The Revolution’s Caine Mutiny

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“Either Captain Landais or myself is highly criminal, and one or the other must be punished,” Jones complained to Franklin. But the political climate made it imprudent to take such action in France against a French officer, even though he held an American commission, and Franklin referred the issue to the Continental Congress. Whether Landais acted from treachery or made an incredible blunder cannot now be determined. Suffice it to report that the Frenchman was not cashiered from the service at that time. What is more, he had the effrontery to insist that Jones return to him the command of the Alliance, which Franklin had turned over to the peppery Scot. And here the intrigues and feuds among the American commissioners in France—Franklin, Arthur Lee, and Silas Deane—played right into Landais’ hands.

Despite the patent evidence of his instability, incompetence, and possible treachery, Landais was supported in his claim to the command of the Alliance by the quarrelsome and suspicious Lee, a born troublemaker who had a running feud with Deane and Franklin. Out of perversity he encouraged Landais to recover the command of the Alliance. Lee notified Jones that Franklin was without authority to divest Landais of the command of the frigate that Congress had conferred upon the Frenchman. Warning Jones against “a rash and illegal action,” Lee, in a typically self-righteous vein, insisted that his duty to his country and his “love of law and order” impelled him to stop Jones from interfering. John Adams, who took a dim view of his Paris colleagues, later backed up Lee, despite his private reservations about Landais’ character.

Encouraged by Arthur Lee and animated by a consuming envy of Paul Jones, Landais plotted to get the Alliance back. On June 13, learning that Jones had gone ashore, he boarded the ship in L’Orient Harbor at a time when virtually all the officers who had previously served under him were on the quarterdeck and all Jones’s officers were below at dinner. He was greeted with loud huzzas. Jones’s officers were summoned on deck, Landais’ commission from Congress was read to them, and all officers of the late Bonhomme Richard, as well as all others who did not acknowledge his authority, were summarily ordered ashore. Landais would not allow any of the crew to leave, however. Jones’s men were kept in the hold in irons. The rest seemed happy at the coup, as they were dissatisfied by Jones’s delay in distributing their share of the prizes gathered in recent encounters. A notorious martinet himself, Jones was scarcely beloved by his seamen.

When Jones learned how he had been outwitted, he was beside himself. Midshipman Nathaniel Fanning, a loyal Jones supporter, tells us that “his passion knew no bounds; and in the first paroxysm of his rage he acted more like a madman than a conqueror.” But once he regained command of himself, Jones, though normally not distinguished for his prudence, began to behave with surprising circumspection. Instead of confronting Landais and reasserting his rights at once, he chose to run off to Paris to obtain authorization from the American and French governments. Franklin provided him with written instructions explicitly ordering Landais to quit the ship immediately. M. de Sartine, the French minister of marine, issued a warrant in the king’s name for Landais’ arrest.

Meantime the crafty Landais was by no means idle. When Jones returned from Paris on June 20, he found that the Alliance had been moved from L’Orient to nearby Port Louis. Presenting his two orders, Jones called upon the captain of the port, his friend Antoine Thévenard, for help. Among the papers in the Naval Manuscripts Collection of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library is an order by the port officials for the disposition of ships and men to prevent the escape of the Alliance. A boom was promptly moved across the harbor to block Landais’ exit, and a gunboat armed with three 24-pounders and manned by sixty-five men was ordered to stand by to prevent the boom from being cut. Orders were given to the commander of the citadel to fire on the frigate if she attempted to pass. To take the Alliance, Jones was provided with a small flotilla of three warships, along with their armed boats, one hundred soldiers from the garrison, and one hundred marines.

For reasons of prudente or delicacy, Jones abstained from accompanying the expedition. When Landais was called upon to yield the frigate, he replied: “If you come within reach of my cannons I will sink you.” That was enough for the task force. They turned tail and returned to port. And that, surprisingly, was enough for John Paul Jones, too. For some reason he suddenly got cold feet. He had the order to fire upon the Alliance reversed and the boom removed. He justified his strange volte-face in a letter to Robert Morris written on June 27: “My humanity would not suffer me to remain a silent witness of bloodshed between allied subjects of France and America,” he declared. Jones accused the officers of the port of acting “rather like women than men,” but his own indecision and his failure to accompany the expedition reveal him in this episode to have been a bumbler rather than a hero.