Some Leadership Principles Of John Paul Jones, In His Own Words

John Paul Jones, in a 1781 portrait [PD: US]

I have lately had the pleasure to read some of John Paul Jones’s correspondence during the American Revolution.  It was a surprise to me how many notables he communicated with—not just with his political superiors, but with Benjamin Franklin, the King of France, Lafayette, and many others. 

He was bold, assertive, and could be prickly; but these traits must be forgiven as the necessary accessories of maritime command in wartime.  It is also easy for us to forget that behind every great commander is a loyal and resourceful crew; and when this combination functions in harmony, the results are nearly unstoppable.  It was this unity of commander and crew that Apollonius of Rhodes had in mind when he said in his Argonautica (I.105),

No wonder that Argo proved the finest of all ships that ever braved the sea with oars.

As we pore over his letters, we see that a Jonesian philosophy of command emerges.  It is never really codified, as his restless energy left him little time for the labors of pen and inkwell, but it takes shape nevertheless.  I will attempt to set some of them down here, in the hope that they may be of us to us today.

Another portrait of Jones [PD: US]

1.  Give general objectives, and let your men carry out the details as they see fit.  Do not burden your men with too much specificity.    

In other words, “mission type” orders should be preferred.  The commander must allow his men to use their own on-the-spot initiative and judgment to handle the unexpected problems that always arise during operations.  A wonderful example of this philosophy in action is given by a letter from the Continental Congress to Jones, dated June 18, 1777.  In it, the Marine Committee appoints Jones to command the warship Ranger.  The members of the committee provide him with general objectives, yet allow him to arrange the specific details:

In Marine Committee, Philadelphia, June 18th, 1777.

John Paul Jones, Esq. 

Sir, your letter of the 26th May to the Secret Committee was laid before Congress, and, in consequence thereof, the design of fitting the Mellish is laid aside; and you are appointed to command the Ranger ship of war lately built at Portsmouth.  Col. Whipple, the bearer of this, carries with him the resolves of Congress appointing you to this command, and authorizing him, Col. Langdon, and you, to appoint the other commissioned as well as the warrant officers necessary for this ship, and he has with him blank commissions and warrants for this purpose.  

It is our desire that you get the Ranger equipped, officered, and manned as well and as soon as possible, and probably we may send you other instructions, before you are ready to sail. However, the design of the present is to prevent your waiting for such after you are ready for service in every other respect, and if that happens before the receipt of farther orders from us, you must then proceed on a cruise against the enemies of those United States conforming to the orders and regulations of Congress made for the government of the navy; and in conformity thereto take, sink, burn, or destroy all such of the enemies’ ships, vessels, goods, and effects as you may be able.

We shall not limit you to any particular cruising station, but leave you at large to search for yourself where the greatest chance of success presents. Your prizes you will send into such safe ports in these United States as they can reach, your prisoners must also be sent in, and we recommend them to kind treatment. 

Any useful intelligence that comes to your knowledge must be communicated to us whenever you have opportunity.  You are to preserve good order and discipline, but use your people well. The ship, her materials, and stores must be taken good care of, officer to answer to any embezzlements that happen in his department.  You are to make monthly returns of your officers, men, &c. to the Navy Board, you are to be exceedingly attentive to the cleanliness of your ship and preservation of the people’s healths [sic].

You are to afford assistance and protection to the American commerce whenever in your power; and on your return from this cruise, lay copies of your journal and log book before the Navy Board, and inform us the events of your voyage.

We are, Sir,

Your friends and servants,  

John HANCOCK, Robert MORRIS, Philip LIVINGSTON, Benjamin Harrison, A. MIDDLETON, Nicholas Van DYKE, George WALTON.

Congress is essentially telling Jones:  get your gear ready and go attack the enemy wherever you find him!  Congress “leaves Jones at large” to search for the best places and times to carry out his mission.  Jones no doubt imbibed this command philosophy and expected the same sort of initiative from his junior officers.  Today it seems incredible that a commander would be given such latitude and trust; but it suited the conditions and requirements of the time.  We need more—much more—of this philosophy today.  There is too much micromanaging, too much supervision, and too much pointless bureaucracy; these things function only as leaden shoes, inhibiting the conduct of operations.

Jones’s Bonhomme Richard [PD: US]

2.  Treat the enemy with firmness, but also with generosity and courtesy.  Malice is unbecoming in a commander   

One of Jones’s more bizarre exploits was his plan to land on English shores and kidnap the Earl of Selkirk, whom he wished either to ransom or exchange for American prisoners of war.  The sheer audacity of this raid roused a fury in England, where Jones was depicted as a reckless pirate or corsair.  The raid took place on April 24, 1778; and although it failed in its objective, Jones’s men carried off a great quantity of Selkirk’s wife’s silverware.  Jones dutifully preserved the silver plate, and returned it to Lady Selkirk after the war had ended.  Here is one of the more remarkable letters he sent to her:

Paris, Nov. 8th, 1784.

The Right Hon. Countess of SELKIRK.


Since the moment when I found myself under the necessity to permit my men to demand and carry off your family plate, it has been my constant intention to restore it to you, and I wrote to you to that effect from Brest, the moment I had arrived there from my expedition in the Irish Sea. By the letter which I had the honor to write to Lord Selkirk, the 12th of February last, which will accompany this, I have explained the difficulties that prevented the plate from being restored until that time.  

I had expectation, all the last summer, that opportunities would have offered to send it by sea from L’Orient to London; but being disappointed, I applied to government for leave to transport it through the kingdom by land, and the Duke of Dorset has been so obliging as to write to the custom-house at Dover, requesting them to let it pass to London, without being opened.  It is now arrived here, and will be forwarded immediately to your sister in London, under the lead that has been affixed to the case that contains it, by the Farmer’s General at L’Orient, and the seal of the Duke of Dorset, that has been affixed to it here.

The charges to London are paid, and I have directed it to be delivered at the house of your sister. I could have wished to have ended this delicate business by delivering the plate to you at St. Mary’s Isle, in Scotland; but I conform to the arrangement made between Lord Selkirk and Mr. Alexander, because I have no person in London whom I can charge with the transportation of the plate from thence.  Enclosed is the inventory that I have just received from Mr. Nesbitt, from L’Orient, which I presume you will find to correspond with the one he sent last year to Lord Dare, and with the articles which you put into the hands of my men.

I am, Madam, with sentiments of the highest respect,

Your Ladyship’s most obedient, and most humble servant,

Paul Jones    

In August of 1785, Lord Selkirk confirmed that his wife’s silver had been restored to her.  He graciously extended his thanks to Jones, and made sure that the news of Jones’s restitution was made public.  Selkirk’s letter to Jones ends with the following words:  “Some of the English News-Papers, at that time, having put in confused accounts of your expedition to White-haven and Scotland, I ordered a proper one of what happened in Scotland to be put in the London News-Papers…by which the good conduct and civil behavior of your officers and men was done justice to and attributed to your orders, and the good discipline you maintained over your people.  I am, Sir your most humble Servant, Selkirk.”  The heart gladdens to read of these chivalrous exchanges, and of the mutual affection that even rivals can preserve for one another.  It is the distillation of magnitudo animi, or greatness of soul.    

Jones’s house

3.  Keep yourself ready for serviceThe good leader responds without hesitation when his country calls him

In a letter to one M. de Sartine dated September 13, 1778, Jones makes clear how he sees himself and his involvement in the Revolutionary War:

I am not a mere adventurer of fortune. Stimulated by reason and philanthropy, I laid aside the enjoyments of private life, and embarked under the flag of America when it was first displayed. In this line my desire of fame is infinite; and I must not so far forget my own honor, and what I owe to my friends and to America, as to remain inactive.  My rank knows no superior in the American marine.  I have long since been appointed to command an expedition with five of its ships, and I can receive orders from no junior or inferior officer whatever.

In a letter to the King of France dated October 19, 1778, Jones said much the same thing:

Although I wish not to become my own panegyrist, I must beg your majesty’s permission to observe, that I am not an adventurer in search of fortune, of which, thank God, I have a sufficiency.  When the American banners were first displayed, I drew my sword in support of the violated dignity and rights of human nature; and both honor and duty prompt me steadfastly to continue the righteous pursuit, and to sacrifice to it not only my private enjoyments, but even life, if necessary.

The sense of stubborn pride is evident, but the point is that Jones saw himself as responding to a call that he could not ignore.  Compare this ethic to what we often see today:  men of means and wealth turning their backs on their nations, seeking only their own material gains, and caring nothing for the societies that allowed them to prosper.   

4.  As a leader, do not accept half-confidences.  Either your superiors believe in you, or they do not.     

I find this principle to be a greatly underappreciated one.  It is all well and good to have a good, well-trained and disciplined crew; but a leader also needs superiors who value and respect him.  Jones says the following in a long and forceful letter to Benjamin Franklin, dated October 3, 1779:

In short, while my life remains, if I have any capacity to render good and acceptable services to the common cause, no man will step forth with greater cheerfulness and alacrity than myself, but I am not made to be dishonored, nor can I accept of the half confidence of any man living; of course I cannot, consistent with my honor and a prospect of success, undertake future expeditions, unless when the object and destination is communicated to me alone, and to no other person in the marine line.  In cases where troops are embarked, a like confidence is due alone to their commander-in-chief.  On no other condition will I ever undertake the chief command of a private expedition; and when I do not command in chief, I have no desire to be in the secret.

Of course, such respect must be earned.  But once it has been earned, it should not be trifled with or revoked without good cause.  If you a leader, and you are managing subordinates, give them your confidence.  Trust begets trust.  I know from my own experience that when someone is overly guarded with me, and does not give me their confidence, I cannot give them my own confidence.

These, then, are some of the foremost leadership principles that emerge from an examination of John Paul Jones’s war correspondence.    



Read more on traits and attributes of great commanders in the new translation of Cornelius Nepos’s Lives of the Great Commanders:


4 thoughts on “Some Leadership Principles Of John Paul Jones, In His Own Words

  1. You might be in the album The Adventures of John Paul Jones by Alan Reid and Rob an Sante. It has several songs related to Jones’ life including the incident with Selkirk and his later service in the Russian navy.

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  2. First, many thanks for introducing me to so many valuable and interesting texts and people, including Cicero, Satullus and John Paul Jones. These have re-inforced in me and conviction that there is very little that is new under the sun, and that much of what is touted as new (“Recent studies suggest that…”, usually followed by some banal conclusion that was already known to ancient Greeks if not before, revealing only the clueless academics’ profound ignorance of their own human race’s achievements), is usually not.

    Re #1, I’ve read that the German soldiers in WWII were so trained and that this aspect was eventually recognized and copied by Allied commanders. Could you comment on this?


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