John Paul Jones “letter” to the “Naval Committee”
Since about the turn of the last century USN midshipmen training in their Annapolis Naval Academy were encouraged to learn and recite about 500 words from a reputed 14 September 1775 letter sent by John Paul Jones to the “Naval Committee of Congress” listing the attributes required of a US naval officer. Jones is regarded as one of the founders of the USN but it is clear that he penned no such letter. Furthermore, no “Naval Committee of Congress” ever existed in 1775, but a “Marine Committee” was founded a month after the letter was claimed to have been written.
John Paul Jones bust, by Jean-Antoine Houdon.
It is by no means enough that an officer of the Navy should be a capable mariner. He must be that, of course, but also a great deal more. He should be as well a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor. He should be the soul of tact, patience, justice, firmness, and charity. No meritorious act of a subordinate should escape his attention or be left to pass without its reward, even if the reward is only a word of approval. Conversely, he should not be blind to a single fault in any subordinate, though at the same time, he should be quick and unfailing to distinguish error from malice, thoughtlessness from incompetence, and well meant shortcoming from heedless or stupid blunder.
The 500-word original “letter” goes on to assert that as well as his native language, a naval officer should be well versed in both French and Spanish, be “familiar with the principles of international law” and the “usage of diplomacy” sufficient for him to “act without … consulting his … superiors at home.” The “letter” also claims that while American ships “must fight for the principles of human rights and republican freedom, the ships themselves paradoxically must be ruled and commanded at sea under a system of absolute despotism.”
Who was Jones?
John Paul was born in a little Scottish estate in 1747, the youngest of five sons. He had a short wiry stature, like Nelson, and at a similar age (but 11 years before Nelson), Paul started his seagoing career. He was apprenticed to a shipping merchant at 13 years of age, until 1764, then sailed in lucrative slave-runners as a mate until 1768. He was returning to England as a passenger in the brig John when both the captain and mate died, but Paul brought the ship into safe harbour and the owners retained him as a captain at age 21.
As captain of the Betsy , instead of paying the crew and allowing them shore leave in Tobago in 1773, Paul invested their money in cargo and stopped their leave. This led to a “mutiny” where a “ringleader” died after a Paul-ordered flogging.1 (Some reports suggest Paul ran the man through with his sword.2) Paul escaped the judicial process by scuttling off to his brother’s Virginia property.
At the outset of the American Revolution in 1775 he changed his name to John Paul Jones and joined the new-found Continental Navy as a junior officer. Appointed First Lieutenant of the Alfred, a converted merchantman of 30 guns, he either distinguished himself or advanced himself sufficiently in a number of small actions to gain command of the 12-gun sloop Providence in 1776. In this ship he evaded the 28-gun HMS Solebay and captured or sank a number of relatively defenceless merchant, fishing and whaling ships.
Sent to France in command of the 18-gun Ranger a year later, he pillaged small British coastal villages, captured the smaller 14-gun HMS Drake and established a close rapport with the Paris-based Benjamin Franklin. In August 1779, in command of the French-loaned 40-gun Bonhomme Richard and with five other ships, Paul ranged up and down Britain’s coast, preying on smaller ships and coastal hamlets. His command of this squadron was not strong. Boats and even ships disappeared without orders. The Frenchman Pierre Landais, captain of the new American 36-gun frigate Alliance, was to prove particularly troublesome.
“I have not yet begun to fight”
In his oft-quoted 1779 “I have not yet begun to fight” (another fabrication, probably by historian Augustus C. Buell) engagement, Jones and his squadron chanced upon the 44-gun frigate HMS Serapis and the 20-gun sloop HMS Countess of Scarborough escorting a 40-sail convoy off Flamborough Head, Yorkshire. In light wind conditions Jones lashed his ship alongside Serapis and slogged it out. Late in this 3½ hours-long night action, one of Jones’s fleet, the “friendly” Alliance, finally drifted into the battle. Instead of lashing his ship to Serapis‘s lee side, thereby ensuring victory, Landais fired deliberately on both vessels and fell away. Nearly half the crews of both ships were killed, but Jones eventually boarded Serapis, which was fortunate, because despite determined efforts to save her, Bonhomme Richard sank some 36 hours later.
Serapis (right) and Bonhomme Richard grapple in a lethal night struggle while Alliance gives a slow and deliberate serve to both ships.
(From a 1980 Richard Paton engraving.)
In sum, Jones was born in Scotland but had a somewhat chequered if not mercenary career, serving as an officer in slave transports, the USN and the Russian Navy. His seamanship skills were unquestioned but he rarely displayed exceptional fighting skills and his leadership was certainly wanting. He did not inspire great loyalty. Unlike Nelson, he was frequently beset by insubordination, open disobedience and even mutiny.
Known for his voluminous correspondence and encouraged by luminaries such as Benjamin Franklin, Jones devoted considerable “angry ant” effort to self-advancement, arguing over “entitlements” and prize money. He was never slow to tell his superiors how to run their navy and train their officers.
Bogle and Holwitt (2004) perhaps best encapsulate the discussions that raged since RADM William S. Sims drew official attention to the “forgery” of the Qualifications of a Naval Officer letter in a memo dated 2 July 1920. In an environment that prides itself on academic honesty and critical thinking, it would be wrong, the highly respected Sims argued, to perpetuate a myth that Jones was the original Qualifications author. Bogle and Holwitt go on to confirm that the entire 500-word quote was a fabrication of one Augustus C. Buell, dating back to 1900.
Others argue that the words are inspiring and if Jones did not write them then perhaps he should have, or in any event he would have agreed with their underlying message. Paradoxically, the quotation inspires its own loyalty adherents, with modern upper classmen, particularly, remaining highly resistant to changing what many call “the moral and intellectual charter of Annapolis.”
All this, of course, is a far cry from the academic honesty to which Annapolis aspires.
1. John Paul Jones. Harpers New Monthly Magazine, Vol 11/62 July 1855. pp 145-170.
2. Naval Historical Center: http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq58-1.htm.
Buell, A.C. Paul Jones, founder of the American Navy. Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York. 1900.
Bogle, L.L., and Holwitt, J.I. The best quote Jones never wrote. Naval history, 18/2, April 2004.
Reef points, 99th ed. U.S. Naval Academy: Annapolis. 2005.