John Paul went to sea when he was 12, and his youth was adventure-filled. He was chief mate on a slave ship in 1766 but, disgusted with the work, soon quit. In 1769 he obtained command of the John, a merchantman that he captained until 1770. In 1773, while Jones was in command of the Betsy off Tobago, members of his crew mutinied and he killed one of the sailors in self-defense. To avoid trial he fled. In 1775 he was in Philadelphia, with the Jones added to his name; Joseph Hewes of Edenton, N.C., obtained for him a commission in the Continental navy.
In 1777, Jones was given command of the Ranger, fresh from the Portsmouth shipyard. He sailed to France, then daringly took the war to the very shores of the British Isles on raids. In 1778, he captured the Drake, a British warship.
It was, however, only after long delay that he was given another ship, an old French merchantman, which he rebuilt and named the Bon Homme Richard ("Poor Richard"), to honor Benjamin Franklin. He set out with a small fleet but was disappointed in the hope of meeting a British fleet returning from the Baltic until the projected cruise was nearly finished. On Sept. 23, 1779, he did encounter the British merchantmen, convoyed by the frigate Serapis and a smaller warship. Despite the superiority of the Serapis, Jones did not hesitate.
The battle, which began at sunset and ended more than three and a half hours later by moonlight, was one of the most memorable in naval history. Jones sailed close in, to cut the advantage of the Serapis, and finally in the battle lashed the Bon Homme Richard to the British ship. Both ships were heavily damaged. The Serapis was afire in at least 12 different places. The hull of the Bon Homme Richard was pierced, her decks were ripped, her hold was filling with water, and fires were destroying her, unchecked; yet when the British captain asked if Jones was ready to surrender, the answer came proudly, "Sir, I have not yet begun to fight." When the Serapis surrendered, Jones and his men boarded her while his own vessel sank. He was much honored in France for the victory but received little recognition in the United States.
After the Revolution Jones was sent to Europe to collect the prize money due the United States. In 1788 he was asked by Catherine the Great to join the Russian navy; he accepted on the condition that he become a rear admiral. His command against the Turks in the Black Sea was successful, but political intrigue prevented his getting due credit. In 1789 he was discharged from the Russian navy and returned to Paris. There in the midst of the French Revolution he died, without receiving the commission that Jefferson had procured for him to negotiate with the dey of Algiers concerning American prisoners.
Although he is today generally considered among the greatest of American naval heroes and the founder of the American naval tradition, his grave was forgotten until the ambassador to France, Horace E. Porter, discovered it in 1905 after the expenditure of much of his own time and money. The remains were removed to Annapolis and since 1913 have been enshrined in a crypt at the U.S. Naval Academy.
See his memoirs (1830, repr. 1972); A. De Koven, Life and Letters of John Paul Jones (1913); F. A. Golder, John Paul Jones in Russia (1927); L. Lorenz, John Paul Jones (1943, repr. 1969); G. W. Johnson, The First Captain (1947); S. E. Morison, John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography (1959, repr. 1964); E. Thomas, John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy (2003).
During his engagement with Serapis, Jones uttered, according to the later recollection of his First Lieutenant, the legendary reply to a quip about surrender from the British captain: "I have not yet begun to fight!"
During his numerous journeys to Fredericksburg, Virginia aboard ship, Jones' home, while the ship was in port, was the home of an elder brother, who, having married a native of Virginia, had previously settled there.
After a short time in this business, Jones became disgusted with the cruelty in the slave trade; during the voyage, he abandoned his prestigious position on the profitable Two Friends in 1768 while docked at Jamaica. Jones found passage back to Scotland, and eventually he obtained another position. During his next voyage aboard the brig John, which sailed from port in 1768, young John Paul’s career was quickly and unexpectedly advanced. When both the captain and a ranking mate suddenly died of yellow fever, John Paul managed to successfully navigate the ship back to a safe port. In reward for this impressive feat, the vessel’s grateful Scottish owners made him master of the ship and its crew, giving him 10 percent of the cargo. He then led two voyages to the West Indies before running into difficulty. During his second voyage in 1770, John Paul viciously flogged one of his sailors, leading to accusations of his discipline being "unnecessarily cruel". While these claims were initially dismissed, John Paul’s favorable reputation was destroyed when the disciplined sailor died a few weeks later. Sources disagree on whether he was arrested for his involvement in the man’s death, but the devastating effect on his reputation is indisputable.
