Really for notions of
childhood romance. When I was growing up in the 1950s, he was a very
romantic figure. My father had been a lieutenant JG in the Navy (in WW2) and
to his generation Jones is a romantic. So that created a lifelong
curiosity in him. It was a book I'd always wanted to write, and I finally
got a chance to write it.
we've not seen books about the American Revolution on the bestseller list.
publisher used to tease me and say -- Why don't you wait for your
retirement for that one? The weather changed a couple of years agoÖbecause
of David McCullough's book on John Adams and because of Joseph Ellis's
book "Founding Brothers", the movie "The Patriot" with Mel Gibson, and
just a general resurgence of patriotism.
But isn't that
ironic? Was Jones, a Scottish soldier of fortune, really an American
would argue that he is mostly interested in himself. He's a very very
self-absorbed glory seeker. But I wouldn't totally discount the
patriotism, because he saw America as a place where you could be
self-made. He was a gardener's son. I think he was condescended to by
Royal Navy Captains when he was in London in the early 17000s and the lord
of manor was snotty to his father. He has a lot of patriotic language in
his letters -- about being proud to raise the American flag on the deck of
the Alfred when the first ship was commissioned.
Didn't Jones get
the same treatment when he was in Portsmouth, NH?
certainly got the same treatment in Virginia and I think the first time
around in Portsmouth. He and John Langdon fight, but Jones ingratiates
himself with the local gentry. I gather from reading other books that
Portsmouth had a very big-time gentry. Gordon Wood, a very good colonial
scholar, writes that outside of Virginia, it had the most established
colonial aristocracy. By the time Jones returns to Portsmouth for the
[warship] America, he was a big deal. He's wined and dined. There are
references in his letters to staying up late and having a big time and
flirting with the ladies.
Jones took the tall
ship Ranger from Portsmouth in 1777 and attacked near his home town at
Whitehaven, England. The raid made him famous.
of the points I try to make in the book is that he was an early terrorist.
He understood psychological warfare the way nobody else did. The
Continental Navy was pitiful and didnít do much, mostly lost ships to the
Royal Navy. He understood the impact that his raid would have on the
British. He causes a sensation in England by his raids. You can read the
local papers that are still around and they get very bent out of shape
about the Pirate Paul Jones and what a buccaneer he is.
And yet there's a
sort of grudging excitement in those accounts, almost a respect for Jones
by the British.
Right. There's a bit of a Robin Hood thing. And also when Jones
takes the Serapis, [the English] are relieved to know that it was at least
done by their cousins. They didn't lose to Frenchmen or Spaniards. There's
some feeling that at least they lost to their quasi-equals. Interestingly
Captain Pearson, when he's handing over his sword to Jones, asks him about
the nationalities of the men on the Bonhomme Richard. He wants to reassure
himself that he lost to Americans. And Jones lies and tells him that it's
mostly an American crew when it was a crew of mixed nationalities.
Very unlike the
Portsmouth-area crew of the Ranger. The diversity and ethnicity of the
Bonhomme crew would make an exciting movie.
was a Tower of Babel, I'm sure. He had Irish marines and French marines. I
list them in the book. He had Hindus aboard and a core of American
sailors, but it was a league of all nations.
We see none of that
in the only film of John Paul Jones from 1959. In that Cold War-era film
Jones was portrayed by Robert Stack as a tall dark Eliot Ness character.
Houdon bust of him, which I think is pretty close to life, shows him as a
handsome man. His eyes are vaguely troubled, but as you know, he was a big
ladies man. He writes a lot of letters when he's a big hero in Paris,
after the Serapis engagement, where he's got pretty high-born French women
swirling around him.
We're lucky that, as a self-promoter, Jones left an awful
lot of his papers that are reasonably accurate, although like most
self-promoters he gilds the lily a bit. Compared to other naval and
Revolutionary figures -- that's a lot of paper -- and that's one reason
why his legend has survived.
history though, doesn't it all come down to who wins the bloodiest
Well sure. His battle [with the Serapis] was not just the bloodiest
battle. In a single ship action, to have fifty- percent casualties was a
very high number. There was a gentlemanly code that you could throw in the
towel if it was getting out of hand. To fight gunwale to gunwale for three
hours and have that kind of casualty rate was unusual and ferocious. If
you read accounts of the Continental Navy, it was a joke, except for John
Barry who fought a few actions.
Beware. You will
get a lot of letters from Barry fans who claim he deserves the title
"Father of the American Navy" instead of Jones.
There's a whole Irish-American entourage. The Hibernians have
claimed Barry and also the naval historical centers
claim Barry. He's their candidate for Father of the American Navy.
What about the
mysterious 20 missing months in Jones' life, the wandering in North
Carolina or wherever he was?
There is this whole legend of him becoming a pirate, but there's
just nothing to prove that.
And another legend
says he joined a theater company!
Right. Morison did a pretty scrupulous job on all that.
Is the lasting
success of Samuel Eliot Morrison's 1959 biography of Jones the reason no
one else has attempted a major biography since?
Morrison is a giant rock in the road because he was the great naval
scholar and he was a thorough researcher. I have to work around that. I do
more gritty detail of the naval battles themselves. Morison did the whole
Serapis action in about five pages. The other thing I did was try to get
into Jones' head.
