Running into John Paul Jones in Paris

Brenda and I were on our way to dinner with our French friends Catherine and Jacques when Catherine was talking about her decision years ago to give up a good paying job and start her own small business in France. She acknowledged that there was risk in starting her small business, but she said it provided her not only with enough money to live on, but also the freedom to live the kind of life she wanted. Brenda and I acknowledged that freedom was a big factor in our own experience as owners of a small business. Then Catherine said, “On n’a rien sans risque” (one has nothing without risk), which called to my mind the saying in English, “those who will not risk cannot win.” My search to find the owner of that phrase lead me on another Paris adventure.

Crypt of John Paul Jones at the US Naval Academy

Crypt of John Paul Jones at the US Naval Academy

I searched the Internet for the source, figuring I had probably learned it years ago from Reef Points, the manual of style issued to freshmen (called Plebes) at the U.S. Naval Academy. Reef Points contained a treasure trove of famous naval sayings that we plebes were supposed to be able to recite at any given moment. The source of the quote was John Paul Jones, not the one who played for Led Zeppelin, but instead the most famous American naval officer of the Revolutionary War. He was buried in the crypt of the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel at Annapolis, Maryland, a tomb I knew well from my midshipman days. The 21 ton marble sarcophagus and perpetual honor guard are not perhaps as magnificent as the tomb of Napoleon at Invalides in Paris (after which it was modeled), but I would say the tomb is competitive in grandeur with the tombs of Washington and Lincoln.

On the Naval Academy’s public affairs web page I also learned that John Paul Jones died alone in a Paris apartment and was first buried in Paris, where his body remained for more than 100 years before being taken to America. How did he end up in Paris? Here is a short version of how that happened.

John Paul Jones is a fascinating character. He was born John Paul in Scotland in 1747 and started working on merchant ships when he was 13. He first became master of a ship when his ship’s captain and first mate died of yellow fever, and John returned the ship and crew home to safety. On his second voyage as master, he flogged and accidentally killed a member of his crew. He then decided to leave Scotland and become captain of an English flagged vessel in the West Indies. During that stint he again killed a crew member, this time in self defense during a dispute over wages. So he decided to move again in the early 1770s, leaving his fortune behind and traveling to Fredericksburg, Virginia, where he expected to live with his brother. Unfortunately, he found that his brother had recently died, leaving neither family nor heirs, so John set about putting his brother’s affairs in order. It was during this time that John Paul took the last name of Jones. The exact reason why remains a mystery. In 1775 he moved to Philadelphia seeking to volunteer for the newly formed Continental Navy.

John Paul Jones by Moreau le Jeune - 1780

John Paul Jones by Moreau le Jeune – 1780

With the help of members of the Continental Congress, Jones gained appointment as a first lieutenant in the Continental Navy. In 1776 he was assigned command of the sloop Providence and quickly established himself in action against the British in Nova Scotia. At the same time he had a disagreement with his commodore (a recurring theme in Jones’s career) and was reassigned to another ship, USS Ranger, and was sent to France with the hope that he would be able to engage the British in their home waters. In 1778 France signed a treaty formally recognizing the new American republic. The French Navy rendered their first salute to Captain Jones and Ranger. Subsequently Ranger departed to find targets to attack in England. After some coastal raids that startled the British, Ranger successfully attacked and captured the British sloop of war HMS Drake near Carrickfergus castle in Northern Ireland, a place we have previously visited. There was again a dispute in the victory, Jones accusing a junior officer of crimes so that he alone would be seen as the hero. All was eventually resolved and the parties moved on.

In 1779 Jones took command of a larger warship, Bonhomme Richard, which he sailed into British waters with a squadron of five colonial ships in the company of French and Spanish fleets. It was here that he had his most famous battle with the British frigate HMS Serapis (the Battle of Flamborough Head). Jones and his crew succeeded in capturing Serapis, lashing the two ships together so they could board and defeat the British crew. They sailed both ships back to Holland, but unfortunately the Bonhomme Richard was too badly damaged in the fight and sunk enroute. When questioned by the Captain of Serapis early in the battle whether the Americans had struck the colors of their smaller ship, outmanned and outgunned, Jones reputedly uttered his most famous saying, “I have not yet begun to fight!”

Thus John Paul Jones had made a name for himself as ship Captain in the two most significant victories against the British in the Revolutionary War. Symbolically they raised confidence both for the Colonists and for the foreign nations supporting their cause. King Louis XVI of France awarded Jones the French title of “Chevalier” (knight).

John Paul Jones apartment was in this building at 19 (then 42), Rue de Tournon, Paris - just a stone's throw from the Luxembourg Palace.

John Paul Jones apartment was in this building at 19 (then 42), Rue de Tournon, Paris – just a stone’s throw from the Luxembourg Palace.

Placard on Jones former residence on Rue de Tournon, Paris.

Placard on Jones former residence on Rue de Tournon, Paris.

