Yesterday’s Final Jeopardy! concerned John Paul Jones. I will confess that I’d never heard of Jones before, so I went to Wikipedia to read about his life and work. At the top, the article describes him as

highly regarded as one of the greatest naval commanders in the history of the United States.

However, I didn’t come away with that impression having read over the rest of the article. Some example quotes:

The fleet [under his command] had been expected to cruise along the coast but was ordered instead by Commodore Esek Hopkins to sail for The Bahamas, where Nassau was raided for military supplies. The fleet had an unsuccessful encounter with a British packet ship on their return voyage.

Jones led the assault with two boats of fifteen men just after midnight on April 23, hoping to set fire to and sink all of the ships anchored in Whitehaven's harbor, which numbered between 200 and 400 wooden vessels and consisted of a full merchant fleet and many coal transporters. They also hoped to terrorize the townspeople by lighting further fires. As it happened, the journey to shore was slowed by the shifting wind, as well as a strong ebb tide. They successfully spiked the town's big defensive guns to prevent them being fired, but lighting fires proved difficult, as the lanterns in both boats had run out of fuel. To remedy this, some of the party were sent to raid a public house on the quayside, but the temptation to stop for a quick drink led to a further delay. Dawn was breaking by the time they returned and began the arson attacks, so efforts were concentrated on the coal ship Thompson in the hope that the flames would spread to adjacent vessels, all grounded by the low tide. However, in the twilight, one of the crew slipped away and alerted residents on a harbourside street. A fire alert was sounded, and large numbers of people came running to the quay, forcing the Americans to retreat and extinguishing the flames with the town's two fire-engines. The townspeople's hopes of sinking Jones's boats with cannon fire were dashed because of the prudent spiking.

The attacks on St Mary's Isle and Whitehaven resulted in no prizes or profits which would be shared with the crew under normal circumstances.

The ships separated during the return journey as Ranger chased another prize, leading to a conflict between Simpson and Jones. Both ships arrived at port safely, but Jones filed for a court-martial of Simpson, keeping him detained on the ship. Partly through the influence of John Adams, who was still serving as a commissioner in France, Simpson was released from Jones's accusation. Adams implies in his memoirs that the overwhelming majority of the evidence supported Simpson's claims. Adams seemed to believe Jones was hoping to monopolize the mission's glory, especially by detaining Simpson on board while he celebrated the capture with numerous important European dignitaries.

I worry that I may be missing the forest for the trees here, but other parts of the article similarly describe instances of failed ventures, difficult interpersonal relationships, etc.

Is there a simple explanation, appropriate for someone like me who has never heard of Jones, as to why he has such a high stature in American history?


  • I think it might be useful to look at other US naval captains of the period. This seems to cherrypick some voyages, but even Wikipedia outlines Jones' victories. Not every combat or every voyage will be glorious. And remember that at the time, there were effectively zero US naval captains with any battle experience. He attacked the UK; something that Napoleon failed to do.
    – MCW
    Commented Mar 16 at 21:03
  • "I have not yet begun to fight"!
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Mar 18 at 16:42


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