James Fenimore Cooper’s “John Paul Jones”: Sketching a Controversial Great Man of the Sea

Emilia Le Seven (Université Sorbonne Nouvelle — Paris)

Presented at the 19ᵗʰ Cooper Seminar, James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art at the State University of New York College at Oneonta, July, 2013.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art, Papers from the 2013 Cooper Conference and Seminar (No. 19), The State University of New York College at Oneonta. Oneonta, New York. Steven Harthorn, editor. (pp. 25-28).

Copyright © 2013, James Fenimore Cooper Society and the College at Oneonta.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Cooper dedicated two texts to John Paul Jones who, though he was glorified in his lifetime by poets like Philip Freneau, still fell into oblivion by the end of his life, and the time he spent in the service of Czarina and despot Katherine II actually cast a veil of shade over his life and his reputation. The first text is The Pilot (1824), Cooper’s famous first sea novel staging John Paul Jones as the mysterious and anonymous pilot of the Ariel and the leader of a fictional mission which partly fails because of the familial and love plot that unreels in parallel to the political one. The second text is a biographical “naval sketch” published in Graham’s Lady’s and Gentlemen’s Magazine (1843), later modified and integrated to his Lives of Distinguished American Officers (1846). The two texts give a rather different image of this historical character. Whereas the biographical sketch allegedly adopts the neutral tone that suits historical works and endeavors to stick to facts so as to give a “just” opinion of the character, the romance depicts a romantic man with Byronic overtones and, paradoxically enough, puts emphasis on his shady facet while he was supposed to embody the national hero throughout the novel. In the last pages of The Pilot, Paul Jones utters invectives against America, qualifying it as a “degenerate Republic” (Pilot, 414), and Griffith (the character in charge of the last part of the epilogue) questions his “love of liberty” (Pilot, 422) as well as his attachment to America. The Pilot thus reintroduces Paul Jones in the national imagination in depicting him as a mysterious and romantic hero, but it also testifies to a rather problematic construction of a national character.

In a note to James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction (1961), Thomas Philbrick reveals that Cooper was dissatisfied with the first portrait of Paul Jones he drew in The Pilot and one may then rightfully infer that the sketch was meant to cast out the author’s regrets. The project of Cooper’s naval sketches aimed at proving that the Navy had the potential to become the main force of the nation, that it deserved a place in American history, and that its men were worthy of interest. The biographical sketch dedicated to Paul Jones is the work of a historian who intends to “find a just opinion of the character,” and I argue that, behind this declared historical project, Cooper subtly revises and rewrites history in order to redeem Paul Jones and give him a place in the national narrative, raising him to the level of a national character.

Although Cooper presents his “John Paul Jones” as a “naval sketch” in the preface to Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers, the text actually doesn’t fit the limits of this genre and draws rather closer to the genre of the “biography,” which Cooper deems a more detailed and developed form. Indeed, conscious of the reader’s possible lack of concern for Paul Jones, or naval characters in general, Cooper declares in the preface to the Lives:

These brief biographies have been entitled “Sketches of Naval Men” in preference to adopting a more ambitious term, for the two following reasons: In the first place, the narratives are confined principally to public events; while, in the second, it may be questioned if any naval man of this country has, as yet, become so far identified with history as to render his personal qualities and private life of sufficient national interest to be properly laid before the world. (Lives, 3; my italics)

Cooper then allegedly opts for the sketch rather than the “nobler” genre of the biography, which is to be reserved for “nobler subjects” that raise “sufficient national interest.” Cooper’s sketch of John Paul Jones, however, is about a hundred and ten pages long, while the other sketches of the two volumes that compose the Lives are much shorter. For example, he dedicates eighty-seven pages to Perry, eighty pages to Preble, seventy-four to Bainbridge, and between twenty-five and fifty pages to Woolsey, Dale, Somers, Shaw and his friend Shubrick. Such a number of pages is obviously too long for a sketch and, this way, Cooper deliberately blurs the distinction he had himself drawn between the “sketch” and the “biography.” This palpable generic indeterminacy due to the unusual length of the text enables Cooper to make of Paul Jones a “nobler” subject de facto and rank him among the “great men.” Read in the light of Thomas Carlyle’s statement that “[the] History of the World was [ ... ] the biography of the Great Men” (Carlyle, 13), Cooper’s Lives may be considered as an act of writing a part of American history that had been neglected so far, that is the history of the Navy, and as a way to support his conviction that “the republic must assert its place in the scale of nations, defend its territory, and maintain its rights, principally by means of a powerful marine [ ... ]” {26} (HofN, xi), as he puts it in his History of the Navy (1839). Playing on this generic confusion between the sketch and the biography, Cooper reintroduces Paul Jones in the national narrative and makes for him a place among the heroes of American history.

