Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

John Paul Jones
Chapter XV - 1778

WHEN Paul Jones relinquished his command of the Ranger to Simpson, it was on the definite promise of the French government that he was to have the frigate Indien over which there had been so much bickering; without this promise he certainly would not have cut himself adrift from the United States Navy, an action leaving him without occupation or employment in a foreign country. Jones had one great failing, and this was, being a man who lived up to his word, he never could be made to realise that there were many men on whom such an obligation was not binding; and, in this instance of the Indien, the promise was known to and approved by Dr. Franklin, who spoke of it in his letter, dated June 10, 1778, alluding to the wish of the Commissioners to order the Ranger back to America.

"You will judge from what follows whether it will not be advisable for you to propose their sending her back with her people, and under some other command. In consequence of the high opinion the Minister of the Marine has of your conduct and bravery, it is now settled (observe that is to be a secret between us, I being expressly enjoined not to communicate it to any other person) that you are to have the frigate from Holland, which actually belongs to the government, and will be furnished with as many good French seamen as you shall require. But you are to act under Congress Commission.

"As you may like to have a number of Americans, and your own are homesick, it is purposed to give you as many as you can engage out of two hundred prisoners which the ministry of Britain have at length agreed to give us in exchange for those you have in your hands." Here follow some details as to the exchange of prisoners. "If by this means you can get a good new crew, I think it would be best that you are quite free of the old one; for a mixture might introduce the infection of that sickness you complain of. But this may be left to your own discretion. Perhaps we shall join you with the Providence, Captain Whipple, a new continental ship of 30 guns.

"It seems to be desired that you will step up to Versailles (where one will meet you), in order to such a settlement of matters and plans with those who have the direction as cannot well be done by letter. I wish it may be convenient to you to do it immediately.

The prospect of giving you the command of this ship pleases me the more, as it is a probable opening to the higher preferment you so justly merit."

The French Minister of Marine notified the wishes of his Most Christian Majesty to employ the American captain, and the Commissioners as formally signified their acquiescence. They say, "We readily consent that he should be at your Excellency's disposition, and shall be happy if his services may be in any respect useful to the designs your Excellency has in contemplation."

"Though Jones had already some experience of Marine Committees, and of the delays and insolence of office, it was quite impossible that he could have anticipated all the vexatious annoyance in store for him by a proposal which at first sight appeared so fair and flattering. He made his acknowledgments to the minister in his best style; but probably thought less of the "dignity of human nature," the slang of that day, long before all official connexion was finished between them." The Empervier was the ship promised for his command. He suggests various enterprises to be undertaken by himself for harrying the coast of England and Ireland. "To take the Bank of Ayr, destroy that town, and probably Greenock and Port Glasgow, with the shipping in the Clyde," was yet bolder design. "Much," he says, "might be done in Ireland, where ships worth 150,000 livres, or even 200,000, might be seized; London might be distressed by cutting off the supply of coals carried from Newcastle, the fishing at Campbelton might be destroyed, and many towns on the north-east coasts of England and Scotland might be burnt or laid under contribution." There was a project of destroying the Baltic fleet. He emphasises the fact that "the success of any of these, or like enterprises will depend in surprising well, and on despatch both in the attack and in the retreat; therefore it is necessary the ships should sail /as, and that their forces should be sufficient to repel any of the enemy's cruising frigates, two of which may perhaps be met at a time. It is scarcely conceivable how great a panic the success of any one of these projects would occasion in England. It would convince the world that their coasts are vulnerable, and would, consequently, hurt their public credit.

"If alarming the coast of Britain should be thought inexpedient, to intercept the enemy's West India or Baltic fleet, or their Hudson's Bay ships, or destroy their Greenland fishery, are capital objects."

