John Paul Jones : a sailor's biography

by Samuel Eliot Morison

Hardcover, 1959




Boston : Little, Brown, 1959.


A well-documented biography of the man who has been called "the father of the U.S. Navy."

User reviews

LibraryThing member richardderus
The Book Report: Rear Admiral Morison, USNR, was also a professor of American History at Harvard back when that meant something. His reconsideration of the life of Scottish naval hero John Paul Jones did much to strip away false and misleading stories accreted around the American Revolution's most famous navy man, and issuer of the famously defiant "I have not yet begun to fight," which has ensured his place in the American Pantheon of Heroes. What emerges is not quite a modern warts-and-all diminishment of Jones, but a close cousin to it. Jones's many character flaws are not shied away from, nor are they "glorified" in any way. They're merely reported, and even commented upon, as the inevitable consequence of heroes being humans first.

My Review: Informative. Precise. Very well handled in its absence of hero worship or iconoclasm.

Breathakingly boring. The literary equivalent of Xanax. Would not be any more effective at inducing heavy-eyed torpor if one were to be struck repeatedly with it about the head and shoulders. To be avoided unless one is passionate about American Revolutionary figures, and is unfamiliar with Jones's legend. If already familiar with legend, stick to that as there is NOTHING INTERESTING ABOUT THIS MAN.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Samuel Eliot Morison is one of the greatest historians of American history. He loved the sea, and this biography is a tribute to that love. The details of Jones' life are delineated and we experience the excitement of adventure that occurred on the open sea.
LibraryThing member MrsLee
As a rule, sea adventures are one of my favorite genre, american history also, but I couldn't finish this book. I read up to the big battle with the famous, "I have not yet begun to fight." I didn't care for the author's assumptions and negativity. Besides, I fell asleep every time I opened it up.
LibraryThing member setnahkt
By Samuel Eliot Morrison. Never read anything by Morrison before, although I knew his reputation. This biography manages to be both scholarly and entertaining; part of that, of course, is due to the subject. Morrison portrays Jones “warts and all” and the man must have handled a lot of toads in his time.

As the only successful captain in the Continental Navy, Jones was the subject of a lot of hagiography; Morrison has to sift through all this and devotes a whole appendix to debunking various claims about him – that he was the illegitimate son of a Scottish lord, that he served in the Royal Navy, that Napoleon planned to use him in the war against England, and numerous others (Morrison goes so far as to say that a biography of Jones that was once on the required reading list for Annapolis student is a “complete fabrication”.

The truths about Jones are interesting enough. He did serve on a slaver, although he left quickly (Morrison points out that Jones wasn’t interested in anything but naval affairs; he traveled all over Russia and lived in Revolutionary France without ever writing a word about conditions in either place. But he did express his disgust with slavery). He had an eye for the ladies, and this was frequently reciprocated; one French noblewoman wrote offering to leave her husband and stow away on his ship. Although he was usually solicitous for the welfare of his crews there was a lot of grumbling because Jones was frequently away enjoying himself while his ships were in port. His career in Catherine the Great’s navy came to an abrupt end when Jones was accused of raping a 12-year-old girl. Morrison goes into some detail on this, and it’s pretty damning by modern standards. The girl apparently was a prostitute, pimped by her mother. Jones had engaged in what he called ”badinage” with her twice before; the third time, according to Jones’ testimony, she tore her clothes and fled, screaming “RAPE!”. After the police questioned her and her mother – and one expects the police at the time could be fairly persuasive – it was determined that Jones had been set up by his enemies in the Russian navy; someone had hired the girl to seduce Jones and make the accusation. Nevertheless, Jones got himself in the position where the plot would work and Catherine the Great “granted” him an unlimited leave of absence.

For a citizen of the American republic, Jones was quite jealous of rank and title, petitioning Congress to allow him to accept the title “Chevalier” from the King of France and pestering the Navy to promote him to Admiral (there were no admirals in the US Navy until the Civil War). As a self-imposed exile in France at the end of his life he kept proposing grandiose schemes – the conquest of India or the invasion of England, for example – with himself as the focus.

That being said, Morrison allows Jones was an excellent sailor and fighting captain. He won victories over stronger ships – USS Ranger vs HMS Drake and USS Bon Homme Richard vs HMS Serapis. He raided the Scottish coast in the Ranger; a second attempt to raid in the Bon Homme Richard was foiled by a wind shift. His service in the Russian navy was problematical; Morrison argues that Jones’ battle plans were good but were handicapped by internecine warfare between other Russian commanders (he notes that all of the other admirals Jones worked with were foreigners in Russian service as well). Nevertheless, the Russians won the battles (Morrison calls these “The First Battle of Liman” and the “Second Battle of Liman”; Лиман is a Russian word meaning “estuary”, not a place name by itself. The battles are probably more correctly known as the First and Second Naval Battles of Ochakov).

Morrison’s narrative is detailed but straightforward and eminently readable. Illustrations are contemporary paintings or engravings plus photographs of various Jones-related locations. The maps of naval actions are excellent; I’ve noted before how older books that employed professional cartographers get much better maps than modern ones where the authors do their own graphics. The bibliography is extensive; Morrison notes there are a couple of periods during Jones’ life that are unaccounted for – where he didn’t write any letters or get mentioned elsewhere – and expresses hope that something will eventually turn up.
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LibraryThing member mbmackay
This is a great biography - well written and authoritative. But for me the most compelling reaction was to wonder at how bizarre it is for for the subject to be such a USN hero.
He joined the navy on the run from killing one of his crew in the Caribbean and added "Jones" as an alias. He was in the navy for 15 years - most without a ship - and fought only 2 big encounters. He later joined the Russian Imperial Navy until he got busted for sexual relations with a 12 year old girl (but in a Clintonesque admission he denied penetration!). And for this record, his body was moved to the US & re-buried in Napoleonic style tomb at the US Naval Academy!! Only in America.
Read in Samoa Nov 2002
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LibraryThing member WKSpence
Excellent biography. Well written, plenty of details and a very revealing portrait of John Paul Jones. Historical facts, such as his stint in the service of Catherine the Great and the feats of courage and audacity he managed in the sea battles with Turkey were unknown to me.
Surprising facts and revelations about naval warfare . . . or the lack thereof . . . during the American War for Independence.
The famous quotation, "I have not yet begun to fight," was expressed at the perfect moment of probably the only real sea battle of the period. Jones' life was much different than I had either heard or imagined.
He was a patriot but, like all other who aspired to high positions during that period, he wanted a flag command.
He was focused, confident, articulate, and intelligent. Few,if any, of the others who aspired to command positions in the fledgling American navy had either his ability or courage.
William K. Spence, 10-15-07
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