John Paul Jones
by Frank Walker
Casemate, 278 pp., $32.95
In 1775, John Paul Jones volunteered for a navy that began with eight converted merchant ships. He then went on to fight with effect against the best equipped, best trained, and best led navy of his time. Some called him a hero for what he accomplished. His enemies called him a renegade, traitor, rogue, and villain, treating him with the special disdain reserved for unworthy opponents.
In his introduction to this new assessment of Jones, Frank Walker, who is British, recognizes those two widely disparate views and maintains a balanced position. He also identifies his objective: "I hope that by looking at events from a different viewpoint I have been able to furnish some fresh and valid insights into the man."
While evenhanded, Walker's viewpoint remains distinctly British, and that special perspective translates into an ongoing focus on whether or not Jones was a professional naval officer rather than on broader issues. The author's particular perspective also results in more attention to local details of key events than most studies of Jones.
Walker picks up his story with the dramatic return of Jones's remains to the United States in 1905 and his exploits as captain of the Continental Ship Ranger in 1778. That beginning jumps past the particulars of a number of profoundly formative events, such as Jones's childhood upbringing during the early 18th century's Scottish Enlightenment, his career in Britain's merchant marine, and his successful commerce raiding in the Continental Navy's sloop-of-war Providence in 1776.
Jones's deployment into the Irish Sea in Ranger in 1778 surely was a pivotal point in his career and in the American Revolution, however, and Walker devotes approximately a third of his total text to that connected sequence of three events. In the course of those 80-plus pages, he provides extensive background for the actions. (That background is further enhanced by a 32-page gallery of photos and illustrations.)
Two of the events connected with Jones's exploits in the Irish Sea were planned by him. The planned actions included an amphibious assault against the English port of Whitehaven and the kidnapping of an English nobleman, Lord Selkirk, from his home on St. Mary's Island.
In Walker's coverage of these events there are comprehensive descriptions of the local populace and the physical setting in which the actions took place. For example, there are three pages devoted to the question of how many and what kind of cannons were involved in Whitehaven's defenses. The third event in Jones's Irish Sea deployment involved chance: a single-ship engagement between Ranger and a British warship of comparable size, HMS Drake. Again, Walker puts heavy emphasis on the details, and particularly on Jones's problems with his crew, but his conclusion is concise: "The victory was well deserved and it was in fact the very first time that a British warship had been defeated by one flying the stars and stripes of the United States of America."
As described here, those three events in the Irish Sea illuminate themes that are particularly important in evaluating Jones's significance as a historic figure. The first involves the ongoing tensions between Jones and his crew in Ranger, which was constantly on the edge of mutiny. Jones's difficulties with his crew were a striking example of the variety of daunting noncombat challenges that ran through his astonishing career, and that he overcame against long odds.
The second theme in the description of Jones's deployment in the Irish Sea involves the author's continuing attention to the sharply contrasting view of Jones as a commissioned officer in the Continental Navy and the assertively negative British view of him as a privateer--or worse, a pirate.
The third theme involves the psychological impact of Jones's activities in Ranger on British public opinion, the Admiralty, and in Whitehall generally. In this instance, the book's narrative benefits from the inclusion of a number of British newspaper accounts of Jones's attack on Whitehaven.
Among the conclusions to be drawn from Walker's analysis of Jones's Ranger deployment are that Jones was able to overcome a lot more than the challenges of combat in the course of his career, and based on his conduct, he also clearly deserves to be defined as a professional naval officer.
Arguably more important, but not explored, is the conclusion that Jones's attacks in Ranger against the British Isles had a strategic effect on the American Revolution that went beyond the victory of one relatively small Continental Navy ship over a comparable Royal Navy vessel. Those attacks enabled Jones to get inside the British military decision cycle, an achievement of inestimable value to the American cause in their War of Independence, and a point consistently missed by many analyses of Jones's career.
Walker's link between Jones's deployment in Ranger and its follow-up attack with a stronger force is established with a chapter describing Jones's efforts in France to secure a more powerful ship for a more telling blow against the British homeland. It was during those efforts with his French benefactors that Jones wrote one of his most character-revealing lines: "I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm's way."
Once again, the formidable noncombat problems that Jones had to overcome to pursue his implausible career are in evidence, as are speculations by Walker about the possible financial motivations driving the French, Jones, and his American civilian supervisors in Paris.
Towards the end of his chapter on Jones's efforts to mount a second attack against Britain's home shores, Walker has it right when he describes Jones's departure in 1779 in the Continental Navy Ship Bonhomme Richard and a mixed squadron of American and French ships. Alluding to a just-failed French invasion of England, he writes: "They were quite unaware, that far from being a mere sideshow, the enterprise upon which they had just set out would in the end turn into the main event."
Jones's orders from Benjamin Franklin were quite liberal, the best kind for an aggressive naval officer, and he took his small squadron up the Atlantic coast of Ireland, over the north tip of Scotland, and then down the Yorkshire coast, attacking British commerce along the way. In a reprise of his mission in Ranger, he roiled the country- side by his presence, and despite the fact that his plans for major attacks against Leith, Edinburgh, and Newcastle were thwarted by circumstances.
In another similarity with his Ranger deployment, Jones experienced ongoing command problems. But this time the problems were not with the crew of his own ship but with the other captains in his squadron, particularly Pierre Landais in the American frigate Alliance. In this instance, as Walker points out, Jones's command problems were precipitated by an agreement, forced on him by his French benefactors, which authorized his captains to ignore any orders from Jones that they felt were not in their individual interest! That was a guarantee for discord throughout Jones's entire deployment in Bonhomme Richard, and there were times when his deployment could well have foundered on that discord.
Still, the most significant parallel between Jones's mission in Bonhomme Richard and his previous attack against the British Isles was that it ended with a single-ship action. In the latter case, the battle was between Jones in Bonhomme Richard and the experienced British captain Richard Pearson in HMS Serapis. That action took place off Flamborough Head, not far from the port of Scarborough, and once again, the result was a decisive victory for Jones and the capture of his adversary.
The action was immortalized by Jones's improbable response when asked if he had struck his colors--"I have not yet begun to fight"--and this time the battle's outcome resonated, and not just in the American colonies and in Britain, but in the capitals of Europe as well.
After Jones's victory off Flamborough Head and the 1783 Treaty of Paris, the new United States entered a period when it actually had no navy at all. At that point Jones entered the navy of Catherine the Great as a rear admiral and led a Russian fleet to victory over a Turkish force at the Battle of the Liman in 1788.
In the end, Jones wound up back in France, where he had earlier become a celebrity of considerable magnitude. At that point, however, he was yesterday's hero, and he died alone in a modest rented apartment in Paris in 1792, was buried in a small cemetery outside the Paris city limits, and was forgotten for more than a century.
Notwithstanding this somewhat abridged view of the life of the man Theodore Roosevelt described as having earned "deathless fame," John Paul Jones: Maverick Hero deserves a place on the shelf of anyone with more than a passing interest in the Revolutionary
War, and in particular, anyone interested in the British perspective on the Continental Navy's best-known naval hero.
Joseph F. Callo is the author of John Paul Jones: America's First Sea Warrior.