In 1782 Jones was waiting for another American command, USS United States, but before the ship was finished the government decided to give it to France as a replacement for the wrecked La Magnifique, a French ship lost in Boston Harbor during the war. Jones was given an assignment to return to Europe to recover prizes owing to the US from the War, but this assignment didn’t provide steady work. In 1787 he signed a contract with Catherine the Great of Russia to become a Rear Admiral in the Russian Navy and to help Russia engage the Turkish Navy in the Black Sea. He once again had military success, but also again had difficulty with his boss, Russian Prince Grigory Alexandrovich Potëmkin. Potëmkin is also the source of the adjective Potemkin, meaning something having a false or deceptive appearance – but that is another story. Potëmkin opposed Jones’s military successes, preferring that another Russian Prince receive credit for them. Potëmkin eventually found a way to discredit Jones and send him back to Saint Petersburg. There Jones was later accused of the rape of a 12 year old girl. He was exonerated with the help of the French representative at the Russian court and left Russia a failure. He solicited to serve with other European governments, but had no success. He returned to Paris in 1790 and retired, living alone in an apartment on Rue de Tournon, a short distance from the Luxembourg Palace (today’s French Senate). The French Revolution had already started, but Louis XVI was still King.

On July 18, 1792, Jones died alone in his room of pneumonia and a kidney ailment. He was 45 years old. This quote from an article by J. Dennis Robinson describes Jones as he was in Paris,

According to Jones’ biographer Samuel Eliot Morison, the Chevalier’s worst enemy was ultimately his own “colossal egotism.” His tireless self-promotion and self-aggrandizing, in the end, simply became tiresome. He lived and died a very lonely man.

A life mask made for this sculpture of Jones was used by French doctors to confirm his identity when his body was recovered from a former French cemetery.

A life mask made for this sculpture of Jones by Jean Antoine Houdon in 1780 was used by French doctors to confirm his identity when his body was recovered from a former French cemetery.

The French government had Jones body placed in a lead lined casket purchased by a friend and buried in the Saint Louis Cemetery, which was a special burial ground for foreign protestants. It was located near the Canal Saint Martin and today’s Saint Louis Hospital, near the corner of Rue des Ecluses Saint-Martin and Rue de la Grange aux Belles. The cemetery was sold as a parcel of land after the French Revolution and was later used as a garden, a place to bury animals, and a place where gamblers bet on animal fights. Even later it was paved over and buildings were constructed upon it.

A century thereafter, President Teddy Roosevelt elevated Jones to the status of hero. He wanted to build up the US Navy and persuaded Congress to authorize $35,000 to bring John Paul Jones back to the United States. The American Ambassador to France, Horace Porter, conducted a search for six years before succeeding in 1905 in locating and identifying Jones’s body. Searchers located the casket by using metal sounding rods to bore into the ground at the former cemetery. When Jones was first buried, the French embalmed the body and sealed the casket so that Jones’s remains would be well preserved. They hoped that America would someday retrieve their lost hero. A team of French physicians made a positive identification by comparing facial measurements with a life mask previously used for a sculpture of Jones. His body was sent on a train to the coast and transferred to a U.S. Navy ship for transport back to the United States. In April 1906 more than 1000 people attended a memorial service at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. In addition to Ambassador Horace Porter, speakers included the Governor of Maryland and President Teddy Roosevelt, who used the memory of Jones to advocate a more powerful US Navy. As one article said, “in the end Jones got what he had always wanted, permanent honor and attention.”

All of this was a surprise to me. I went to Rue de Tournon and found Jones’s residence, which I had passed many times before. The place where he was buried is just over a mile north of us, a neighborhood we have visited before, but in no way resembling the cemetery where he was originally buried.

You may get the sense that Jones reputation was rehabilitated at the start of the 20th Century. At the time of his death he was alone and unwanted. Gouverneur Morris, then Minister of France for the US, ordered as inexpensive a funeral as possible, and he chose not to attend. There was no effort to return Jones’s body to the United States. Jones had been cantankerous and left few if any friends in Paris. In the 19th century American authors painted him as an adventurous hero. The British viewed him as a pirate. The US Navy’s Officer Corps did not regard him or the limited events of the Continental Navy as important to the history of the US Navy. After more than 100 years, a US President hoping to build a strong navy helped fund the search for Jones body, and once found, ensured his return to the US as a naval hero. A biography of Jones in 1900 written by Augustus C. Buell painted Jones as a highly professional officer who could be quoted and studied as part of the development of a professional officer corps. Unfortunately, Buell invented some of the source material he used in his biography, including at least one of Jones’s quotes used in the Naval Academy Reef Points. Jones’s quote “those who will not risk cannot win”, is still widely published, though I think that quote too is a forgery. The only source I could find attributed the quote to Jones’s letter to French Admiral Kersaint in 1791, which has been identified as a forgery of Buell. Nonetheless, Jones reputation as the father of the Navy’s officer corps and model of a professional officer was confirmed more truthfully by others and seems to have survived.

So let’s see now…I was looking for the source of an American quote so I could tell our French friend Catherine about it. You should have seen me trying to relate this story to her in French. In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell summarized the monomyth common to the structure of all myths about heros.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons upon his fellow man.

As for many, the journey of John Paul Jones from human to hero was bigger than his life.