As so often is the case where promises are easily made, nothing materialised. The inactivity and inaction preyed on Jones to such an extent that he wrote on September 13, 1778, an "explicit letter" to M. de Sartine, in a few well-turned sentences expressing the honour which he considered had been done him, when Dr. Franklin told him of de Sartine's intentions. He alluded to his journey to Versailles, in response to those orders, "believing that my intended ship was in deep water and ready for the sea," and of his consequent surprise on learning from the Prince de Nassau, who had just come from inspecting her, "that the Indien could not be got afloat within a shorter period than three months at the approaching equinox. To employ this interval usefully I first offered to go from Brest with Comte d'Orvillers, as a volunteer, which you thought fit to reject. . . . I was flattered with assurances from Messieurs de Chaumont and Bandonin that three of the finest frigates in France, with two tenders and a number of troops, would be immediately put under my command, and that I should have unlimited orders, and be at free liberty to pursue such of my own projects as I thought proper. But this plan fell to nothing in the moment when I was taught to think that nothing was wanting but the King's signature."

He speaks of "the inferior armament," which was to have been sent out from l'Orient, of which he rejoices he did not have the command, the expedition proving a failure; and so he "was therefore saved from a dreadful prospect of ruin and dishonour."

"I had so entire a reliance that you would desire nothing of me inconsistent with my honour and rank, that the moment you required me to come down here, in order to proceed round to St. Malo, though I had received no written orders, and neither knew your intention respecting my destination or command, I obeyed with such haste that, although my curiosity led me to look at the armament at l'Orient, yet I was but three days from Passy till I reached Brest.

"Here, too, I drew a blank; but when I saw the Lively it was not so disappointing, as that ship, both in sailing and equipment, is far inferior to the Ranger."

The conclusion of the next paragraph speaks plainly of a lack of faith somewhere.

"My only disappointment here was my being precluded from embarking in pursuit of marine knowledge with Comte d'Orvillers, who did not sail till seven days after my return. He is my friend, and expressed his wishes for my company; I accompanied him out of the road when the fleet sailed; and he always lamented that neither himself nor any person in authority in Brest had received from you any order that mentioned my name. I am astonished therefore to be informed that you attribute my not being in the fleet to my stay at l'Orient.

"I am not a mere adventurer of fortune. Stimulated by principles of reason and philanthrophy, I laid aside my enjoyments in private life and embarked under the flag of America when it was first displayed. In that line my desire of fame is infinite, and I must not now so far forget my own honour, and what I owe to my friends in America, as to remain inactive.

"My rank knows no superior in the American Marine: I have long since been appointed to command an expedition with five of its ships, and I can receive orders from no junior or inferior officer whatever.

"I have been here in the most tormenting suspense for more than a month since my return; and agreeably to your desire, as mentioned to me by Monsieur Chaumont, a lieutenant has been appointed, and is with me, who speaks the French as well as the English. Circular letters have been written and sent the 8th of last month from the English Admiralty, because they expected me to pay another visit with four ships. Therefore I trust that, if the Indien is not to be got out, you will not, at the approaching season, substitute a force that is not at least equal both in strength and sailing to any of the enemy's cruising ships.

"I do not wish to interfere with the harmony of the French Marine; but if I am still thought worthy of your attention, I shall hope for a separate command, with liberal orders. If, on the contrary, you should now have no further occasion for my services, the only favour I can ask is, that you will bestow on me the Alert, with a few seamen, and permit me to return and carry with me your good opinion in that small vessel, before the winter, to America."

This letter was shown to the Due de la Rochefoucauld, before being sent to Franklin, who, as usual, reiterated his favourite formula of patience. But Jones wrote to him impetuously : "It is in vain for the minister to pretend that he has not ships to bestow. I know the contrary. He has bestowed the Reizornnzée and others here since my return; and there are yet several new ships unbestowed at St. Malo and elsewhere. I know, too, that unless the States of Holland oppose it, the Indien can he got afloat with a tenth part of the difficulty that has been represented. If I was worth his notice at the beginning I am not less so now. After all, you have desired me to have patience, and I promise you that I will wait your kind advice and take no step without your approbation. If it were consistent and convenient for you to see M. de Sartine, I should hope that such an explanation would be the consequence as might remove every cause of uneasiness.

"I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm's way. You know, I believe, that this is not every one's intention. . .

