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“An Agreable Voyage”
In which John Jones, né Paul, invades both England and Scotland, despoils a countess, and defeats a British sloop—all in less than forty-eight hours
June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
The record reveals some poignant details. At the time of his death Lieutenant Wallingford had a son two months old. Lieutenant Dobbs of the Drake , who died of his wound thirty-six hours after the fight, had been married three days before. Old Captain Burden lived long enough to be aware that he had lost his ship, and then succumbed to his head wound. Surgeon Green listed the wounded Americans: “…Pierce Powers lost his right Hand, & his left badly wounded. James Falls by a musket shot through the Shoulder. Tho.s Taylor lost his little Finger by a musket shot at the wheel.”
Captain Jones sincerely regretted the loss of life and limb caused by his victory. He meant it when he wrote, “Humanity starts back from such scenes of horror.” At the same time, though, he had reason to be proud. His men had fought bravely, but the main credit for victory unquestionably belonged to Jones. He had overcome both their disloyalty and the valor of the prestigious enemy by his brilliant tactics and determination to win. The victory had converted the Ranger ’s cruise into a military triumph after a series of colorful but disappointing enterprises. Never before had an American defeated a British warship in all-out, one-to-one combat. That Jones’s spirits were uplifted is shown by a flippant gesture that made him a kind of Robin Hood to the villagers of eastern Ireland. The day after the battle Jones set free the fishermen captured on the twentieth, giving them the Drake ’s boat and a present of fifteen guineas for their trip home. According to a local newspaper, “He also gave them a piece of the Drake’s mainsail, which was very much shattered, desiring them to carry it to the Governor of Carrickfergus … and to tell him he had sent it to make him a pair of trousers.”
Yet when Jones reached France he was not universally acclaimed. His progress toward fame had always been hindered by his lack of family connections and political pull. It seemed to him that everyone except his friends persisted in ignoring him. Another year and another ship would have to come before John Paul Jones was recognized as a national hero. But the future commander of the Bonhomme Richard had learned a good deal during his exploits with U.S.S. Ranger ; and in the course of them he had revealed many of the traits in his intricate personality.
Even more about his personality comes to light, however, in the epistolary tour de force that Lady Selkirk received, to her great surprise, in early June. The letter begins by assuring the Countess that the loss of her silver distressed Jones as much as her. Jones describes himself as an “Officer of fine feelings and of real Sensibility.” He justifies having permitted his men to go after the silver on the grounds that British soldiers had committed atrocities in New England that made the men of the Ranger feel obligated to retaliate somehow. However, Jones declares, he gave Cullam and Wallingford firm orders to treat the Countess “with the utmost Respect.” He promises, moreover, that “when the plate is sold, I shall become the Purchaser, and I will gratify my own feelings by restoring it to you, by such conveyance as you shall be pleased to direct.”
Jones goes on to relate his victory over the Drake , thinking, perhaps, to overawe milady with images of “the awful Pomp and dreadful Carnage of a Sea Engagement.” Responsibility for “this detested War,” Lady Selkirk is assured, lies with Britain for having infringed on “the rights of men.” Therefore: “As the feelings of your gentle Bosom cannot but be congenial with mine—let me entreat you Madam to use your soft persuasive Arts with your Husband to endeavor to stop this Cruel and destructive War, in which Britain can never succeed.”
This charming missive mattered so much to its author that he eventually sent the Countess three separate original copies, as well as making copies for various people whose esteem he wished to keep, including Benjamin Franklin in Paris. The old doctor gave it a good review: “a gallant letter, which must give her ladyship a high opinion of his generosity and nobleness of mind.” The letter’s outspoken quality notwithstanding, Jones’s motives in writing it are less than transparent. The egotism with which he had always approached his notoriously successful romantic liaisons may have persuaded him that this woman of such refined tastes was likely to fall in love with him through the mail. But such a conquest could not have been his sole object. His expressed hope that the lady might bring Lord Selkirk to lobby against the war has a convincing ring, since we know that Jones had a greatly inflated idea of the Earl’s political importance. To this extent the captain was writing as a military leader. Beyond this, however, Jones’s best biographer, Samuel Eliot Morison, suggests that the hero harbored dreams of settling down as a Scottish landsman after the Revolution; with his letter he meant to inspire amity in his future neighbors!
This suggestion is a plausible explanation for the most “intimate” passage, in which Jones assumes a confessional tone and tells the Countess indirectly that he has no particular desire to live in America and that he is no stranger to the life of landed gentry.