Wasnít Jones a
very early American superhero? He lived larger than life, designed his own
costume, even had a sort of secret identity by changing his name, like a
sort of Spiderman?
created himself, right down to his name. I look at this whole tension he
has. He knows he shouldn't be too prideful, and he knows he shouldn't be
hurtful, and he knows that he should be good to his fellow officers and
his men -- but he can't help himself. His hubris keeps overcoming his
better instincts. And so heíll make declarations and statements of what a
great officer should be and then he can't live up to it. He never would
have been a good fleet commander. He just didn't have the personality or
It must have been
hard for him sitting around during his two visits to Portsmouth, NH. He
spent 18 months just waiting to get the Ranger and then the America under
sure did. He was a real restless soul. There are moments when you think
he's cracking up. When he was in France after Ranger and before he gets
the Bonhomme Richard, he goes a little crazy. He starts sounding a little
like Captain Queeg [in "The Caine Mutiny"]. He has enemies everywhere.
He's been neglected and forgotten and abused and tricked and badly treated
-- and it's everybody's fault but his own.
His men are always mutinying. It happens again and again.
That's not entirely Jones' fault. Your crowd from Portsmouth [on the
Ranger] wanted to have town meeting. They weren't ready for British naval
discipline. They wanted to vote before they went out.
And then they did
what they wanted anyway.
Ranger officers Thomas Simpson and Elijah Hall were pretty
disrespectful, to put it mildly. They openly mutinied.
how different history would have been had the crew from Portsmouth
just abandoned Jones in Whitehaven as they planned. But ultimately Jones
has one big monster bloody battle. To his credit, when it comes, he
handles it, standing in the thick of battle with the bullets
he was high, he was really high. Today we'd probably say he was bipolar.
There seems to be a kind of euphoria about him. You look at his diaries
and his letters around the time of battle and he's cocksure and talks
about his hairbreadth escape and knight's errant. When he gets away from a
British man-of-war he fires a kind of taunting salute.
So that's what
we're missing from Morrison -- the personality of Jones,. Morrison writes,
to my mind, like he's describing a painting.
Morison was a Boston Brahman and a true Yankee snob. There's a
faint air of mild contempt for Jones. Morison was truly a gentleman of the
old school and he thinks that Jones was not, and he's right. Jones was
not. I'm interested in his whole aspect as a self made man. My
psycho-theory is that Morrison was sort of disapproving of Jones. He saw
him more as a low-born troublemaker who was a good seaman and a good
fighter, but not that interesting a character because he was conceited and
vainglorious and didn't have command of himself.
Isn't that depth
of personality and heroic nature exactly what keeps the Jones story alive?
He's breaking through social class barriers, testing himself at sea,
writing poetry, speaking multiple languages, wooing women, railing against
think he's very 21st century. You'll have to be the judge of
whether I've succeeded at this.
For a man
incognito ducking a murder trial in the West Indies, Jones appears to have
assimilated quickly among the "founding brothers" of the Revolution.
was a historical Zelig. He knew everybody. Jefferson still has John Paul
Jones' bust on a shelf at Monticello. Franklin had a real relationship
with him as did John Adams.
Yet, despite his
fame as a character, he rarely rates more than a paragraph in the
textbooks. He seems to have fallen out of American history.
of the things that fell out is that we've stopped studying military
figures. My kids, who are now a college junior and a high school senior,
you can be sure, did zero studying of military figures -- none. That's a
function of the post-Vietnam era; academics are all to the left and they
donít particularly like or value the military and so that's gone. You've
got to go to West Point to get a course on military history.
Following 9-11 we
should be more able to understand the impact that a single raid can have
on a population. Jones only attacked military targets, and ended up doing
very little damage. Local historians tend to think his effect on the
Revolution was significant.
think it was not tiny. The correct term is psychological warfare. He
"gets" it. He writes a lot of letters laying out his vision of this. By
bringing the war home to the British people he helped show the cost. He's
not out there trying to kill civilians.
Let's go further
psychologically. Do you think Jones was making a point to his father, a
gardener on a Scottish estate?
did a lot of research on William Craik, his father's boss [at Arbingland,
Scotland]. Morrison paints Craik as being a good guy. Well, Craik was not
a good guy. Craik was a wild man who sired bastards and who put peasants
into jail. He was an overbearing character. Jones' father, who was a proud
guy, had to kowtow to Craik.
authority was something his son John Paul could not do well. He had a real
hard time with authority figures.
Jones was born into a deeply stratified world where everybody knows
where they stand in the great chain of being. He was welcomed into this
new world where you can create yourself, where you can make yourself into
a gentleman. He's a very American story, this self-invention. Gatsby --
who knows who he was? Most Americans came from nothing and nowhere and
they created themselves -- and that's what Jones is doing -- that's part
of the American tradition.
Herman Melville even says so. He describes America as "the
Paul Jones of nations." He wrote about Jones as, and I quote: "Intrepid,
unprincipled, reckless, predatory, with boundless ambition, civilized in
externals but a savage at heart."
Copyright © 2003
by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.
Photo courtesy of Newsweek
Book cover courtesy of Simon &