“I have not yet begun to fight!” John Paul Jones captures the Serapis

This thrilling quote is another most Americans know, and say, but don’t know the origins of. Here is the short but epic story of the defiant line and the man who uttered it, John Paul Jones.

Jones (born John Paul) was a Scot who was apprenticed to a ship’s captain and became a sailor. His elder brother William emigrated to America while John served on a few British ships, including slave ships. He was disgusted by the cruelty of slavery, and stopped serving on those ships, working on merchant vessels and rising to the rank of captain.

While slavery may have revolted John, he seems to have had no second thoughts about meting out violent punishment to his own sailors if he felt they deserved it. He brutally whipped one sailor, who died about a month later, and killed another with a sword. John claimed it was self-defense, but he did not wait to see if a court back home in Britain would agree, and fled to America.

He went to Fredricksburg, Virginia, where his brother William had lived and recently died. He decided to stay, and it was at this time that John Paul added Jones to his name, for reasons that are unclear but may have had to do with disguising his identity. When the Revolutionary War began shortly after, Jones traveled to Philadelphia to offer his services to the fledgling U.S. Navy. He led several raids south to the Bahamas, to raid British military supplies, and north to Canada, where he was to try to liberate U.S. prisoners of war. He failed to do this, but did capture the British ship Mellish, which was carrying supplies for British General Burgoyne (whose surrender at Saratoga in 1777 was so critical to the U.S. war effort).

While he was successful, Jones clashed with American authorities in Boston, who sent him to France to do whatever might be done there to help the war effort. John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were in Paris at the time persuading France to ally with the United States and enter the war on the American side, and Jones became friendly with Franklin, When France did enter the war, Jones sailed his ship, Ranger, into British waters to see what damage he could do. He fired on ships at the port of Whitehaven, then crossed to Scotland to try to take the Earl of Selkirk hostage at his estate on St. Mary’s Isle. The Earl was not at home, and after restraining his men from looting and burning the great house, Jones slipped away. Jones and his crew then captured the Drake and brought it to port in Brest.

The capture of the Drake was an important symbolic victory for the U.S., and as a reward he was given command of the Bonhomme Richard, a French ship given to the U.S. for the war effort. It was on this ship, on September 23, 1779, that Jones encountered the Serapis, a new British frigate on her maiden voyage, acting as part of a convoy protecting British shipping from piracy. The Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough, on sighting a French ship flying the American flag, turned to protect their convoy. The Serapis was closest, and Jones launched his attack.

The ships began firing on each other, but knowing that the British ship had more and larger cannon than his own, Jones made the bold decision to move closer to the Serapis and try to lash the two ships together, so that the Serapis could not fire its cannon without damaging itself. As his men struggled to maneuver the Bonhomme Richard, another ship sailing with Jones, the Alliance, tried to fire on the Serapis but hit the Bonhomme Richard, which began to sink. At this point, Jones was asked if he would surrender by a British sailor on the Serapis, close enough now to the Bonhomme Richard for the question to be shouted across, and it was then that Jones uttered his famous retort “I have not yet begun to fight!”

Jones finally succeeded in lashing the two ships together, and his men could pick off British sailors with their guns. The British attempted to board the Bonhomme Richard, and although they were turned back, the American flag was shot away. A British sailor on the Serapis called over to ask if the American crew had deliberately lowered their flag in surrender, an act called striking the flag. Jones called out another salty response that is not as famous as his first: “I may sink, but I’ll be damned if I strike!” Finally, a grenade thrown onto the Serapis exploded a cache of gunpowder on the lower deck, and at last the British captain surrendered. Jones and his men left their sinking ship to board the Serapis and sail it to Texel, a port in Holland. The Bonhomme Richard could not be saved, though its crew tried to repair it enough to get it to port, and they were forced to watch it sink.

For his bravery, Jones was made a Chevalier by France, and in 1787 the Continental Congress struck a gold medal in his honor. Like most American naval officers, he was discharged after the war and left with nothing to do but return to private life, which he did not want to do. He served in the Russian navy of Catherine the Great and died in Paris in 1792. He remains were returned to the U.S. in 1905.

Jones is a mix of the valiant and the troubling. On the up side, he was brave and he rejected slavery, and his victories helped the American cause in the war. On the down side, he could be savagely violent, and if war had not come along one wonders what attacks he might have perpetrated against his crew on an American merchant ship. Perhaps he is best remembered today for his service to the United States at a time when it desperately needed bold action.

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