But the opinion of the Americans about Paul Jones was divided and “a species of indefinite distrust clouded his reputation even in America.” (JPJ, 111) Measuring the inequality and unfaithfulness of the biographies that had been written about Paul Jones by this time, Cooper declares that he wants to “arrive at a just appreciation between the deeds of the officer and the qualities of the man” (5). A distinction is then made between the “man” and the “officer,” that is between the “historical character” who is the author of actions and exploits at war and at sea, the subject of some famous historical events; and the “idiosyncratic man” (my term). The introductory paragraph suggests that people of opposite opinion regarding Paul Jones actually did not speak about the same entity: those who admired him for his exploits considered the historical man; whereas those who loathed him because of his immoderate ambition and his desire for glory considered the personality of Paul Jones. Cooper’s project to find a just appreciation of the man, I argue, will then be achieved through a reconciliation of these two facets of the character. The last sentence of the text expresses this achievement. Cooper writes that “his deeds were no more than the proper results of the impulses, talents, and native instincts of the man.” (112). The character of Paul Jones recovers his unity at the closure of the biographical sketch once Cooper has shown that it was the idiosyncratic man who was at the origin of the historical and heroic character’s exploits — that his thirst for glory was the driving force of his long praised actions.

Paul Jones contrasts with the classical and noble heroes whose sole exploits at war were sufficient to immortalize their names. Born into a poor Scottish family, he represents a democratic hero, another example of the self-made man. 1 But what makes of him a “great man” is what Thomas Carlyle would have termed his “religion,” a personal ethics that leads his actions and makes of him a model. Though some people, and even Cooper, judged him too ambitious and infatuated of himself, Paul Jones possessed that “great mind” which is necessary to the “great men.” It is this distinctive quality that urges him to “[aim] at high objects, and [keep] an even pace with his elevated views.” (109) In the introduction to History of the Navy, Cooper suggests that it was thanks to such men that not only a great navy and success were made possible, but also that history could be written. Cooper then indulges himself in complimenting Paul Jones and writes: “No sea captain of whom the world possesses any well authenticated account ever attempted projects as bold as those of Jones, or which discovered more of the distinctive qualities of a great mind [ ... ].” (109) The alleged neutrality and objectiveness of the historian professed in the introduction here serves to give credit to Cooper’s laudatory portrait of Paul Jones.

However, the end of this same sentence eventually relativizes the statement: he was the boldest, indeed, but only “[ ... ] if the character of his enemy be kept in view, as well as his own limited and imperfect means.” (109) Paul Jones’ actions are relatively great in comparison to those led by other famous English officers who had at their disposal substantial means and funds. Though Paul Jones has the Kairos and all the qualities of a “great” sea captain, though he is bold enough to dare take a little more risks than a regular captain, his feats do not equate those of famous English sea captains because of this want of funds. This lack of money and means, Cooper argues, prevents the American Navy to fight on an equal step with the British one, thwarts the ambitions of men, or prevents them from achieving war feats at sea with as much “éclat” (97) as Nelson (example taken by Cooper). The sketch is then to be read in the light of Cooper’s criticisms expressed in the introduction to his History of the Navy (1839) and Paul Jones, I argue, becomes the victim of the insufficiencies of the naval policy led by the United-States at that time.

The idea implied here by Cooper is that the nation, in not providing the necessary money for its navy, deprives itself of “illustrious” episodes in history which Paul Jones, or other heroes, could have achieved. The very end of The Pilot is to be read in the same manner when Griffith assures that “had [Paul Jones] lived in times and under circumstances when his consummate knowledge of his profession, his cool, deliberate, and even desperate courage, could have been exercised in a regular and well-supported navy” (Pilot, 422) he wouldn’t have tarnished his reputation. The shady character of Paul Jones, as well as America’s poverty in historical events suitable to a romance (something that Cooper deplored in the 1850 preface to The Red Rover) become here a direct consequence of America’s poor naval policy.

Trying to find the “reason why so much odium as been heaped on the one” (16), Cooper exposes the Americans’ paradoxical relation with seamen and sea-heroes. As bold and heroic as Paul Jones may have seemed, Cooper suggests that one of the reasons at the origin of the national distrust against him comes from his own transatlantic character.

(27}All attempts to brand Jones as a pirate, and as having been peculiarly a traitor to his country, must rest on fallacies for their support; his case being substantially the same as those of Charles Lee, Gates, Montgomery, and a hundred others of merit and reputation; the difference of serving on the ocean, instead of serving on the land, and of being the means of carrying the war into the island of Great Britain itself, being the only reason why so much odium has been heaped on the one , while the others have virtually escaped. (16)

The problem comes from his in-between and transatlantic position. The other captains quoted in the extract were also born on a British soil and rebelled against their native country during the Revolutionary War too, but the difference was their continental character — they were land captains and not sea captains. The firm ground of the land does not raise problem because it is a stable territory which implies a definite identity. The ocean, on the contrary, is a moving, unlawful and intermediary space that allows for the undoing and redefinition of identities. While the revolutionary war demanded to take sides between two continents and two regimes, the maritime and transatlantic nature of Paul Jones inevitably appears problematic, if one bears in mind the transitional position and political neutrality of the ocean. Cooper’s romance The Pilot stages the need to take sides on that matter. If Cecilia (the niece of a staunch Loyalist and the lover of a true Patriot) attempts to remain neutral, if the romance allows in its development the blurring of lines and the search for a neutral position, the end of the romance necessarily reestablishes the categories and demands that each character choose his/her camp. But Paul Jones’ transatlantic position, his commuting between the two continents, and his Scottish accent, make the Americans doubt his allegiance. The Atlantic Ocean is then by itself a no-man’s-land while the conflict demanded a clear positioning. But at a time when the nation had difficulty to find its definition and a form of expression (both political and literary), the ocean appears as the very surface where can be thought and tried an American character in Cooper’s works.

Cooper questions the categories and the common conviction that identity stems from the soil where one was born. One may dare say that the abnormally long sketch dedicated to Paul Jones expresses his importance for our author who might have identified himself with him. Indeed, calling himself a “foreigner in his own country” (The American Democrat, 6) Cooper becomes a sort of transatlantic figure too. He never denied his Americanness and always professed to be a democrat at heart, but he had spent six years abroad in Europe and came back with a critical eye seeing all the imperfections of the American political system. In the sketch under study, the voice of the historian doesn’t situate itself in America, nor in Europe, but somewhere in between–in the intervening space between Europe and America, at sea with Paul Jones. I argue that it is this middle position which permits Cooper to utter his criticisms concerning the naval policy of his time and the American opinion which, as he puts it, was “exceedingly provincial in 1777” and still was so in his time.

That Jones was the subject of many prejudices throughout his life, is beyond a question; and it can scarcely be doubted that some of these feelings had their origin in faults of character. It is highly probable that he had some of the notions that the Englishman, or European, is know still to entertain toward the Americans, and which were much more general half-a-century since than they are to-day, the betrayal of which would be very likely to make friends. It is undeniable that the Americans were an exceedingly provincial people in 1777; nor is the reproach entirely removed at the present time. (26)

The portrait of Paul Jones then becomes the occasion for Cooper not only to criticize the naval policy, but also his own country and its backward provinciality, as he presents it. The resort to Paul Jones as a figure of separatism is like a reminder of the principle of the revolution that threatened to be forgotten in Cooper’s time. The political independence had been won indeed, but the intellectual and cultural one remained to be defended — hence the need to revive and reintroduce the myth of Paul Jones who embodies this search for national liberty through rupture.

