Recently, Portsmouth celebrated the 267th anniversary of U.S. naval hero John Paul Jones. Although Jones did reside in the city for a brief period of time, it is an exaggeration to call the house on Middle Street in Portsmouth the home of John Paul Jones. It is merely a place where Jones rested his head for approximately two years while the warship America was being outfitted. However, Jones’ important naval accomplishments during this period are something Portsmouth should be very proud to have been a part of.
In the Portsmouth Herald article reporting on the Jones celebration, a local historian was quoted as describing Jones as a slave trader, pirate and murderer. The article went on to include a simplistic, almost cynical narrative that Jones “fled” to France, where he was buried, only to be dug up to be used as some sort of political prop by Teddy Roosevelt to promote America’s “great white fleet.” This basic narrative does a disservice to a complex man who lived in a turbulent time.
John Paul Jones was a product of the times. His service at sea prior to the War for Independence was that of an able-bodied seaman who was promoted through the ranks due to his superior skills, not his birthright. His actions as a merchant sailor were consistent with the times. These statements neither condone nor condemn some of his actions.
Jones did not begin his career a slave trader, considering he first went to sea at the age of 12 or 13. He did serve as a crewmember on two vessels involved in slave trading. As a British citizen (of Scottish birth), and as the crewmember of commissioned British ships, he participated as many sailors did at the time in a trade that we now universally accept to be foul. He left the business of slave trading out of disgust. Some would argue out of disgust for the treatment of the slaves, others would argue the horrid conditions physically nauseated him. Jones actually left the crew of a slave trading ship halfway through the charter, requiring him to make his own way home. This action lends itself more to a person acting on his conscience, rather than a person who could not stand the smell of the cargo.
To call Jones a pirate is a stretch, but often titles are in the eye of the beholder. One man’s pirate is another man’s soldier. However, in the classical understanding we have of pirates today (Johnny Depp aside), Jones never embarked on a career as a high sea marauder. The fact that no country at the time (prior to his service in the War for Independence) issued a valid decree for Jones’ arrest for piracy historically means he was not a pirate during his days at sea.
During the War for Independence, Jones was accused of piracy (notably for the raid on Whitehaven), but the British accused several Continental Navy officers of piracy, because they looked upon the Continental Army and Navy as traitors, hence illegal. The fact that the Continental Navy promoted and presented several awards (such as the Congressional Gold Medal) to Jones throughout his service is an indicator that the Continental military deemed Jones’ actions consistent with the rules of engagement, often based on British protocol and historical application.
It is true that Jones was charged twice with murder, once for the death of a sailor he had flogged; but later accounts pointed to yellow fever as the eventual cause of death. Later, Jones would be involved in an altercation with a subordinate, believed to be in response to that crewmember’s mutinous behavior. Two men did die, and the circumstances surrounding their deaths are debatable, but without a full discussion of the situation, a blanket label of murderer is unfair.
Jones left America after the War for Independence because he found himself an outcast amongst the new American elite. Jones was promised the command of a new American naval ship, but the cash-strapped Continental Congress would surrender the newly built American ship to the French as repayment of a debt. With the U.S. Navy in flux and his personal wealth waning, Jones would eventually find service as an admiral in the Russian Navy, which he served with honor.
As with Thomas Paine, Jones made his way to France. Why France? Easy, he was revered as a hero in France, having received the honor of the Institution du Mérite Militaire. Jones would serve America in France as U.S. consul to help deal with the Dey of Algiers for the release of American captives. Sadly, Jones died of a kidney disorder before fulfilling his consul duties.
Contrary to misconceptions, Jones did not die a drunken castaway (buried) in a pauper’s cemetery. He was buried in Saint Louis Cemetery, which was owned by the French royal family at the time of his burial, by friends. His body was placed in alcohol, laid in a wooden coffin, which was then placed in a lead coffin (at great expense). This preserved Jones’ body and made his burial unique, but also made it easier to identify. Jones’ friends did this knowing one day America would want Jones back. Because the French believed Jones to be a hero, so must America. A short time later, the French Revolutionary government abandoned the cemetery, which led to its demise. Jones was forgotten to time and a young America dealing with debt and building a new nation.
As to the White Fleet (named because of the color of the ships), this endeavor was well under way prior to Jones’ reinterment. However, Roosevelt did use the return of Jones to promote and display America’s new navy. Roosevelt in fact was enamored with Jones, as he was with most historical military figures. Even so, Jones is part of a long list of heroes whose service to our country was used for political gain. That is not the fault of the servant (Jones), but the transgressions of the politicians.
Jones is many things to many people, which is true about numerous historical figures. When you look at the totality of his life, especially his military naval service, Jones is deserving of the moniker “American hero.” Some people callously throw out terms such as slave trader, pirate and murderer to describe Jones, but as the co-father of America’s Navy, Jones’ legacy deserves an honest and fair review, and not just facetious, abbreviated statements.
As a product of Portsmouth, I have no illusion that Jones was perfect. I know better. We can find flaws, real or exaggerated, in every “hero.” However, we also can find the enduring American spirit in Jones’ most famous words: “I have not yet begun to fight.” It is that spirit we honor, and rightly so.