Leaving Scotland, John Paul commanded a London-registered vessel, the Betsy, for about 18 months, engaging in commercial speculation in Tobago. This came to an end, however, when Jones killed a member of his crew with a sword in a dispute over wages. Years later, in a letter to Benjamin Franklin describing this incident, Jones claimed it was in self-defense, but because he was not to be tried in an Admiral's Court, he felt compelled to flee to Fredericksburg, Province of Virginia, leaving his fortune behind.
It was in the year 1773, when he went to Fredericksburg, Virginia to arrange the affairs of his brother, who had died there without leaving any family; and about this time, in addition to his original surname, he assumed the patronymic of Jones, his father’s Christian name having been John. This custom, which is of classical authority, has long been prevalent in Wales, and in various other countries, although it is not usual in that part of the island in which he was born. During this time period, John Paul, probably appended 'Jones' to his name in an attempt to escape his troubled reputation.
His prepossessions became even more in favour of America and were confirmed. From that period, as he afterwards expressed himself to Baron Van der Capellan, that became "the country of his fond election." It wasn't long afterwards that John Paul 'Jones' joined the American navy to fight against England. He was now safe from his past troubles and he gained a glorious reputation fighting the enemy of America through her navy, an enemy which was already a part of his own personal 'past troubles'.
What is clearly known is that Jones left for Philadelphia shortly after settling in America to volunteer his services to the newly-founded Continental Navy, which later became the United States Navy. During this time, around 1775, the Navy and Marines were being formally established, and suitable ship's officers and captains were in great demand. Were it not for the endorsement of Richard Henry Lee who knew of his abilities, Jones' potential would likely have gone unrecognized. With help from influential members of the Continental Congress, however, Jones was the first man to be assigned to the rank of 1st Lieutenant in the Continental Navy on December 22, 1775, on board the Colbert.
After making the necessary preparations, Jones sailed for France on November 1, 1777, with orders to assist the American cause however possible. The American commissioners in France (Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Arthur Lee) listened to Jones' strategic recommendations. They assured him the command of L'Indien, a new vessel being constructed for America in Amsterdam. Britain, however, was able to divert the L'Indien away from American hands, by exerting pressure to ensure its sale to France instead (who had not yet allied with America). Jones was again left without a command, an unpleasant reminder of his stagnation in Boston from late 1776 until early 1777. It is thought that it was during this time Jones developed his close friendship with Benjamin Franklin, whom he greatly admired. In 1778, he was accepted, together with Benjamin Franklin, into the Masonic Lodge "Les Neuf Sœurs".
On February 6, 1778, France signed their Treaty of Alliance with America, formally recognizing the independence of the new American republic. Eight days later, Captain Jones' Ranger became the first American Navy vessel to be saluted by the French, with a nine gun salvo fired from Admiral Piquet's flagship. Jones wrote of the event: "I accepted his offer all the more for after all it was a recognition of our independence."
Finally, on April 10, 1778, Jones set sail from Brest, France for the western coasts of Britain.
On April 20, 1778, Jones learned from captured sailors that the Royal Navy sloop-of-war Drake was anchored off Carrickfergus, Ireland. According to the diary of Ranger's surgeon , Jones' first intention was to attack the vessel in broad daylight, but his sailors were "unwilling to undertake it" (another incident omitted from the official report). Therefore, the attack took place just after midnight, but in the dark (or perhaps because, as Jones claimed in his memoirs, the man was drunk) the mate responsible for dropping the anchor to halt Ranger right alongside Drake misjudged the timing, so Jones had to cut his anchor cable and run.
