Such lives stir imaginations. Herman Melville fictionalized Jones in Israel Potter. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote a (reportedly awful) screenplay about Jones in mid-1920s. Hollywood made a major film about his life released in 1959. And numerous biographers have tackled his globetrotting escapades. The latest is Evan Thomas, who in previous books has shown a penchant for debunking important historical episodes. In John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy, Thomas strives to expose Jones as a man driven as much by personal glory as duty to country, and one whose legend is as much fiction as fact.
The son of a Scottish gardener who lacked the social connections to land a commission in the Royal Navy, Jones went to sea at age 13 as a lowly laborer, and quickly excelled as a seaman. By 19, he was first mate on a slave ship that sailed the infamous “middle passage” between Africa and Caribbean. By 21, he’d had enough of the high seas and set sail for home from Jamaica aboard the Scottish brig John. During the trip, Jones unexpectedly became the ship’s master when its captain and first mate died suddenly. Only he knew how to navigate. Upon his safe return, the ship’s owners rewarded Jones with command of the merchant vessel.
Jones was a demanding and difficult captain whose next command led to a mutinous rebellion, the leader of which Jones stabbed to death. By his own account, the slaying was accidental. But Jones nevertheless fled to Fredericksburg, Va., shortly before the war for independence in April 1775. Thomas argues that Jones viewed the war not as a patriotic duty but an opportunity: “The prospect of war meant a great chance for Jones to advance in ways closed to him in his prior life.” Indeed, the disorganized American navy offered great hope to Jones, who was experienced in naval gunnery, which the British merchant ships he’d sailed carried for protection. Late in the summer of 1775, he went to Philadelphia to seek a post with the fledgling American navy.
In June 1777, the Continental Congress ordered Jones to sail for France as captain of the Ranger. He quickly succumbed to Paris, which was, Thomas writes, “extravagant beyond all imagining, a jarring mix of refinement and elegance, bawdiness and filth.” Jones became obsessed with regality, parading around Paris in dress uniform, taking audiences with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and courting French debutantes.
The turning point for Jones came on Sept. 23, 1779, when the ship he captained encountered a Royal Navy man-o-war. Jones attacked, even though he was outgunned. According to legend, cries of surrender were heard on Jones’s ship three hours into the battle. The enemy captain called Jones to ask if he sought quarters, to which Jones purportedly replied, “I have not yet begun to fight.” (Archival records Thomas uncovers show that Jones probably never uttered those famous words, though he certainly did not surrender.) An hour later, it was his counterpart who called for quarters. News of the victory spread from Paris to Philadelphia.
Jones returned to Philadelphia at the pinnacle of his power, expecting that in return for his heroics, Congress would designate him the Navy’s first admiral. But Jones was denied flag rank, due mainly to the jealous complaints of more senior captains. As consolation, Jones was to be given the 74-gun ship America, still under construction–but it was instead presented to France as a gift. In desperation, Jones joined a fleet of French ships with the hope that mastering French naval tactics would make him uniquely prepared for a position as fleet admiral in America’s post-war Navy.
It wasn’t to be. When the war ended on April 7, 1783, Jones, just 37, returned to America and urged Congress to create a naval academy and build a fleet equal to those of Britain and France. The cash-strapped Congress wasn’t interested. Jones spent the remainder of his life in fruitless pursuit of glory, even working for a time as a mercenary captain of a Russian fleet for Catherine the Great. He died alone in a Paris apartment in 1792.
Thomas paints Jones as a man of resourcefulness and strategic vision, though one driven primarily by the pursuit of personal glory. Jones probably would have been pleased with what Thomas portrays as an “over-mythologized” legacy. Though flawed, Jones embodied much of what it meant to be an American, leading presidents and admirals to praise him profusely for strategic farsightedness and prevailing over modest circumstances. In doing so, they helped create the mythical Jones we remember today. Few did more to build this legacy than Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1905, with the Naval Academy under construction, transported Jones’s remains from a built-over Paris cemetery with a special naval escort and laid him to rest in 1913 in a crypt below the academy’s chapel in Annapolis. For many years, midshipmen were required to memorize a letter supposedly written by Jones on the proper qualifications of a naval officer.
Just as Jones’s diary shows that he probably never uttered his most famous phrase, it also appears that he never wrote the letter. Yet Thomas concludes that even a figure steeped more in myth than reality deserves his place in history. Jones, Thomas writes, “fought for a world in which men might advance by their merits and drive, and not be pegged by their birth or place.” Nothing could be more American.