"I have, to show my gratitude to France," he adds, "lost so much time, and with it opportunities as I cannot regain—I have almost half killed myself with grief. Give me but an assurance that the command of the Indien will he reserved for me and bestowed on no other person on any pretence whatsoever, and I will say I am satisfied. This, I pledge myself, will be no loss to France—America is not ungrateful. The noble-minded Congress knows not the little, mean distinctions of climate or place of nativity, nor have they adopted any rule which can preclude them from encouraging or rewarding the merit of a stranger by raising him even to the first posts of honour. In the army there are many instances of this. In the navy, young as it is, it gives me particular pleasure to inform you that Congress have given the command of the best ship in their service to a French officer, and called the ship the Alliance!"

These letters are undoubtedly genuine, yet it seems strangely inconsistent that Jones should have apparently forgotten, or ignored, those slights from Congress, when the promotion of subordinate officers over his head wrought him to a pitch of anger that was not allayed by his consultations with "fiery Nicholas Biddle." In all countries, influence played a part, and, in France, as in America, there were many soliciting the commands aspired to by Jones. The French Navy, at the moment, offered little chance for a "future Jean Bart"; but what of those "political skippers" who had so excited his contempt and fury a few years back?

Again he extols Congress, saying: "M. de Sartine may think as he pleases, but Congress will not thank him for having thus treated an officer who has always been honoured with their favour and friendship."

To Ie Ray de Chaumont he complains, very naturally—

"Although the minister has treated me like a child five successive times, by leading me from little to little, and from little to less, yet I had more dependence on his honourable intentions, until he refused the small command which you asked for me the 23rd ultimo, and afterwards bestowed the Fox on a lieutenant, who, to my certain knowledge, does not thank him for the favour, and thinks that ship far short of his right." Jones lost faith in de Sartine's promises, and refers sarcastically to the interview which de Sartine had with de Chaumont, when the former swore "by the Styx that Paul Jones should have a ship if he had to buy it."

De Sartine did not accord Jones answers to his letters, which was a "piece of incivility and disrespect to me as a stranger which he has not shown even to subalterns in the French Marine, in whose hands I have seen his answers to letters of little importance. The secrecy which I was required to observe respecting what seemed his first intention in my favour has been inviolable; and I have been so delicate with respect to my situation, that I have been, and am, considered everywhere as an officer disgraced and cast off for private reasons. I have, of course, been in actual disgrace here ever since my return, which is more than two months. I have already lost near five months of my time, the best season of the year, and such opportunities of serving my country, and acquiring honour, as I cannot again expect this war, while I have been thus shamefully entrapped in inaction. If the minister's intentions have been honourable from the beginning, he will make a direct written apology to me, suitable to the injury which I have sustained, otherwise, in vindication of my sacred honour, painful as it will be, I must publish in the Gazettes of Europe the conduct he has held towards me."

Franklin and Dr. Bancroft sympathised with the offended captain, and Franklin's grandson, William Temple Franklin, who acted as his secretary, wrote: "Monsieur S.'s conduct towards you has been as remarkable as it has been unjust, and has altered in a great degree the good opinion many have had of him. I have been asked in several companies, Ou est Ie brave Capitaine Jones? que fail-il? and have felt myself (as your compatriot) in a manner ill-treated, when I can only answer that you are still at Brest."

Young Franklin added the consoling information that M. de Chaumont had "certain knowledge M. S. was ashamed of the conduct he had held towards you, and that he was now occupied to make up for it. Bancroft," says he, "is assured that the minister had all along felt good dispositions, but had been prevented from carrying them into execution by the intrigues of 487,557 (the marine), among whom multitudes were making interest, and caballing to obtain 303 (ships) and opposing the disposal of any except among their own body; but 710 (de Sartine) had assured him that you should have one, if he were even to purchase it." He gives Jones the inevitable temporising advice to "wait a week or two, when, if nothing comes, I think 299 (Franklin) will declare his utmost resentment, and nothing that any of us can say will be too bad."

