When Thomas Jefferson's letter to Captain John Paul Jones arrived asking him to lead an expedition against Islamic Barbary Pirates in North Africa it was too late. Jones had died days before the letter arrived.
No doubt John Paul Jones would have jumped at the chance to deploy and fight again. After all, he had earlier taken Jefferson's advice to become an admiral in the Russian Navy and serve under Tsarina Catherine in the Black Sea. Two decades earlier he had served under George Washington and other Founders in missions attempting to rescue prisoners of war, even deploying forward into the littorals of England, Ireland and his native Scotland.
Mutinous crews, weather, political circumstances and Jones's own ego often hampered the ship captain's success, however, according to biographer Evan Thomas in "John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy."
David McCullough, author of "John Adams" and "1776," endorses Thomas's book, and that's high praise. "Evan Thomas captures all the incongruities, vanities, blazing ambition, and phenomenal courage of his subject. And, importantly, he writes with vigor and a sailor's knowledge of the sea. The accounts of Jones's historic triumphs in battle and of one terrible storm are brilliant, unforgettable."
Thomas describes life in the age of sail – the stink, disease, rum allowances, cruelty of the lash and close combat.
Two hundred and thirty-five years ago this week (Sept. 23, 1779) aboard the merchantman Bonhomme Richard, Jones achieved immortality in his seemingly hopeless battle against the larger Royal Navy HMS Serapis, cannons muzzle-to-muzzle, a "battle of the tops" – snipers on the sails, cutlasses in hand on deck, Jones standing the face of fire, fearless, unwavering, victorious.
Born from a fleet of privateers the new American navy was a handful of sailing ships whose mission was to intercept British ships. Jones was a gifted seaman, navigator and commander. His patron in the Continental Congress, Robert Morris, saw in Jones "a quality that was utterly missing from the minds of most men of the new Navy." Jones was a "strategic seer."
Jones was effective despite veins of bad luck and occasional bad behavior running through his life. Among the author's descriptions of the great captain/commodore: "thin skinned," "far-sighted but with resentments," "lover of poetry," "whose highs and lows bordered on the manic," "futurist," "shrewd and prescient," "self-centered," "resilient," "articulate," "fastidious," "demanding and brooding," "always keen to burnish his reputation," and "tactless, vain and selfish."
"All through his life, Jones struggled to put forth his more virtuous ... self, his capacity for self-sacrifice and noble-mindedness. But his anger and insecurity eventually showed through. He would have had faster and better ships to sail in harm's way if he had followed Franklin's advice and shared credit more generously and if he had been less prickly and pushy with his superiors. Jones was sufficiently self-aware to know what to do, but tragically incapable of doing it. His ambition rendered him both gullible and self-absorbed. His sarcastic asides and demanding perfectionalism often defeated his efforts to show 'cheerful ardor' and reach out to colleagues. And, yet, his pride masked sensitivity and a longing to be loved and forgiven ... If only Jones had been able to take his own advice and hid his contempt for others, they might have forgiven him. But he could not, and they did not."
|Roosevelt speaks at a Jones commemoration at the Naval Academy, 1906.|
Jones's self-awareness helped him sense change and purpose in the world in the wake of the Enlightenment. He was a true patriot fighting for freedom and against despotism. A contemporary of Thomas Paine, Jones said, "I have drawn my sword in the present generous struggle for the Rights of Men."
Reading about Jones's ego makes a quote that opens the Thomas book all the more poignant. It's from 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt, a man who had a similar driving personality and, as revealed in the recent Ken Burns series on PBS, "The Roosevelts," plenty of personal demons to outrun. Roosevelt, a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, said, "Every officer in our navy should know by heart the deeds of John Paul Jones."
Another book about the deeds and the man – not the myths – was written by the great naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison. He received the 1959 Pulitzer prize for biography for "John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography." Like Thomas, Morison looked behind the curtain of fabrication and fiction to reveal the complicated character of the naval hero.
"For years, Jones had been corresponding with Thomas Jefferson about the fate of 'our poor countrymen' imprisoned by the Dey of Algiers. Jones had been all for raising a fleet to put down the Barbary Coast pirates (hearing of Jones's agitation and employment with the Russian infidels, the Dey had put a price on Jones's head). Lacking the will or funds, Congress had dawdled. But now some thirteen American prisoners, sailors seized from merchantmen and thrown in grim cells of Algiers, were writing pleading letters, saying they would have to covert to Islam if help did not come soon. In the late spring of 1792 Congress was at last moved to create a delegation to negotiate with the Dey. Remembering Jones and his deep concern for the fate of prisoners, Jefferson, the first American Secretary of State, appointed Jones to lead the American delegation. But Jones was dead by the time his commission and instructions reached Paris at the end of July."Jones died at the age of 45. Congress authorized payment of "tributes" as ransom to Barbary Coast Pirates. But, when more tributes were demanded, Jefferson called for a strong naval response, which led to the First Barbary War in 1801.