The wind having shifted, Ranger recrossed the Irish Sea to make another attempt at raiding Whitehaven. Jones led the assault with two boats of fifteen men on April 23 1778, just after midnight, hoping to set fire to and sink all Whitehaven’s ships anchored in harbor (numbering between 200 to 400 wooden vessels), which consisted of a full merchant fleet and many coal transporters. They also hoped to terrorize the townspeople by lighting further fires. As it happened, the journey to shore was slowed by the still-shifting wind, as well as a strong ebb tide. The spiking of the town's big defensive guns to prevent them being fired was accomplished successfully, but lighting fires proved difficult, as the lanterns in both boats had run out of fuel. To remedy this, some of the party were therefore sent to raid a public house on the quayside, but the temptation to stop for a quick drink led to a further delay. By the time they returned, and the arson attacks began, dawn was fast approaching, so efforts were concentrated on a single ship, the coal ship Thompson, in the hope that the flames would spread to adjacent vessels, all grounded by the low tide. Unfortunately, in the twilight, one of the crew slipped away and alerted residents on a harbourside street. A fire alert was sounded, and large numbers of people came running to the quay, forcing the Americans to retreat, and extinguishing the flames with the town's two fire-engines. However, hopes of sinking Jones's boats with cannon fire were dashed by the prudent spiking.
Crossing the Solway Firth from Whitehaven to Scotland, Jones hoped to hold for ransom the Earl of Selkirk, who lived on St Mary's Isle near Kirkcudbright. The Earl, Jones reasoned, could be exchanged for American sailors impressed into the Royal Navy. When the Earl was discovered to be absent from his estate, Jones claims he intended to return directly to his ship and continue seeking prizes elsewhere, but his crew wished to "pillage, burn, and plunder all they could". Ultimately, Jones allowed the crew to seize a silver plate set adorned with the family’s emblem to placate their desires, but nothing else. Jones bought the plate himself when it was later sold off in France, and returned it to the Earl of Selkirk after the War.
Although their effect on British morale and allocation of defence resources was massive, the attacks on St. Mary’s Isle and Whitehaven resulted in no prizes or profits which under normal circumstances would be shared with the crew. Throughout the mission, the crew, led by Jones's second-in-command Lieutenant Thomas Simpson, acted as if they were aboard a privateer, not a warship.
Nevertheless, Jones now led Ranger back across the Irish Sea, hoping to make another attempt at the Drake, still anchored off Carrickfergus. This time, late in the afternoon of April 24, 1778, the ships, roughly equal in firepower, engaged in combat. Earlier in the day, the Americans had captured the crew of a reconnaissance boat, and learned that Drake had taken on dozens of soldiers, with the intention of grappling and boarding Ranger, so Jones made sure that did not happen, capturing the Drake after an hour-long gun battle which cost the British captain his life. Lieutenant Simpson was given command of Drake for the return journey to Brest. The ships separated during the return journey as Ranger chased another prize, leading to a conflict between Simpson and Jones. Both ships arrived at port safely, but Jones filed for a court-martial of Simpson, keeping him detained on the ship.
Partly through the influence of John Adams, who was still serving as a commissioner in France, Simpson was released from Jones' accusation. Adams implies in his memoirs that the overwhelming majority of the evidence supported Simpson’s claims. Adams seemed to believe Jones was hoping to monopolize the mission's glory, especially by detaining Simpson on board while he celebrated the capture with numerous important European dignitaries.
Even with the wealth of perspectives, including the commander's, it is difficult if not impossible to tell exactly what occurred. It is clear, however, that the crew felt alienated by their commander, who might well have been motivated by his pride. Jones believed his intentions were honorable, and his actions were strategically essential to the Revolution. Regardless of any controversy surrounding the mission, Ranger’s capture of Drake was one of the American Navy’s few significant military victories during the Revolution, and was of immense symbolic importance, demonstrating as it did that the Royal Navy was far from invincible. By overcoming such odds, Ranger’s victory became an important symbol of the American spirit and served as an inspiration for the permanent establishment of the American Navy after the Revolution.
In 1779, Captain Jones took command of the 42 gun Bonhomme Richard (or as he preferred it, Bon Homme Richard) , a merchant ship rebuilt and given to America by the French shipping magnate, Jacques-Donatien Le Ray. On August 14, as a vast French and Spanish invasion fleet approached England, he provided a diversion by heading for Ireland at the head of a five ship squadron including the 36 gun Alliance, 32 gun Pallas, 12 gun Vengeance, and Le Cerf, also accompanied by two privateers. Several Royal Navy warships were sent towards Ireland in pursuit, but on this occasion, he continued right around the north of Scotland into the North Sea, creating near-panic all along Britain's east coast as far south as the Humber estuary. Jones's main problems, as on his previous voyage, resulted from insubordination, particularly by Pierre Landais, captain of the Alliance . On September 23 1779, the squadron met a large merchant convoy off the coast of Flamborough Head, east Yorkshire. The 44 gun British frigate HMS Serapis and the 20 gun hired escort Countess of Scarborough placed themselves between the convoy and Jones's squadron, allowing the merchants to escape.