Unaware of this terrible threat, M. de Sartine still procrastinated. The Ranger sailed under command of Simpson, on July 16th, and on the 1st of October Jones was still unemployed, and wrote to Mr. Hewes on the subject"-

"The French have little conception of expeditions such as I propose: projects to harry the coasts and destroy the commerce of the enemy. Their idea is to leave all that to privateers, of which I have already been offered a dozen commands. Some of the ships they fit out as privateers are really respectable frigates in size, and I have seen one, called the Monsieur, that mounts thirty-eight or forty guns. But I do not wish to engage in privateering. My object is not that of private gain, but to serve the public in a way that may reflect credit on our infant navy, and give prestige to our country on the sea. . . . Another obstacle I meet with every day is the jealousy of the French officers. By this I mean not the higher ranks, as d'Orvillers and d'Estaing and de Grasse, but the younger officers in my own grade. You must know that the French navy is not merely aristocratic like the English, but it is wholly a navy of the noblesse. You may think it incredible, but it is a fact that a royal ordinance is in force, not long ago promulgated, requiring that candidates for promotion from lieutenant to captain must first of all produce proof of noble lineage for at least four generations back of their own or must be members by heritage of the order of the Chevaliers of St. Louis! This, as you see, puts an end to the possibility of a future Jean Bart."

Impartially viewing the situation, such jealousy was natural. The army and navy were the only careers open to those nobles, bred of forbears whom Louis XIV's command to live at Versailles, forever in his presence, had reduced to the condition of puppets, with no ambition except to attract the royal smile. The power of independent nobility was dreaded by the French throne, and it was the policy of Louis to have around him at all hours those who might plot, if left to their own devices. Commissions in either service were not gained without fierce and shameful intrigues, whose ramifications extended indefinitely; bribery played its corrupting part, and many a portionless sister prayed her wasted life away in the convent so her brother might swagger with the bravest on the money which should have been her marriage dowry.

"It must, so long as it now stands, shut out talent and merit from all command rank in the French navy," Jones argued in the same letter. "And in the main, leave open the door of preferment to those only who can boast the favour of titled courtiers, or who, in default of aptitude for the naval service, can offer nothing but pedigrees that in most cases argue decay rather than improvement of blood by age of family."

This condition of favouritism was not peculiar to the French navy, as has been shown by the incompetent officers to whom the United States Navy owed its earlier failures, nor did Jones represent it in anything but the true light. He acknowledged facts coldly to Franklin, which, in the letter to de Sartine for some reason or other, he saw fit to view with more partiality. "I have," he declared, "excited the jealousy of many officers in our young navy, because I have pursued honour while they sought after profit." He laments:-

"The Due and Duchessc de Chartres were sure I was to have two frigates lately ready for sea at Brest, one of thirty-six guns to be my own command, and the other to be commanded by a French officer, Captain de Roberdeau, selected by the Duke, I to be the senior officer. To these frigates were to be added two sloops of twenty guns. But at the last moment the two frigates were needed to join the grand fleet of the Comte d' Estaing, and their commands were given to regular French officers."

Being a foreigner, unacquainted with the wheels-within-wheels spinning so busily at Versailles, Jones never seems to have had the idea that his attempts to get a command might have been more successful had he not been a protege of the Due de Chartres. The Due was greatly disliked by the King and Queen, and hated by the two antagonistic political factions and a myriad of personal enemies. The friendship he showed for Jones was very marked, and, from a prince, could not fail to excite remark and create envy in the minds of his associates on whom the favour was not bestowed; and—disliked though he was—de Chartres could not be ignored either in society or politically.

The intrigues of the French party were not the only ones he had to fight, for the Commissioners were never able to agree upon the many arrangements of which they had the making, and there was always the annoyance of Lee's treachery to counteract the few details on which they were of the same mind. Jones, very naturally, resents "the presence of English spies and emissaries in pay of Lord North holding positions under the Commissioners—or one of them, where they have full knowledge of the most confidential proceedings and free access to the most secret papers; and you must see that the path of any one striving to honestly serve our cause here is thick with thorns.

The Commissioners have no resources . . . yet, with all these sinister forces to contend with, do not for a moment imagine that I despair. I am sure I will succeed in the end, though not quite as quickly as I would like, or, perhaps, not on such a large scale. But I will succeed."

But the time for success was not ripe, and there were hours when blank failure seemed to appear as a gaunt spectre, to he swept away by a chance word promising the fulfilment of his desire. De Sartine was, undoubtedly, a man of many flattering words and promises, but Jones states that he "cannot and dare not do what I think he really wishes, because of the high and dangerous cabals of the French officers, who urge that the rules of the service will not admit of giving me command of ships detached from the Royal Marine."

