John Paul Jones Biography
The reputation and legacy of John Paul Jones really depends on which side of the Atlantic you are on. In Britain, he is commonly thought of as a privateer at best and a pirate at worst. Having originally served for the United Kingdom, there are even some who viewed his defection to the American cause as treasonous. However, in the United States, he is known as the father of the American Navy, which was largely non-existent at the time, and as a naval hero for the fledgeling Continentals.
Born in Scotland on 6 July 1747 John Paul had a simple peasant’s life before beginning his first maritime career at the age of 13. Slowly becoming more adept in skill and rank, John Paul was finally promoted to first mate on the ship Two Friends. Seeking a position on another vessel, John Paul through happenchance became the master of the ship when both the captain and first officer died, leaving John Paul in charge.
However, it was not long before his fortunes ran aground and John Paul was accused of unnecessary cruelness during the punishment of a crew member. The crew member died some weeks later of unrelated causes, but the damage to his reputation had been done due to the influential nature of the family of the dead crewman. Not long after, aboard a separate ship – the Betsy – John Paul was forced to kill a mutinous crew member. Although he believed himself to be in the legal right, he did not trust the admiralty court and feared that he would be found guilty. It was around this time that he added the surname Jones, likely as a measure to help avoid future law enforcement.
With the outbreak of war between the colonies and Great Britain, the colonies were in sore need of experienced naval personnel. John Paul Jones quickly signed up, and with the recommendation of Richard Lee was quickly assigned to a ship. Throughout the war, John Paul Jones led repeated successful commands, changing ships multiple times but never getting a ship he felt worthy of his purposes or a crew that could sufficiently carry out his orders.
It was during this period that Jones began what would become a lifelong friendship with Benjamin Franklin. It is through the letters that the two shared that we have some of the greatest insight to John Paul Jones during this period of his career. Finally, in 1779 Jones got a ship more worthy of his talent, the USS Bonhomme Richard. It was a 42 gun French merchant ship but more than a match when compared to the ships Jones had previously commanded.
In September of 1779, Jones with the USS Bonhomme Richard set sail for the coast of England with a small squadron of ships including the Alliance to harass British merchant fleets. Little could he have imagined that it would be this particular engagement that would cause John Paul Jones to go down in American legend. The 50 gun HMS Serapis engaged the USS Bonhomme Richard. With the flight of the fellow members of his squadron and realizing that his merchant ship was no match for the big guns of a British frigate, Jones did what some might call prudent and others call reckless – he sought to engage the Serapis at point-blank range locking the two ships together and thus negating her speed and other tactical advantages.
The HMS Serapis and the USS Bonhomme Richard fought a bloody point blank battle for some time. When asked by the British captain if he would surrender, Jones is supposed to have said: “I have not yet begun to fight!” During the chaos and confusion that followed, the USS Bonhomme Richard began to sink and her flag was torn away from the repeated fighting. One of the crewmen, believing Jones to be dead, asked to surrender. When the British commanding officer responded if they intended to strike their colours, Jones became livid and is reported to have said: “I may sink but I will be damned if I strike!”
All attempts to board the USS Bonhomme Richard failed and a lucky grenade throw by an unknown crew member caused an explosion on the lower decks of the Serapis when it encountered spare powder. With the return of the Alliance, one of the other ships in Jones’ squadron, and unable to move while receiving a pounding with its guns, plus dealing with a bloody hand-to-hand fight with the crew of the USS Bonhomme Richard, the captain of the HMS Serapis knew that ultimate victory was impossible and surrendered.
The USS Bonhomme Richard, however, was doomed to sink and Jones took the HMS Serapis to Holland for repairs. Having distinguished himself in the American Navy, Jones sought further exploits with a brief career in the Russian Navy as well. However, by 1790 the vigorous Jones was slowly succumbing to ill health. He died in Paris on 18 July 1792. He was just 45 years old. Although his life was short, his legacy remains ultimately untarnished despite his checkered history. Now hailed as the father of the American Navy and as one of the great American naval commanders, the John Paul Jones considered a pirate in England is a hero to the American Navy.