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John Paul Jones
Chapter IV - 1777

ARE we not inclined, like children, disappointed at beholding king and queen in commonplace, everyday clothes, when fancy adorned them in glittering crown and robes, to picture our heroes as living from cradle to grave in a blaze of glory? As moving through life to soft, musical murmurs of praise, greeting acquaintances with a politely uplifted halo, in place of the hat of ordinary mortals? When we hear of these fortunate ones, they have reached the pinnacle which they occupy naturally, so that we forget the mighty effort which put them there.

We read glowing accounts of the battles Nelson won—but do not think much about the routine which made his success; admire Wellington, with the laurels of Waterloo becomingly surmounting that historic nose —but forget the obscure youth and hard work which gave him name and fame, great enough to have a boot called after him. We carelessly forget, too, the hundreds of petty, everyday annoyances, the backbiting and strife, which the successful must conquer or ignore. In fact, we enjoy effect, without much thought as to the cause. Paul Jones achieved fame, he did not have it thrust upon him. We hear of him as an always successful captain, and, from the time he was allowed to act alone, without senior officer, or cut-and-dried orders, he sprang into renown in a night. He was not a conceited or egotistical man, but he had that fore-sense of what he could do, which never led him into a blunder. His only failures were when he was forced to act in concert with those who had not been put under his absolute command. The, more one analyses Paul Jones and his career, the more remarkable it seems, for he had no one on whom to depend or look to for favour. The influence of the boudoir played little part in his early struggles for recognition. No mysterious relative in slouched hat, with drooping plumes and cloak concealing the lower part of his face, met him 'neath a blasted oak in the moonlight, pressed purses, heavy with gold, into his surprised hand, and vanished with a hoarse whisper of further benefits to be conferred, if due secrecy were observed. No inopportune old retainer hindered his footsteps, for "the sake of the family." He was singularly free from these romantic encumbrances. By sheer grit and determination he carried himself on, accomplishing, not planning, those deeds which brought him lasting fame. From first to last it was a struggle, unceasing, unending.

One sometimes wonders how different the history of his period might have been if chance had guided his steps into the navy of his own country, where he could have fought alongside Nelson and Howe, in steady command, sure of promotion and the future, and not had to solicit employment which was his by right of ability. Despite the cant of democracy and merit alone succeeding, the United States navy, like those of older lands, was from the first the toy of favouritism. To this may be attributed its early blunders and failures. The navy was controlled by the gentlemen from Massachusetts, and John Quincy Adams, its virtual dictator, filled the desirable posts with those who had the luck to please him, without the slightest reference to their fitness. Nevertheless, war is no respecter of favouritism, and the dire failures, the blunders of the "Commander-in-Chief" and Captain Dudley Saltonstall, who was also dismissed the service, opened the eyes of Congress to the state of things, and served to place Paul Jones in a position free from "the incubus of imbecile superiors." From that moment, to the end of his eventful career, Paul Jones was always the ranking officer on his station, and never afterward served under the orders of a senior.

In person, Paul Jones was about middle height, so slender as to be wiry, so lithe as to be compared to a panther; so swift in his movements that he was described as "chain lightning." Swarthy as a Spaniard, with eyes so grey as to be black in moments of excitement, with a well-turned leg and aristocratic hands and feet, and a wonderful voice which could command sharply or melt into the most winning endearments. Nathaniel Fanning, his friend and shipmate, describes him—

"Though of low stature and slender build, the Commodore's neck, arms and shoulders were those of a heavy-set man. His neck was out of proportion to the rest of him. The strength of his arms and shoulders could hardly he believed; and he had equal use of both hands, even to writing with the left as well as the right hand. He was past master in the art of boxing, and though there were many hard nuts to crack in the various crews he commanded, no one ever doubted that the Commodore was the best man aboard. To all this he added a quickness of motion that cannot be described except by saying that he was quicker than chain lightning. When roused, he would strike more blows and do more damage in a second than any other man I ever saw could do in a minute. Even when calm and unruffled, his gait and all of his bodily motions were exactly like those of the panther—noiseless, sleek, and the perfection of grace, yet always giving one the idea that it would be well to keep out of reach of his paws and teeth.

He always fought as if that was what he was made for, and it was only when most perfectly at peace that he seemed ill at ease, or, at least, restless.

"He was never petulant toward those subordinate to him. Even in cases of failure to carry out his orders or meet his expectations he would be lenient, patient and forbearing so long as he did not detect or think he detected wilfulness or malice. But if he obtained such an impression, there could be no peace with him. He was not a quarrelsome man, in the sense of proneness to pick quarrels; but he was the easiest person I have ever seen for any fighting man to pick a quarrel with.

