CHARLESTON, S.C. – When John Paul Jones famously said “I have not yet begun to fight,” he certainly had begun to write as evidenced by letters from the American naval hero that recently surfaced at the Charleston Library Society.
The library has 11 letters totaling 13 pages by the famous Revolutionary War captain many consider the father of the United States Navy.
The letters were written in 1777, two years before Jones is credited with making the defiant taunt in the fight between his ship, the Bonhomme Richard, and the HMS Serapis during the war. They were donated to the library in the 1830s but resurfaced only recently. “They had completely fallen out of institutional memory,” said Rob Salvo, the library’s assistant librarian.
The letters provide a rare glimpse at correspondence between Jones and officials of the fledgling government as the nation tried to build a Navy. Many are addressed to Joseph Hewes, then secretary of the Navy. One was written to Benjamin Franklin, in France at the time, and inquires about the possibility of getting French-built ships.
“At present we have no Navy System or Board of Admiralty without which we can never have a respectable Navy,” Jones wrote in one letter. In another, he outlines “A plan for the regulation and equipment of the Navy.” In it he suggests three shipyards be built — one in New England, one in the Middle Atlantic states and one in the South.
They also depict a man who wasn’t reticent about extolling his own virtues.
“I am determined never to draw my sword under command of any man who was not in the Navy as early as myself, unless he has merited a preference by his Superior Services and abilities,” Jones writes in one letter.
As to serving under such an officer, Jones writes in another “I would lay down my life for America but I cannot trifle with my Honor.”
Jones, born in Scotland in 1747 the son of a gardener, served on merchant vessels before coming to Virginia in 1773 to take control of the estate of his brother who had died. Two years later he joined the fledgling American Navy.
His most famous exploit was the battle with the Serapis off the English coast in which Jones, outgunned, managed to lash the ship and his Bonhomme Richard together to continue the fight with small arms. He eventually forced the captain of the British vessel to surrender. After the war he served in the Russian Navy. He died in Paris in 1792 at the age of 45.
His letters resurfaced when the local chapter of the Naval Order of the United States, hosting the organization’s national conference in Charleston this fall, was looking for a venue for its gathering and approached the Library Society.
That’s when Library Executive Director Anne Cleveland mentioned to organizers the library’s John Paul Jones collection. But beyond a brief in a card catalog, no one was really familiar with exactly what was contained in the letters.
“We vaguely knew we had them. But we had done nothing to share it, talk about it or promote it. We hadn’t even looked at the content of the letters that closely,” Salvo said.
The library is thought to have as many as 110,000 volumes, but the number is not clear because most of the volumes are listed in old card catalogs. The library has embarked on a multi-year effort to completely tally its collection and catalog it on an electronic database.
The volumes are on all subjects with some in the natural history collection dating to the 1600s. The library’s oldest book is a 1492 Bible. In addition to the Jones letters, the library also has letters written by George Washington and Confederate Gen. P.G.T Beauregard whose troops fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor to begin the Civil War.
The John Paul Jones letters were donated in the early 1830s by a Charleston resident, E.R. Shubrick.
“Shubrick was a fairly prominent captain in the Navy and had his own naval history collection,” Salvo said. He said it’s not clear how Shubrick came by the letters but that John Paul Jones was still lionized by the public a half century after the war.
“Everyone still knew Jones and his importance,” he said. “He was cocky and brazen and if he had not been able to back up some of the things he said about himself, he would have been a loser. But he was a hero.”
The letters are written cleanly, with no corrections or strikeouts, added Don Campagna, a member of the local chapter of the Naval Order.
“It was a time of oratory and people just wrote and talked from the heart. It’s brash of a military officer to say something unflattering to someone who, by rank, is a superior,” he said.
The letters will be on display when about 150 people attend the Order’s conference. The Naval Order of the United States was founded in 1890 by descendants of New England sailors who fought in the Revolution. The society is dedicated to recording and preserving naval and maritime history.
The local chapter is now working to raise money to have the letters restored, which can run between $300 and $400 a page.
The Charleston Library Society is the oldest library in the South. It was established in 1748 by 19 Charlestonians who said they didn’t want their children to grow up, as they put it, like savages.