John Paul Jones
Father of the American Navy

1747 - 1792

John Paul Jones is often called the Father of the American Navy. His heroism against a larger and better-equipped fleet established a tradition that has never been forgotten. His reply to a British demand to surrender, "I have not yet begun to fight," has become a famous Navy slogan.

Jones was born in Kirkcudbrightshire (now Dumfries and Galloway Region), Scotland. His name at birth was John Paul. He went to sea when he was 12 years old, and in 1769 was given command of the merchant ship John. On a trip to the West Indies, a sailor died a few weeks after Paul had flogged him. Paul was then charged with murder. However, he was later freed, and became captain of the Betsey in 1773. The crew of the Betsey mutinied, and one of the members of the crew was killed. Paul, again accused of murder, fled to America. There he added Jones to his name, probably to hide his identity.

The outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1775 gave Jones a chance to go back to sea. He received a commission as a lieutenant in the Continental Navy on Dec. 7, 1775, and became first lieutenant of the Alfred, the first naval ship bought by the Continental Congress. In May 1776, Jones took command of the Providence, and in August he was made a captain by Congress. He received command of the Ranger in June 1777, with orders to sail to France. In 1778, in Quiberon Bay, France, the Ranger became the first American ship flying the Stars and Stripes to get a foreign salute. Also in the Ranger in 1778, Jones raided Whitehaven on the Irish Sea coast of England but did not succeed in burning the ships in the harbor. Shortly after the raid, Jones captured the British sloop Drake.

In 1779, Jones took command of the Bonhomme Richard (Poor Richard), which he named in honor of Benjamin Franklin. On September 23, his squadron met a large British convoy in the North Sea. The Bonhomme Richard attacked the leading ship of the force, the Serapis. The Serapis was larger and better armed than Jones's ship, so Jones took his vessel alongside the Serapis. The ships were so close that their rigging became entangled and the muzzles of their guns touched. After three hours of hand-to-hand fighting, the British surrendered. Jones's ship was badly damaged, and sank two days later. Jones then went on in the Serapis.

In 1781, Jones took command of the America, a ship whose construction he supervised. However, the ship was given to France shortly after it was built. Jones then studied naval tactics aboard French vessels for a time. After the war ended in 1783, a move to promote Jones to rear admiral was defeated, and the American Navy was soon abolished. In 1787, the American Congress awarded Jones a gold medal. Also in 1787, Empress Catherine of Russia persuaded Jones to serve as rear admiral in the Black Sea fleet, which was fighting the Turks. Russian officers made Jones's position difficult and his experience was disappointing. He left Russia in 1789 and went to Paris.

Jones was appointed U.S. commissioner to Algiers in 1792 but died before the appointment reached him in Paris. In 1905, Jones was nominated for the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in New York City. But the nomination was rejected because of his Russian service. He was not elected to the Hall of Fame until 1925.

Contributor: James C. Bradford, Ph.D., Prof. of History, Texas A&M Univ.

Additional resources

Morison, Samuel Eliot. John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography. Northeastern Univ. Pr., 1985. First published in 1959.

Walsh, John E. Night on Fire: The First Complete Account of John Paul Jones's Greatest Battle. McGraw, 1978.


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