"In ordinary intercourse, either official or personal, it was a constant delight to be with him, at least for those who by their conduct had gained his esteem; and in his air and manner toward such there was a charm the like of which I have never seen or heard of in any other man."

Even so stolid a person as the old Quaker, Franklin, felt the extraordinary fascination of the sailor's vivid personality, as is readily shown in the letter which he sent, introducing him to the Comtesse d'Houdetot, June 1780—

"No matter what the faults of Commodore Jones may be . . . I must confess to your ladyship that when face to face with him, neither man, nor, so far as I can learn, woman, can for a moment resist the strange magnetism of his presence, the indescribable charm of his manner; a commingling of the most perfect self-esteem that I have ever seen in a man; and, above all, the sweetness of his voice and the purity of his language. I offer these thoughts to the gracious consideration of your ladyship, no less as a warning than as a favourable introduction."

Paul Jones undeniably possessed the powerful charm of an inscrutable personality; none might boast his confidence or read his heart; mystery stir- rounded his origin with an impenetrable veil. The fair sex were his slaves, he had only to choose. His tender chivalry towards all women is often mentioned. His discretion in affairs de coeur was only matched by his popularity and the number of his conquests. Of all this there is no word, no hint in memoir or journal; no yellowing indiscreet letters, lying forgotten in a ponderous coffer heavy with the dust of dead things, betrays the secret kept so well. Intuition whispered that one day the world would wish to know his life, his innermost soul; to dissect his very heart and he destroyed all tokens of the women who had loved him.

To others he was lavish; his own tastes were the most simple; towards his inferiors he behaved with the generosity of a prince; to his sailors he was commander and friend. He never ordered flogging on any ship he commanded, and is known to have personally thrown the cat-o'-nine-tails overboard. On the occasion, years later, when he allowed the look-outs to be punished for dire carelessness, lie—it is said— ordered that the men should be flogged in their shirts, which made the chastisement a farce. He "talked to the men like a father," or, most terrible punishment devised by human cruelty, stopped their grog for three days, which had a chastening effect. He interested the sailors in the smallest details of their work, gave them lessons in rope-splicing, or reproved a young sailor for his "lubberly walk," with a personal demonstration of the correct swagger to be kept in mind by Jack afloat. Every one of those "gun-deck hearties" knew the Captain was the best man aboard, that his methods were summary and much to the point.

"I tell you, my men," he said, "once for all, that when I become convinced that a sailor of mine must be killed, I will not leave it to be done by boatswain's mates under slow torture of the lash; but I will do it myself; and so G— d— quick that it will make your heads swim.

These pacific and briefly expressed opinions, so casually mentioned by their commander, had the merit of letting those "hard nuts" in the various crews he commanded know just where they stood, should occasion arise.

From his earliest life at sea he showed distaste for the tavern brawls and rowdy amusements of Jack ashore, preferring the company of the better classes in the ports visited. His spare time was profitably employed in reading such books as he could obtain, and in the study of naval history. Ambition was bred in his bone. Perhaps it was hereditary; an unconscious desire to take the place in the world that was his rightfully—if one disallows the peasant origin. He was a famous shot with the duelling pistol, which, with his delighted readiness to fight, made men wary of treading too heavily on forbidden ground in his presence.

The more one reads of John Paul Jones, of his ease and perfect sang-froid in the highest society, of his well-turned compliments to royalty, of his never offending the susceptibilities of the French, and, in after years, the Englishmen of rank with whom he formed friendships, the more one is inclined to pause and wonder who his parents really were. It seems incredible, at a time when class distinctions were as rigid as the laws of the Medes and Persians, when education was of the most primitive, that the son of a gardener and a lady's maid could pass the tests to which he was hourly subjected, without once making a fauz pas. Though his detractors were many, and he was called a pirate, a privateer, and by other terms of opprobrium, those who knew him intimately, the royalties by whom he was received, the courtiers and men of letter;, and all those with whom in his active life he came in daily intercourse, have left no comment but that in the highest degree favourable to him. He was elegant in manner, and during the last years of his life so exquisite in his dress as to be remarked in any assembly. Later portraits of him display a foppish niceness most incompatible with the legendary pirate and buccaneer so greatly feared on the boundless ocean. His life was a romance. He appealed to the strongest primitive passion in man the love of fighting, which, civilise us as you may, is only dormant, ready to burst forth at the first beat of the drum. We remember him because he fought and loved it, and because he was victorious. He was a living example of the old saying "There is nothing so successful as success." If he was the unwanted child of a great family, did his mother follow his meteoric career with pride, or with some regret for the part convention compelled her to play?

