleman, belonging, of course, to the nobility of the country, was a man of considerable influence at the court, where he had held the responsible dual position of Grand Master of the Forests and Waters of the King. Since the arrival of the American commissioners he had shown his devotion to the cause of liberty and to them personally by many and conspicuous acts of kindness.


It was his private residence at Passy that Franklin made his headquarters during his long tenure of office. De Chaumont had offered him the use of this house, and with generous and splendid hospitality had refused to accept of any remuneration by way of rental. Realizing the pressing necessity of the struggling colonists for every dollar they could scrape together, he positively declined to impair their limited resources by any charge whatsoever. Franklin endeavored to change his decision, and when John Adams replaced Deane he made the same effort, but the generous Frenchman refused to recede from his determination. He also placed his private purse at the disposal of Franklin, and in every way showed himself a worthy and disinterested friend of America.

He was one of those romantic Frenchmen who espoused the cause of the rights of man under the influence of the new philosophy of Rousseau and Voltaire; somewhat, it would seem, from motives similar to those proclaimed by Jones himself. He had nothing to gain by his action and much to lose should the effort of the colonists result in failure. He was a man of affairs and possessed an ample fortune. To anticipate events, it may be stated that he spent it all in the cause to which he had devoted himself, and eventually became bankrupt. He was not a military man; still less was he aware of the exigencies and demands of the naval service. For the present, however, he did his work efficiently and well.

The Duras was purchased immediately, as were two other merchant vessels, the Pallas and the Vengeance, all at the cost of the royal treasury. To these were added the Cerf, a king's cutter, a well-appointed and efficient vessel, and the United States ship Alliance, a new and very handsome frigate built at Salisbury, Massachusetts, in 1778, which had arrived in Europe with Lafayette as a passenger. Jones had specifically asked that the American frigate should be assigned to his squadron-a most unfortunate request, as it afterward turned out.

The Duras was an East Indiaman of obsolete type; a large, old-fashioned ship with a very high poop and topgallant forecastle. She had made, during many years of service, a number of round voyages to the East Indies. While stoutly built for a merchant ship, as compared to a man-of-war of her size she was of light and unsubstantial frame. In the absence of particular information I suppose her to have been of something under eight hundred tons burden. Neglect had allowed her to fall into such a bad condition that her efficiency as a proposed war vessel was further impaired by her inability to stand the necessary repairs.

Jones, however, surveyed her and determined to make her do. Indeed, there was no choice; it was that or nothing. He hoped to effect something with her which would warrant him in demanding a better ship; so, with a sigh of regret for the Indien, he set to work upon her, doing his best to make her efficient. By his orders she was pierced for twenty-eight guns on her main deck and six on the poop and forecastle. In order to further increase her force, Jones, after much deliberation, resorted to the hazardous experiment of cutting six ports in the gun room, on the deck below the gun deck, close to the water line; so close, in fact, that, with anything like a sea on, to open the ports would be to invite destruction by foundering.8 Only under exceptionally favorable circumstances, therefore, could these guns be used. At best the gun-room battery could only be fought in the calmest weather and smoothest water. In this dangerous place he mounted six old and condemned 18-pounders, which were all that he could obtain from the French arsenals. On the main deck fourteen 12-pounders and fourteen 9-pounders were mounted.9 Two 9-pounders were placed aft on the quarter-deck, two in each gangway, and two on the forecastle. All the guns were old and worn out; many of them had been condemned by the French Government as unfit for use. The six guns on the lower deck were mounted three on a side, but a sufficient number of ports had been cut to admit of shifting the guns and working the whole battery on either side. New guns had been ordered cast for the Richard at the French gun foundries; but the usual delays compelled Jones to take what he could, and finally sail with these old makeshifts. The guns intended for the Bon Homme Richard arrived after she had gone.

The Alliance was a frigate-built ship of thirty-two guns, 9- and 6-pounders, manned by two hundred and fifty men, and commanded by Pierre Landais. Landais was an ex-officer of the French navy, who had been dismissed for insubordination and incapacity. Ignorant of these facts, knowing only that he had been a navy officer, and wishing to please their royal ally, and perhaps pay a delicate compliment also to Lafayette, who was a passenger upon the ship on her first cruise, the marine commissioners had appointed him to the command of this fine and handsome little frigate. The Alliance was one of the fastest ships of her day; indeed, she may be regarded as the precursor of that long line of splendid frigates and sloops of war which have been the pride of American shipbuilders and the admiration of foreign navies. Properly re-armed and refitted, under the command of stout old John Barry she did splendid service on several occasions later in the war. Her swiftness and mobility, it was believed, would add greatly to the usefulness of Jones' squadron.

The Pallas was a fairly efficient merchant ship, frigate built, carrying thirty 6-pounders, commanded by Captain de Cottineau de Kloguene. The Vengeance was a twelve-gun brig of little force, and the Cerf a sixteen-gun cutter, under the command of Captains Ricot and de Varage respectively.

After many difficulties and disheartening delays, chiefly overcome by Jones' invincible determination and persistence, the squadron was at last made ready for use. The first duty assigned to the daring commodore was a cruise for the driving of the enemy's ships out of the Bay of Biscay, and convoying merchant ships bound from port to port along the coast. It was not a particularly congenial duty, but he entered upon it zealously and without complaint.

The squadron sailed on the 19th of June, 1779. During the night of the 20th the Alliance ran foul of the Richard, and as a result of the collision the mizzenmast of the Alliance was carried away, while the Richard lost her head, cutwater, jib boom, etc. The blame for the accident mainly rested on Landais, who, it was afterward developed, had behaved disgracefully on this occasion, showing such a lack of presence of mind and seamanly aptitude, coupled with such timidity and shrinking from duty, that, when the accident occurred, he not only gave no orders, but basely ran below to load his pistols, leaving the ship to be extricated from her critical situation by the junior officers. Perhaps he was afraid that the infuriated Jones would attack him for the mishandling of his ship. Jones, who had been below when the accident occurred, immediately assumed charge of the Richard, and by prompt action averted a more serious disaster. To do Landais justice, however, the officer of the watch on the Richard also must have been culpable, for he was subsequently court-martialed and broken for his lack of conduct on this occasion.

Refusing to return to port, and patching up the two ships as well as possible from their present resources, Jones performed the duties assigned to him, driving the enemy's ships out of those waters and safely delivering his convoy. On the return voyage, Captain de Varage, of the Cerf, had a spirited encounter with a heavily armed privateer of greater force than his own, which lasted for an hour and ten minutes and resulted in the privateer striking her flag. Before he could take possession, however, other ships of the enemy appeared, and he was forced to abandon his prize. The Richard chased several sail, two of which were thought to be frigates, and the officers and men manifested every disposition to get into action; but the ships sighted were all able to run away from the cumbrous and slow-sailing American ship.

7Italics mine.
8The ship of the line Thesée (74), commanded by the celebrated de Kersaint, was lost in the night battle between Hawke and Conflans at Quiberon Bay, because in the midst of a terrific gale, with a very heavy sea on, the Frenchman unfortunately opened his lower deck ports to make use of his heavy battery in the action.
9There is a discrepancy in the various accounts of the armament of the Richard, some authorities asserting that all the guns on the main deck were 12-pounders and that the small guns on the poop and forecastle were 6-pounders. The probabilities are as I have stated.
1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24  25  26