Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Jones, John Paul
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

1747–92, American naval hero, b. near Kirkcudbright, Scotland. His name was originally simply John Paul.

Early Life

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.

Revolutionary War Hero

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.

Later Life

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.

Bibliography
  • See his memoirs (1830, repr. 1972).
  • Koven, A. De, Life and Letters of John Paul Jones (1913).
  • Golder, F. A., John Paul Jones in Russia (1927).
  • L. Lorenz, John Paul Jones (1943, repr. 1969).
  • Johnson, G. W., The First Captain (1947).
  • S. E. Morison, John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography (1959, repr. 1964).
  • Thomas, E., John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy (2003).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

Related Articles


Full text Article JONES, JOHN PAUL (1747-1792)
France and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History

Known as the Father of the U.S. Navy, John Paul (he added Jones later) was born in Arbigland Estate, Kirkbean, Scotland, July 6, 1747. From his...

Full text Article Jones, John Paul (1747 - 1792)
The Macmillan Encyclopedia

He went to America after working in mercantile shipping and on the outbreak of the American Revolution was commissioned into...

Full text Article Jones, John Paul (1747 - 1792)
Bloomsbury Biographical Dictionary of Quotations

I have not yet begun to fight. Retort when informed his ship was sinking Life and Letters of J. P. Jones ( De Koven ),...

See more from Credo