American politics were in a turmoil, there was much "mounting in hot haste" and galloping about the country. From morning till night Paul Jones was hurrying from one point to another, too busy to mind fatigue, too full of enthusiasm to be daunted by the colossal proportions of the task he had undertaken making a navy without ships, and manning it without sailors. It was on one of these hasty journeys from Philadelphia, while stopping to change horses at Alexandria, that he was wakened out of a clay-dream by the unusual sound of the French and German languages, mingled with broken English; and saw a party of gentlemen trying to make their wants under- stood to the innkeeper, who spoke no language but his own.

This was Jones's first meeting with the rattle-pated Lafayette, who had run away from his home and family to put his finger in the pie of American independence. Lafayette spoke a little English, the Baron de Kalb none at all, so Jones, who was one of the four captains in the United States Navy who spoke French, and the only one to do so fluently, stepped into the breach. Lafayette relates the incident.

"A slender, black-haired, black-eyed, swarthy gentleman in a naval uniform and of most martial and distinguished bearing approached, and said in perfect French—

Pardon, Monsieur; ii me semble que, peut-être, je beuz VOUS aider. En tel cas, commandez, s'il vous Plait.

"Delighted to hear my mother tongue so unexpectedly and so opportunely spoken, I informed the gentleman who we were, and asked whom I might have the honour to address. To which he replied 'f'ai l'honneur d'etre Capitaine de frgate de la marine des Etais Unis; ci on m'apele Paul Jones, a volie service, Monsieur.'

Profoundly acknowledging his courtesy, I at once turned over to Captain Paul Jones the task of composing our difficulties, and instantly discovered that he was a captain in fact as well as by title. The people there seemed to know him well. He assumed an air of easy, though quite imperious, mastery of the situation, and in a very short time our cavalcade was ready to set out. He had an appointment to dine that evening with friends in Alexandria, but upon invitation to join our party, he hastily sent a messenger to cancel the engagement, by reason of a sudden and unexpected pressure of public duty of grave importance,' and journeyed with us thence to Philadelphia."

Of course, Lafayette heartily endorsed Jones's pet scheme of cruising in foreign waters, with the object of harassing the enemy's shipping as much as possible. The new flag of the United States must be displayed on the high seas and enter the ports of other lands, bringing tangible proofs of its existence to the rulers of the old world, before the new republic could hope to be accepted as an accomplished fact. English shipping must be injured to make other nations aware that a new navy had appeared on the seas of the world. Though the successes of the American ships had been gratifying, their fame was local. Vital as it was to the colonists, their struggle was spoken of contemptuously, and not treated with much seriousness, till the Revolution had gone so far that to kill it was impossible. The comatose, bewigged old gentlemen who had the management of the colonies in their hands, were too much wrapped in the cotton-wool of perfect self-content to pull that wool from over their ears, and listen to what was going on in the outside world.

It was Lafayette's idea that a squadron of French ships should he fitted out and sail under the commission and flag of the United States. This course would embroil England and France, and also provide better ships than the United States could construct or buy. He wrote to Washington that "Captain Jones possesses, far beyond any other officer in your service, that particular aplomb, grace of manner, charm of person and dash of character always required to captivate the French fancy." He declared far and wide that Paul Jones was the only captain in the United States Navy qualified to undertake this mission; that "by his knowledge of the French language he fulfilled the first and greatest prerequisite; because," Lafayette said, "it would be useless and perfectly idle to send a captain over there who would need an interpreter."

Lafayette had a great deal to say, and was listened to, being the only one of those distinguished volunteers who came with full, and returned with empty, hands. He was a personal friend of Washington, and essayed to sway that stolid gentleman in Paul Jones's favour on every occasion that arose, though not always with success.

Captain Jones now applied for the Trumbull, one of the thirteen frigates built by Congress, to run against the spite of Mr. Adams, who intended the ship for Dudley Saltonstall; who, having recovered from the effects of his court-martial, was ready for further service. It is strange that one man should hate another in the petty way Adams hated Paul Jones, to whom he always alluded as a "smooth, plausible and rather capable adventurer, with some smattering of general knowledge and a fair command of French and Spanish, due wholly to his earlier career as an English merchant captain trading to the West India Islands and Spanish Main." Mr. Adams maintained that he was a man of no family connection, which, coming from a good republican, in a land where "all men" are declared to have been born "free and equal," is amusing. As to the motive for the dislike, Jones's correspondent, Mr. Hewes, lets the cat out of the bag. One evening in June 1775, Jones was at a party given by Colonel and Mrs. Carroll of Carrollton at their house near the falls of Schuylkill; Mr. Adams was also present.

"Mr. Adams was nothing if not pedantic. In the course of the entertainment he essayed to relate an anecdote of Fontenelle to a group of young ladies, among whom were Miss Betty Faulkner of Virginia and Miss Josephine Mayrant of South Carolina. Miss Faulkner had been educated in France, and Miss Mayrant belonged to one of the Carolina Huguenot families in which French was retained as the domestic tongue. Mr. Adams related his anecdote of Fontenelle in French.