Shortly after 7 pm began the Battle of Flamborough Head. The Serapis engaged the Bonhomme Richard, and soon afterwards, the Alliance fired, from a considerable distance, at the Countess. Quickly recognising that he could not win a battle of big guns, and with the wind dying, Jones made every effort to lock Richard and Serapis together (his famous quotation was uttered in reply to a cheerful British taunt during an odd stalemate in this phase of the battle), finally succeeding after about an hour, following which his deck guns and marksmen in the rigging began clearing the British decks. Alliance sailed past and fired a broadside, doing at least as much damage to the Richard as to the Serapis. Meanwhile, the Countess of Scarborough had enticed the Pallas downwind of the main battle, beginning a separate engagement. When Alliance approached this contest, about an hour after it had begun, the badly damaged Countess surrendered.
With Bonhomme Richard burning and sinking, it seems that her ensign was shot away; when one of the officers, apparently believing his captain to be dead, shouted a surrender , the British commander asked, seriously this time, if they had struck their colors. Jones later remembered saying something like "I am determined to make you strike", but the words allegedly heard by crew-members and reported in newspapers a few days later were more like: "I may sink, but I’ll be damned if I strike!" .
An attempt by the British to board Bonhomme Richard was thwarted and a grenade caused the explosion of a large quantity of gunpowder on Serapis’ lower gun-deck. Alliance then returned to the main battle, firing two broadsides. Again, these did at least as much damage to Richard as to Serapis, but the tactic worked to the extent that, unable to move, and with Alliance keeping well out of the line of his own great guns, Captain Pearson of Serapis accepted that prolonging the battle could achieve nothing, so he surrendered. Most of Bonhomme Richard's crew immediately transferred to other vessels, and after a day and a half of frantic repair efforts, it was decided that the ship could not be saved, so it was allowed to sink, and Jones took command of Serapis for the trip to neutral (but American-sympathising) Holland.
In the following year, the King of France honoured him with the title "Chevalier". Jones accepted the honor, and desired the title to be used thereafter: when the Continental Congress in 1787 resolved that a medal of gold be struck in commemoration of his "valor and brilliant services" it was to be presented to "Chevalier John Paul Jones". He also received from Louis a decoration of "Ordre du Mérite militaire" and a sword. By contrast, in Britain at this time, he was usually referred to as a pirate.
On June 8, 1788, Jones was awarded the Order of St. Anne, but he left the following month, an embittered man.
In May 1790, Jones arrived in Paris, where he remained in retirement during the rest of his life, although he made a number of attempts to re-enter the Russian service. In June 1792, Jones was appointed U.S. Consul to treat with the Dey of Algiers for the release of American captives. Before Jones was able to fulfill his appointment, however, he died and was found lying face-down on his bed in his third-floor Paris apartment, No. 42 Rue de Tournon, on July 18 1792. A small procession of servants, friends, and loyal soldiers walked his body the four miles (6 km) for burial. He was buried in Paris at the Saint Louis Cemetery, which belonged to the French royal family. Four years later, France's revolutionary government sold the property and the cemetery was forgotten. The area was later used as a garden, a place to dispose of dead animals, and a place where gamblers bet on animal fights.
Jones' body was ceremonially removed from his interment in a Parisian charnel house and brought to the United States aboard the USS Brooklyn, escorted by three other cruisers. On approaching the US coast, seven US Navy battleships joined the procession escorting Jones' body back to America. On April 24, 1906, Jones's coffin was installed in Bancroft Hall at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, following a ceremony in Dahlgren Hall, presided over by President Theodore Roosevelt who gave a lengthy tributary speech. On January 26, 1913, the Captain's remains were finally re-interred in a magnificent bronze and marble sarcophagus at the Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis.