The Real Immortal Words of John Paul Jones

Critical Thinking

January 19, 2015
by Michael Schellhammer Also by this Author


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Dear Mr. History:

Please tell me if Continental Navy Captain John Paul Jones was as tough as folklore makes out. I’ve read that he did not really shout “I have not yet begun to fight!” during his famous sea battle, and that he probably said something else. What did Jones really say? Sincerely, Pondering JPJ

Dear Pondering:

John Paul Jones definitely shouted something gutsy and defiant at Royal Navy Captain Richard Pearson during the battle with H.M.S. Serapis, but there are many different versions of his phrasing. But no matter what Jones said, the circumstance and spirit of his famous retort is probably more meaningful.

Make no mistake; John Paul Jones was an absolute nautical bad ass, as his early life and career indicates. He was born John Paul in 1747 in Kirkbean, Scotland, the son of an estate gardener. Instead of following his father into hedges, young John Paul went to sea as an apprentice mariner at the age of 13. By 21 he was captaining ships. In 1773 he came to Virginia on the lam, having ducked away from a potential trial on the island of Tobago for stabbing and killing the ringleader of a brewing mutiny on his ship. The stabbing was in self-defense, more or less, but still, he ran the guy through with a sword, a striking method of conflict resolution that must say something about Jones’s character, to say the least. He assumed the surname Jones in America, offered his services to the Continental Congress when the rebellion began, and in December 1775 gained a commission as a lieutenant in the new Continental Navy.

Jones was also a man of many faces. At 5’ 6” he was of average height but radiated energy and strength. Jones had a fierce temper and tended to be narcissistic, which alienated some fellow captains. He demanded strict obedience from his crews but sometimes failed to give them proper credit for their roles in his victories. Women adored Jones and he adored them. On shore Jones dressed neatly, spoke softly, and carried himself with poise. At sea there was nothing calm about him.

In his first independent command, the sloop-of-war Providence, Jones captured 16 enemy vessels in only six weeks in 1776. After that Congress sent him to operate from France and take the naval war into British waters. In April and May 1778, as captain of the sloop-of-war Ranger, he seized two British merchant ships, captured the sloop-of-war H.M.S. Drake, took over 200 prisoners, and raided the coastal towns of Kirkkudbright, Scotland, and Whitehaven, England. Because of his raid, one English newspaper reported “the people of Whitehaven, it is thought, can never recover from their fright: two thirds of the people are bordering on insanity, the remainder in idiotism.”[1]   This was certainly hyperbole, but one of Jones’s objectives during his Ranger cruise was to spread panic, and in this his “infernal business,” as another newspaper called the raids, succeeded.[2]

In France looking for another ship in November 1778, Jones wrote that he “wished to have no connections with any ships that do not sail fast, as I intend to go in harm’s way.”[3] Unfortunately the best that the American agents in France could find for Jones was a slow, refurbished, 14-year old former French East Indiaman frigate that Jones renamed the Bonhomme Richard. Making things worse was that manning the Richard was a hastily assembled group of Americans, Frenchmen, Irish, Scottish and other nationalities, even Englishmen. Jones later called them “one of the worst crews ever found on a vessel” (apparently forgetting that they fought and died under his command).[4] Jones still sailed into harm’s way with his tub of a ship and motley crew. And that led to his most famous battle.

I won’t retell the battle of Flamborough Head in great detail – it was a complicated event and the subject of books on its own. But I’ll lay out the circumstances that directly led to the battle and apply to the Jones quote in question.

Serapis vs Bonhomme Richard
Serapis vs Bonhomme Richard

In late September, 1779, Jones was in the North Sea in the Bonhomme Richard in command of a commerce raiding squadron consisting of the corvette Alliance, with 36 guns, the French frigate Pallas, 32 guns, the brigantine Vengeance, 12 guns, and the Bonhomme Richard, with 40 guns. After six weeks at sea his ships had seized a few enemy prizes but Jones was hungry for significant action. On September 22 he assembled his squadron off Flamborough Head on England’s east coast hoping to snag merchant ships coming and going from local ports. At about 2 PM on September 23 the Richard’s lookouts spotted the sails of a 41-ship British convoy to the northeast and its Royal Navy escorts, the frigate H.M.S. Serapis, 44 guns, and the armed sloop Countess of Scarborough, 22 guns. “That is the very fleet which I have been so long cruising for,” Jones told his officers on the quarterdeck.[5] He signaled his ships to intercept the convoy.

The Richard and Serapis closed on each other at about 7:00 PM. The skies were darkening, the wind was light and the sea was calm. For various reasons, possibly tactics, miscommunication, or animosity with Jones, the Alliance and Pallas took differing courses.[6] Jones sailed the Richard to “within pistol shot” of the Serapis, intending to get the ships as close as possible before opening fire.[7] Capt. Pearson realized that the ship nearing him was American, and broadsides ripped from both ships.

“The battle being thus begun was continued with unremitting fury” Jones recalled.[8] After about an hour and much maneuvering the ships were side by side, actually lashed together “so close fore and aft, that the muzzles of our guns touched,” wrote Capt. Pearson, and still blasting away at each other.[9] Both ships were on fire but with several holes beneath the waterline and its hull shattered, the Richard took the worst of it. In the distance, the Pallas fought with the Countess of Scarborough.

At about this time the Richard’s master carpenter, John Gunnerson, and gunner’s mate, Henry Gardner, came up from below decks to inform Jones that their ship was sinking. They found an appalling scene; dead and wounded men were lying everywhere, the deck was slippery with blood, groups of sailors fought various fires, and most of the Richard’s guns were destroyed. Gardner could not see Jones, believed that he was the ranking surviving officer, and decided that it was time to give up. He shouted a term for surrender, “Quarters! Quarters!” Unfortunately for Gardner, Jones was very much alive and on a rear deck, helping to man a cannon that blasted at the enemy’s mainmast. Hearing Gardner, Jones became infuriated, lunged after him, and threw one of his two pistols at the man, knocking him out.[10] But Pearson heard Gardner’s cry for surrender, and yelled to the Americans, “Do you ask for quarter?”[11]

In Jones’s battle report, he wrote that he responded to Pearson with “the most determined negative.”[12] Pearson wrote his own report and stated “they called for quarters from the ship alongside, and said they had struck; hearing this I called upon the captain to know if he had struck, or if he asked for quarters, but no answer being made after repeating my words two or three times, I called for the boarders . . ..”[13] Jones reported that the British fought with “redoubled fury.”[14] Wielding a boarding pike, he helped repulse Pearson’s boarders and suffered a wound to his head.[15]

Then, a Scottish sailor in the Richard’s rigging managed to lob an exploding grenade into the main hatch on the British deck. The blast ignited gunpowder bags and fire swept through the Serapis’s gun deck. The Serapis’s cannonball-damaged mainmast was about to fall over, crippling the ship. Only about half of his crew was still in action and Pearson realized that his ship could fight no longer. At about 10:30 PM Pearson finally lowered his colors and surrendered to Jones. The Countess of Scarborough also surrendered to Pallas.

The line between victor and vanquished was slim. More than half of the Richard’s 322-man crew were killed or wounded, and Jones wrote that his ship was a scene of “carnage wreck and ruin.”[16]   A prize crew took charge of the Serapis and Jones’ sailors worked through the night to extinguish the fires on the Richard. The next day the crew worked tirelessly to keep the Richard afloat, including lightening ship by tossing overboard over 100 dead men. By the next night the ship was beyond saving and Jones transferred his crew, prisoners, and commodore’s pennant to the captured Serapis. The Bonhomme Richard sank on Saturday, September 25, and Jones set sail in Serapis for neutral Holland and arrived on October 3.[17]

The battle was instantly famous – hundreds had watched the flaming spectacle from the English coast. Stories about the fight, featuring the Jones-Pearson surrender exchange, appeared in the British press even before Jones dropped anchor in Holland.

On September 30, the London Evening Post printed an account from a group of British prisoners who escaped during the aftermath of the battle. According to them, Pearson asked Jones about surrender and the American captain replied “that he might if he could; for whenever the Devil was ready to take him, he would obey his summons, than to strike to anyone.”[18] A few days later the Edinburgh Advertiser printed an account which said that Jones told Pearson, “I may sink, but I’ll be damned if I strike.”[19] On October 12, the London Observer printed a letter from a writer in Amsterdam who apparently heard the stories circulating while Jones was there soaking up a hero’s welcome. According to this writer, Jones replied, “I have not as yet thought of it, but am determined to make you strike.”[20]

These accounts lasted until after the Revolution, when Jones himself weighed in. Jones was always hungry for glory and in 1785 he needed a job. Hoping to win a French naval commission, he drafted a memoir to impress King Louis XVI. Jones recalled that Pearson yelled to him, “Do you ask for quarter?” and his reply as, “I haven’t as yet thought of surrendering, but I am determined to make you ask for quarter.”[21]

Jones’s own version could have been the proverbial last word on the subject but in 1806 a New York publisher printed an account of the battle by Nathaniel Fanning, a midshipman on the Bonhomme Richard. Fanning wrote that he was at his station in the Richard’s main top when he heard the ship’s gunner, carpenter, and master at arms yell for surrender and the British call for Jones to haul down his flag. Fanning recalled, “Ay, ay,” said Jones, ‘we’ll do that when we can fight no longer, but we shall see yours come down first; for your must know, Yankees do not haul down their colors till they are fairly beaten.”[22]

All of the accounts up to this point portrayed Jones responding to Pearson’s question about surrender with words to the effect of “not only no, but Hell no,” followed by some kind of jab. But they seemed to lack pizazz. As for Jones’s own 1785 version biographer Evan Thomas noted, “even by eighteenth-century standards, that is a mouthful for a man standing at the brink of doom.”[23] It is also possible, if not probable, that Jones cleaned up what was surely colorful battle language for an intended royal audience. In that vein, Fanning’s wordy account sounds a bit unlikely, even fanciful.

The words that stuck in popular culture came in 1825 when a biography of Jones by Henry Sherburne contained an account from Richard Dale, the Richard’s First Lieutenant who was then a retired U.S. Navy officer. As Dale told it, “the English now hailed the Bon Homme, to know whether they had struck. Jones himself answered, ‘that he had not yet begun to fight.”[24] This was probably a very condensed and idealized version of what Jones said. Dale was 65 years old when he passed his story to Sherburne and was recalling events 46 years in the past. Besides, Dale’s station during the battle was on the gun deck, two levels below Jones’s position on the quarter deck so he may not even have overheard the famous exchange.

Nevertheless, and all other accounts notwithstanding, Dale’s “had not yet begun to fight” was a great, eminently catchy phrase. Possibly parroting Dale and Sherburne, in 1848, author Edward Hamilton wrote that Jones replied “I have not yet begun to fight!” in his “Life of Paul Jones.”[25] In 1851, a second edition of Sherburne’s Jones biography contained Dale’s first-person account that also used the full phrase “I have not yet begun to fight.”[26] So, thanks to an old sea dog’s memory, an amateur biographer, and some reprints, a snappy but probably false version of Jones’s refusal to surrender became part of American history. I wonder if the ghost of John Paul Jones wanted to run somebody through with a sword for putting words into his mouth.

So with all of these accounts, I don’t think that anyone knows Jones’s exact words or even his phrasing. Me, I think that Jones said something like the phrases that first appeared in the press in the weeks after the battle, words along the lines of, “I’ll be damned if I strike and I’m getting ready to send you to the briny deep.” That’s consistent with the early accounts, seems not too far away from Jones’s character, and might be something that somebody would actually shout while they were locked in a fight to the death.

However, I don’t think that Jones’s exact words matter all that much. That may be historical heresy, but to me, the important thing is that in the middle of a battle that he was losing, with his ship sinking and burning, guns wrecked, and half his crew dead or wounded, John Paul Jones had a chance to surrender that any normal person would have taken. Instead, Jones told his opponent to go hug a mainmast. The U.S. Navy embraced that indomitable spirit and has been fighting and winning with it ever since, and that’s a much more important part of our national fabric than Jones’s exact words.


There is much, much more to John Paul Jones and his famous battle. To read more, check out John Paul Jones and the Bonhomme Richard: A Reconstruction of the Ship and an Account of the Battle with H.M.S. Serapis, by Jean Boudriot (English translation by David H. Roberts), or John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy, by Evan Thomas.

[1] Gazeteer and New Daily Advertiser, May 5, 1778, in Paul Jones, His Exploits in English Seas During 1778-1780: Contemporary Accounts Collected from English Newspapers, Don C. Seitz, ed. (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1917), 17, accessed via www.archiveorg, November 28, 2014.

[2] The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, April 28, 1778, in Paul Jones, His Exploits in English Seas During 1778-1780: Contemporary Accounts Collected from English Newspapers, Don C. Seitz, ed. (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1917), 5, accessed via www.archiveorg, November 28, 2014.

[3] Mrs. Reginald de Koven, The Life and Letters of John Paul Jones, Volume I (New York: Scribner’s & Sons, 1913), 390. The original quote is contained in John Paul Jones to M. de Chaumont, November 16, 1778, John Paul Jones Papers, Library of Congress.

[4] John Paul Jones’ Memoir of the American Revolution, Presented to King Louis XVI of France, translated and edited by Gerard W. Gawalt (Washington, D.C., Library of Congress, 1979), 26.

[5] Fanning’s Narrative, Being the memoirs of Nathaniel Fanning, an Officer of the Revolutionary Navy, 1778-1783, John S. Barnes, ed. (New York, Printed for the Naval History Society by the De Vinne Press,1912), 33, accessed via, November 29, 2014.

[6] The battle of Flamborough Head involved all the ships mentioned here, but for the sake of brevity, I will focus on the fight between the Bonhomme Richard and Serapis. For the battle details, see the recommendations at the end of this article.

[7] John Paul Jones to Benjamin Franklin, October 3, 1779, accessed November 29 2014 via

[8] Jones to Franklin, October 3, 1779, accessed November 29 2014 via

[9] “Pearson’s Account,” October 12, 1779, accessed November 29 2014 via

[10] Evan Thomas, John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy (New York; Simon & Schuster, 2003), 191.

[11] John Paul Jones, Memoir, 35.

[12] John Paul Jones Report to Benjamin Franklin, October 3, 1779, accessed November 28, 2014, via Founders Online:

[13] “Pearson’s Account,” October 12, 1779, accessed November 29 2014 via

[14] John Paul Jones Report to Benjamin Franklin, October 3, 1779, accessed November 28, 2014, via Founders Online:

[15] Jean Bourdriot, John Paul Jones and the Bonhomme Richard: A Reconstruction of the Ship and Account of the Battle with H.M.S. Serapis, English translation by David H. Roberts (Annapolis; Naval Institute Press, 1987), 83.

[16] John Paul Jones Report to Benjamin Franklin, October 3, 1779, accessed November 28, 2014, via Founders Online:

[17] Bourdriot, John Paul Jones and the Bonhomme Richard, 86-90.

[18] “Affidavit,” in the London Evening Post, Thursday, September 30, 1779, in Seitz, Paul Jones, His Exploits in English Seas During 1778-1780, 55, accessed December 7, 2014, via

[19] Edinburgh Advertiser, October 12, 1779, in Todd Andrlik, Reporting the Revolutionary War, (Naperville, ILL, Sourcebooks, 2012), 268.

[20] “Extract of a Letter From Amsterdam,” London Evening Post, Tuesday, October 12, 1779, Seitz, Paul Jones, His Exploits in English Seas During 1778-1780, 88, accessed December 7, 2014, via

[21] John Paul Jones, Memoir, 35. Jones’s memoir prints the phrase in French. This translation is from Thomas, John Paul Jones, 192.

[22] Fanning’s Narrative, 41-42.

[23] Thomas, John Paul Jones, 192.

[24] Henry Sherburne, The Life of John Paul Jones, from Original Documents in the Possession of John Henry Sherburne, Esq., Register of the Navy of the United States (London; John Murray 1825), 89, accessed November 29 2014 via

[25] Edward Hamilton, The Life of Paul Jones (London: Clark & Son, 1848), 101.

[26] John Henry Sherburne, The Life and Character of John Paul Jones, a Captain in the United States Navy During the Revolutionary War, Second Edition (New York: Adriance, Sherman, & Co., 1851), 121.


  • Great response, Michael. Well, if the famous phrase is not historically accurate, Jones’ first use of the phrase “in harm’s way” is. Reading your article, I was struck by his early use of the words so some mini-research confirmed that his specific phrasing seems to be a ‘first.’

  • Thanks Steven and Don –

    Although these quotes are often wrongly attributed to John Paul Jones, one thing is for sure – his legacy as a bass player and half of Led Zepplin’s rhythm section is undeniable.

  • Very good sifting of sources. I’ve noticed the same patterns in other Revolutionary quotes: mid-1800s authors settling on a phrase that reflects the conflicting contemporaneous accounts but in more forceful language. Also, taking one witness’s words (“that he had not yet begun…”) and putting them into the mouth of a subject (“I have not yet begun…”).

    1. Thanks J.L. – I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that the 19th century writers had good intentions, attempting to speak to the spirit of the events if not the exact wording. I also suspect that we are more concerned with such exact wording than they were.

      And I understand that Jones intended to record with Paul Revere and the Raiders, but Revere did not want to tour.

  • Don’t forget, guys, that Paul Jones was lead singer in Manfred Mann. Aside from any historical significance, the above exchange about John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, along with tie-ins to Paul Revere and the Raiders, and The Monkees is another reason why this site stays so refreshing! Very clever and fun stuff!

  • It seems to me that one of the more fascinating aspects of John Paul Jones career took place after his death and burial…long after. The whereabouts of his burial location and even the cemetery were lost and the area built over. After some sleuthing a tunnel was excavated and JPJ coffin was extracted. To be sure they had the right one the coffin was opened. JPJ now rests at the US Naval Academy in well deserved honor.

  • Many years ago, when I was heavily involved in American Revolution living history, I acquired a old book, possibly an original edition (I don’t remember), by John Paul Jones, titled something like this: “John Paul Jones, Greatest Naval Hero of All Times, written by himself.” Shy, he was not. But shy people don’t accomplish the impossible.

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