Denouncing the provinciality and Englishness of the Americans who were native of the colonies, Cooper now blurs the lines of identity and nationality. He dismisses both the idea that nationality is based on the place of birth and the opinion that Paul Jones shouldn’t have fought against his own native country. The author calls this reasoning a “sickly and superficial sentimentality” (44) and stands against the sentimental rhetoric that used to associate England to the mother country and New England to the rebel child. Significantly enough, Cooper undermines this rhetoric, opposing two sorts of love which I designate by the terms of eros and filia. The latter is to be understood as a sentimental and familial attachment, while the former (eros) is a form of love based on rupture. Cooper writes that “Jones has been censured for having selected the region of his birth as the scene of his exploits. While it had been admitted that he had a perfect moral and political right to espouse the cause of his adopted country [ ... ].” (my italics) Eros (suggested by the verb “espouse”) is the only form of sentimentality that allows freedom because one freely chooses {28} his/her attachment. John Paul Jones is then described by Cooper as a man whose “religion” and mainspring is the search for liberty, the detachment from anything that would coerce his free will. The sketch becomes here a reaffirmation of the principles of the Revolution at a time when the first generation of the “Founding Fathers” had just disappeared and when the memory of this same war tended to be forgotten, as Cooper deplored in the 1823 introduction to The Pilot.

In the last sentence of the sketch, the blurring of identities takes the form of hybridity in the person of Paul Jones. As we have just seen it, an interplay between Americanness and Englishness / Britishness emerges at some points in the text. The last sentence of the sketch may even go further in ranking Paul Jones among the “natives” of the colonies and, this way, it achieves the Americanization of this shady character by Cooper. In the first version of the sketch (published in 1843), Cooper wrote that “his deeds were no more than the proper results of the impulses, talents, and intrepidity of the man.” But in the 1846 version, “intrepidity” was replaced by the expression “native instincts.” (112) By this slight modification, Cooper subtly suggests that Paul Jones deserves his place among those who were American by birth. This place had actually already started to be granted earlier in the text, when the author referred to him as “our hero.” (9) In this passage very akin to a Bildungsroman’s style, for it tells the moment when Paul Jones grows up and develops the qualities of the sea captain he was to become, our attention should maybe not linger so much on the term “hero” than on the possessive pronoun “our.” Pronounced by such a narrative voice, that is the voice of the national historical romancer, Paul Jones is not the hero of the narrative only, but he is raised to the level of a national hero on the part of Cooper.

Melville exploited further the term “native” and played on its ambiguity in Israel Potter (1855). Paul Jones is described as a hybrid figure characterized by both the fiercest savageness and the most refined elegance that are at work in the heart of all modern nations. His savageness hidden under the lace of civilization metaphorizes the savageness of the modern nations themselves that had actually not disappeared in the nineteenth century and which found a new outlet in the imperialist movement that started by the 1850s.

Works Cited

  • Carlyle, Thomas. On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. 1841. Ed. Carl Niemeyer. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore. The Pilot [1824] in Sea Tales: The Pilot, The Red Rover. Ed. Kay Seymour House & Thomas Philbrick. New York: Library of America, 1991.
  • ------. The History of the Navy of the United States of America. 1839. Paris: Galignani, 1839.
  • ------. “Preface.” Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers. Vol. 1. Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1846. 3-6.
  • ------. “John Paul Jones.” Lives of Distinguished American Naval Officers. Vol. 2. Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1846. 5-112.
  • ------. “John Paul Jones.” Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine (1843-1844) 1843: 13-. American Periodicals. Web. 8 May 2012.
  • ------. The American Democrat: Or Hints on the Social and Civic Relations of the United States of America . 1838. Ed. H.L. Mencken. Indianapolis: Liberty Classic, 1931, 1981
  • Melville, Herman. Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile. 1855. Ed. Robert S. Levine. New York: Penguin, 2008.
  • Philbrick, Thomas. James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1961.


1 Historians like Thomas Evan underlined this dimension of Paul Jones’ personality. He was, besides, a friend of Benjamin Franklin.