John Paul Jones’ Navy letters offer insight centuries later

Naval Order of the United States members David Porter (from left), Hartley Porter and Bob Besal pore over letters written by John Paul Jones. The letters have been part of the collection at the Charleston Library Society since the early 1800s.

Grace Beahm

Navy hero John Paul Jones never had to battle Pentagon bureaucrats. But if he did, his personal messages show him to be a worthy, if not egotistical, adversary.

“I would lay down my life for America,” he says in one letter written early during the American Revolution.

Of his own skills he states:

“My Honor must be saved, I am determined never to draw my sword under the command of any man, who was not in the Navy as early as myself, unless he hath merited a preference by his Superior Services and abilities.”

Some 240 years later, Jones’ 1777 notes and writings are about to take on a new and starring role.

After decades tucked away inside the Charleston Library Society, the writings and correspondence from the man considered a father of the U.S. Navy are in line to be restored and put on display.

Later this fall, the 13 pages spread across 11 letters will be featured by the local chapter of the Naval Order of the United States as it hosts the national meeting of the group in Charleston.

Never actually lost, library curators say it is more accurate to say the letters had disappeared from institutional memory before the conference brought them out to the spotlight again.

Jones had no known ties to South Carolina. His writings joined the Library Society’s collection back in the 1830s as a gift from Navy Capt. Edward Rutledge Shubrick.

The donation came at a time when the original Founding Fathers, and even their children, were drifting into the lost pages of history.

The letters, some of which are datelined out of Portsmouth, N.H., were written mainly to Joseph Hewes, the wartime Secretary of the Navy. One was a note to Benjamin Franklin in Paris. They are fascinating in their descriptions of trying to start an American fleet from scratch out of an alliance of 13 disjointed colonies.

“At present we have no Navy System or Board of Admiralty without which we can never have a respectable Navy,” Jones wrote in August 1777.

In another memo on the sustainability of an American Navy, Jones describes the need to create naval yards by geography. He is not specific but says one should be in the lower states of the Colonial South.

“Let a dockyard be established at the most convenient and defensible Port, within the four eastern States, let another be established at a proper place, within the five middle states, and a third at a proper place within the four Southern States,” it says.

The letters came to light when Hartley Porter of the Charleston Commandery — as the local Naval Order chapter is known — went to the Library Society seeking venue space for the fall conference.

That’s when Executive Director Anne Cleveland let her know about the dormant Jones collection.

“I said ‘I’ve got letters from John Paul Jones,’ ” Cleveland said.

“I said I couldn’t believe it,” Porter responded after seeing them up close.

The notes are in surprisingly good shape, though the original black ink seems to have faded to brown on the parchment paper.

As part of the conference, the Library Society and the Navy group are seeking donations and support to restore the letters, which will cost between $400 to $700 a page, depending on condition.

The plan is to allow people or groups to come forward as restoration sponsors so the documents can be sent to the Joel Oppenheimer Labs in Chicago.

Those who have read Jones’ original words came away with the impression that the Scottish-born captain, who first went to sea at age 13, possessed the certainty of mind needed to command a warship.

“He has an ego, no doubt,” said Bob Besal, a retired rear admiral and one of two founders of the Charleston Commandery.

Jones was clearly a man for the time, Besal added. “If you want someone as a leader, you want someone who is confident,” he said. “It’s pretty bold.”

Most of the letters are cleanly written, though some include “doodles” drawn on reports where the long-term sustainability of an American Navy long is discussed. Those doodles are reported to be from the hand of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, indicating he might have been bored with some of the matters that day. The markings resemble life-sized oysters or waves, as some have described them.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.