"When he was gone, Jones, at the request of the young ladies, related the anecdote correctly both as to text and accent. One of the younger ladies then asked Jones what he thought of Mr. Adams's French?"

Mr. Hewes asserts that Jones was always reckless with his wit, an assertion which is not confirmed by the study of his life, and "more than once in his career sacrificed an interest for the sake of an epigram. On this occasion, not reflecting that such a bon moe would he likely to find repetition in such a social circle as that was, he replied with mock gravity—

A very free translation being, "It is very fortunate, ladies, for the cause of the rights of man, that the political sentiments of Mr. Adams are not so English as his French is; because, if they were, he would easily be the greatest Tory in the country."

"This delicious but ill-judged satire was not slow in reaching the ears of Mr. Adams, and he ever afterwards hated Paul Jones with all the sturdy hate of the Puritan nature when its vanity is wounded."

If Paul Jones has been represented as something of a fire-eater by certain writers, and called quarrelsome, the facts must be taken into consideration that from his first service in the United States, until his appointment as rear-admiral in the Russian navy, he experienced enough annoyance and hindrance in everything he undertook to arouse the anger of a much milder man. He loathed deceit, and had a profound contempt for those who would shield their incapacity and blunders behind the back of a political godfather in preference to facing the music. When the incompetent Saltonstall stood in the way of Jones's getting command of the Trumbull, he threatened to make public the charges which he had long before made against him, of cruelty to his men, and incivility to his officers aboard the Alfred; which, thanks to political influence, had been kept dark. Jones grew tired of so much procrastination, and "rather vigorously informed Mr. Morris that if he could not secure appropriate action in the regular way, he would conceive it his duty to publish the facts over his own name and on his personal responsibility; as he believed the public entitled to know what kind of a naval servant they had in Captain Saltonstall."

This did not meet the views of Mr. Morris, who thought "it would be a sorry spectacle to see naval officers killing each other when there were so many enemies to be accounted for." . . . Jones bluntly told Mr. Morris that he "considered it his duty to rid the navy of Captain Saltonstall, and if he were denied the opportunity of doing it in the regular way, by court- martial, it was quite immaterial to him what other way must he resorted to." Mr. Morris, amazed at this fierce outbreak, inquired if Jones had taken any advice in this most serious affair? Jones answered that he most certainly had taken advice. "Of whom, pray?" asked Mr. Morris. Of General Cadwalder and Captain Biddle, sir!

"Bless me! " exclaimed Mr. Morris, "the two fieriest and least tractable men in Pennsylvania. Each the soul of honour and the embodiment of courage, but both wholly lacking in prudence and calm judgment where any personal issue is concerned. They will always give you advice to fight, which, by the way, you yourself need as little as any man I know."

There was much heated discussion, which ended in Morris commanding Jones, "as he valued his friendship," to give him all the papers, and proceed no further in the matter. So Jones, unwillingly, against his judgment, did as his friend ordered; but when, two years later, he heard how Saltonstall had lost a fine new thirty-two gun frigate, the Warren, in Penobscot Bay, under circumstances which all his political friends could not prevent from ending his career, he wrote bitterly to Morris: "I have just learned the miserable fate of the Warren. To some extent I reproach myself. If I had obeyed the dictates of my sense of duty in 1777, instead of yielding to the persuasions of the peacemaker, our flag might still be flying on the Warren."

But this is anticipation, and Saltonstall got the Trumbull. Jones appealed to Washington, before whom he laid his ease, "with an earnestness which my recent disappointment about the Trumbull may have made somewhat vehement." Lafayette was present at the interview, also the Generals Knox and "Mad Anthony Wayne." Lafayette made no secret of his sympathies; but General Washington, calm and imperturbable, walked up and down, mostly listening, but now and then asking a question or uttering a syllable of assent. He remained in this mood for some time after I had done. Then, approaching me, he took me by the hand and said: 'Captain Jones, you have conceived the right project, and you are the right man to execute it. I will at once see members of the Marine Committee and insist that you be forthwith provided with the best means at their disposal.'"

Washington did not offer to use his influence to take the Tiumbull from Saltonstall, as it "would cause friction in higher quarters, which he wished to avoid." He was sorry there were not enough frigates for Jones, the sixth captain, to have one. This is an instance where family connection and backing would have decided the matter in the Scotchman's favour. Washington kept his word. Jones was sent to Boston with orders to enlist seamen for his pet project of a European cruise, and take them over on l'Amphirite, a French merchantman, chartered for the purpose. But the captain objected on the ground that, if caught by the English, his ship would be condemned for violation of neutrality, as England and France were not at war, and so the whole thing fell through, much to Jones's disgust.


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