Possibly Paul Jones did not realise at first that there were many who would have preferred him as captain of a privateer where his well-known daring could reap rich profits for the owners of the venture. When at last he did grasp the fact he was highly indignant, and, on November 16th, wrote to Mr. Hewes from Brest;—

"It is now clear to me that they do not intend to give me a regular command. The minister (de Sartine) shuffles all the time with one excuse or another. This makes me believe that it is the fixed intention of the cabal to force me into privateering. There is a strong moneyed and political association, well backed at Court and including, I believe, not a few courtiers, anxious to fit me out with a squadron of privateers or letters-of-marque. M. de Chaumont is at the head of this association. They will give me at least two ships of forty guns each and two or three more vessels of from eighteen to twenty-four guns, with French crews, besides such Americans as I can muster in Brest, Nantes, l'Orient, and Dunkirk, and with such a force I am to put to sea in quest of plunder and to enrich a few French bankers and merchants.

"You need not be told, Mr. Hewes, that this prospect does not suit me. I am not in pursuit of private gain for myself or for others. I hold commission as captain in the regular navy of the United States, which, in my estimation, is not to be outranked by the same grade of commission of even date in any other navy in the world. My sole ambition is to have opportunity of fighting a battle in virtue of that commission, and under our own new flag among nations which that commission entitles me to fly; to fight under such auspices a battle that will teach to the world, and particularly to Englishmen and Frenchmen, that the American flag means something afloat and must be respected at sea.

"To a man of your own perfect perceptions and your own infallible sense of what is proper, Mr. Hcwes, it is not needful to say that no such thing as I have expressed can possibly be done in a private armed ship or under a letter-of-marque, flying no matter what flag. To have any effect in the way of prestige to our infant nation such a battle must be fought under the commission that I have been honoured with by the Congress, and under the flag of our own country.

"However, it wastes time, paper and ink to argue this with you, and, also, as the last reports I have from you indicate that you are yet in feeble health and out of public life, I shrink from the thought of tiring you either with the length of my letter or the troubles of my situation. . . . Of one thing, in spite of all, you may definitely assure yourself, and that is, I will not accept any command or enter upon any arrangement that can in the least bring in question or put out of sight the regular rank I hold in the United States Navy; for which I now, as always, acknowledge my debt to you more than to any other person."

There is far too much correspondence to quote in detail. The whole situation was exasperatingly impossible. No command, nothing definite for the future, nothing but elegantly worded, empty promises; and this to repay Jones for relinquishing a command, to remain in France, at the very particular wish of the Ministry of Marine. Everything seemed to have come to a standstill, even Franklin, the only one of the Commissioners who cared to do anything for Jones, confessed himself powerless to take further steps.

Worn out by all this procrastination, he wrote to the Due de Chartres, explaining the matter at some length, and received the following reply—

"It seems to me that nothing is left for you to do but appeal to the King in person. This will, of course, be unusual, and contrary to strict etiquette of Court. But his Majesty is a man of generous sentiments, and I am persuaded that if the real facts of your situation could be laid before him he would act in your favour. My advice, therefore, is that you write to him frankly, in your own fashion. My good consort the Duchesse will undertake to hand your letter to his Majesty. Her Royal Highness will also interest her sister-in- law, the Princesse de Lamballe, in the affair, and by that means you may have even the acquiescence, if not the support, of her Majesty the Queen."

By one of those strange coincidences, one day, when Jones was impatiently turning over an accumulation of papers, he came across a tattered almanack, published by Franklin, and containing a collection of philosophical sayings called Poor Richard's Maxims. As he indifferently glanced at the pages he was struck with the advice, if a "man wishes to have any business faithfully and expeditiously performed, to go on it himself; otherwise, to send." This struck him as so applicable to his own position that immediately on receiving the Duc de Chartres's letter he went to Paris. When, finally, he received his ship, the Duc de Duras, he obtained permission from the ministry to change the name to the Bonhomme Richard, in compliment to the doctor, who used this as his nom de plume.


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus