The John Paul Jones Memorial near the Potomac River was my destination on this bike ride. Located in West Potomac Park near the National Mall, the memorial is situated at the terminus of 17th Street near Independence Avenue (MAP) on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin in southwest D.C.
The memorial consists of a 10-foot bronze statue by American sculptor Charles Henry Niehaus, mounted on a 15-foot marble pylon. On the sides of the monument are ducts, out of which water flows into a small pools on either side. And the back of the pylon includes a relief of Jones raising the U.S. flag on his ship, the Bonhomme Richard, an event which is believed to be the first time the flag was flown on an American warship. The memorial was dedicated on May 16, 1914, and is the oldest monument in Potomac Park. It is part of a group of fourteen statues in D.C. known collectively as the “American Revolution Statuary.” These statues are scattered across the city, mainly in squares and traffic circles, and are listed as a group on the National Register of Historic Places.
John Paul Jones was the United States’ first well-known naval hero of the Revolutionary War. Despite having made enemies among America’s political elites and never rising about the rank of Captain in the Continental Navy, his actions in British waters during the Revolution earned him an international reputation which persists to this day. Based on this, he is sometimes referred to as the “Father of the United States Navy”, an appellation he shares with Commodore John Barry. He is also widely remembered as the Captain of the USS Bonhomme Richard, who, in response to a taunt about surrender from the enemy captain of the HMS Serapis during Revolutionary War’s Battle of Flamborough Head, exclaimed, “I have not yet begun to fight!”
But despite his eventual success and fame, John Paul Jones came close on several occasions to losing out on his place in history. He had an inauspicious start in life, and there were several events early in his career that had the potential to not only end his career, but could have landed him in prison for the rest of his life.
John Paul (he added “Jones” later) was born to John Paul, Sr. and Jean McDuff on July 6, 1747 in Scotland. He started his maritime career as an apprentice at the age of 13, with many of his destinations being near Fredericksburg, in the Province of Virginia, where his older brother William Paul had settled. He worked his way up the ranks on a number of different sailing ships until, having become disgusted with the cruelty in the slave trade, he abandoned his prestigious position as first mate on a profitable ship named “Two Friends” while docked in Jamaica, and found his own passage back to Scotland.
After eventually obtaining another position on a different ship, John Paul’s maritime career unexpectedly took off when both the captain and a ranking mate suddenly died of yellow fever. He was able to navigate the ship back to a safe port, for which the vessel’s grateful Scottish owners rewarded him by making him the ship’s captain.
However, as quickly as his reputation had been earned, it was nearly destroyed during a subsequent voyage. John Paul viciously flogged one of his sailors, which resulted in accusations that his discipline was “unnecessarily cruel.” When the disciplined sailor died a few weeks later, he was arrested and imprisoned for his involvement in the man’s death. After being released on bail, he fled Scotland.
Leaving Scotland behind, John Paul commanded a London-registered vessel named The Betsy, which he sailed to Tobago in the southern Caribbean and made a fortune engaging in commercial speculation. This ended after approximately 18 months, however, when he killed a member of his crew named Blackton with a sword in a dispute over wages. He would later claim that it was in self-defense but, nonetheless, fled Tobago to avoid the hangman’s noose. Leaving his fortune behind, he fled to his brother’s home back in Fredericksburg.
It was at this time that John Paul began using the alias John Jones. At the suggestion of his brother, he began using the name John Paul Jones. Shortly after settling in North America, he went to Philadelphia and volunteered his services to the newly founded Continental Navy at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. And the rest, as they say, is history.