Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from John Paul Jones, 8 April 1788

From John Paul Jones

Copenhagen April 8. 1788.


By my Letters to the Count de Bernstorff, and his Excellency’s Answer, you see that my Business here is at an end.—If I have not finally concluded the Object of my Mission, it is neither your fault nor mine: The Powers I received are found insufficient, and you could not Act otherwise than was prescribed in your Instructions. Thus it frequently happens, that good Opportunities are lost, when the Supreme Power does not place a sufficient confidence, in the distant Operations of Public Officers, whether Civil or Military. I have, however, the melancholy satisfaction to reflect, that I have been received and treated here, with a distinction far above the pretentions of my Public Mission; and I felicitate myself sincerely on being, at my own Expence, and even at the peril of my Life, (for my sufferings, from the inclemency of the Weather, and my want of proper means to guard against it on the Journey, were inexpressible; and I beleive, from what I yet feel, will continue to affect my Constitution) the Instrument to renew the Negociation between this Country and the United-States: The more so, as the honor is now reserved for you, to display your great Abilities and Integrity, by the completion and Improvement of what Dr. Franklin had wisely begun. I have done then, what, perhaps, no other person would have undertaken, under the same circumstances; and while I have the consolation to hope, that the United-States will derive solid advantages, from my Journey and efforts here, I rest perfectly satisfyed, that the Interests of the Brave Men I commanded, will experience in you Parental attention, and that the American Flag can loose none of it’s lustre, but the contrary, while it’s Honor is confided to you. America being a Young Nation, with an increasing Commerce, which will naturally produce a Navy, I please myself with the Hope, that in the Treaty you are about to conclude with Denmark, you will find it easy, and highly advantageous to include certain Articles, for admitting America into the Armed Neuterallity. I persuade myself before hand, that this would afford pleasure to the Empress of Russia, who is at the Head of that noble and humane Combination; and as I shall now set out immediately for St. Petersburg, I will mention the Idea to her Imperial Majesty, and let you know her Answer.

If Congress should think I deserve the Promotion, that was proposed when I was last in America, and should condescend to confer on me the Grade of Rear Admiral, from the Day I took the Serapis (23 Sept. 1779) I am persuaded it would be very agreeable to the Empress; who now deigns to offer me an equal Rank in her Service, although I never yet had the honor to draw my Sword in her Cause, nor to do any other Act that could, directly, merit her Imperial benevolence. While I express, in the warm effusion of a grateful Heart, the deep sense I feel of my eternal obligation to you, as the Author of the honorable prospect that is now before me, I must rely on your Friendship to justify to the United-States, the important Step I now take, conformable to your Advice. You know I had no Idea of this new Fortune, when I found that you had put it in train, before my last return to Paris from America. I have not forsaken a Country, that has had many disinterested and difficult Proofs of my steady Affection; and I can never renounce the glorious Title of a Citizen of the United States!

It is true I have not the express permission of the Sovereignty, to accept the Offer of her Imperial Majesty: Yet America is Independent, is in perfect Peace, has no public employment for my Military talents, and yeilds me no emolument or profit whatever from the Commission I hold.1—But why should I excuse a conduct, which I should rather hope, would meet with general approbation? In the latter part of the Year 1782 Congress passed an Act for my Embarkation in the Fleet of his most Christian Majesty. And when, a few Months ago, I left America to return to Europe, I was made the bearer of a Letter to his most Christian Majesty, requesting me to be permitted to embark in the Fleets of Evolution. Why did Congress pass those Acts? To facillitate my improvement, in the Art of conducting Fleet and Military Operations. I am then, conforming myself to the views of Congress; but the Roll alloted me, is infinitly more high, and difficult than Congress intended. Instead of receiving Lessons, from able Masters, in the Theory of War, I am call’d to immediate Practice; where I must command in Chief, conduct the most difficult Operations, be my own Preceptor, and instruct others.—Congress will allow me some Merit in daring to encounter such multiplied difficulties. The Mark I mentioned, of the approbation of that honorable Body, would be extremely flattering to me in the Career I am now to pursue, and would stimulate all my Ambition, to acquire the necessary Talents, to merit that and even greater favors, at a future Day.—I pray you, Sir, to explain the circumstances of my situation, and be the interpreter of my Sentiments, to the United-States in Congress. I ask for nothing; and beg leave to be understood only as having hinted, what is natural to conceive, that the Mark of approbation I mentioned, could not fail to be infinitly Servicable, to my views and Success, in the Country where I am going.

The 4. The Prince Royal sent me a Messenger, requesting me to come to his Appartment. His Royal Highness said a great many civil things to me, told me the King thanked me, for my attention and civil beheaviour to the Danish Flag, while I commanded in the European Seas; and that his Majesty wished for occasions to testify to me his personal Esteem. I was alone with the Prince half an hour.

I am, with perfect Esteem and sincere Regard, Sir, Your most obedient and most humble Servant,

J Paul Jones

RC (DLC: Personal Papers Misc.); endorsed by TJ and docketed in a clerk’s hand; the RC begins in the middle of the page and is preceded by the end of the Tr of Bernstorff’s letter to Jones of 4 Apr. 1788 (see enclosure 4), certified by Jones, on 4 Apr. 1788, as a true copy; this indicates that the transcripts (missing) of all the letters forwarded by Jones to TJ were probably written on continuous sheets at the head of this RC. Enclosures: (1) Tr of Jones to Bernstorff, 24 Mch. 1788, asking for a prompt decision from the court on the purpose of his mission because it is necessary for him to return to Paris or proceed to Russia (Tr in DNA: PCC, No. 87, ii, in the hand of William Short; PrC of the preceding in DLC). (2) Tr of same to same, 30 Mch. 1788, repeating his request for a prompt decision (Tr in DNA: PCC, No. 87, ii, in the hand of William Short). (3) Tr of Jones to Bernstorff, 5 Apr. 1788, (written before the receipt of Bernstorff’s letter of 4 Apr.) stating that Jones expects to leave Copenhagen as soon as he receives a formal letter from Bernstorff confirming the statement made by the latter—that is, that Jones’s want of plenary powers to make an ultimate disposition of the matter had caused the Danish court to authorize Baron de Blome to negotiate concerning the three prizes with TJ at Paris and at the same time to conclude a treaty of commerce between Denmark and the United States (Tr in CSmH, Jones Papers, certified by Jones and containing the notation copied by Short, as indicated below; Tr in DNA: PCC, No. 87, ii, in Short’s hand; PrC of same in DLC: TJ Papers). Between enclosures 3 and 4 in Short’s Tr there is the following notation taken from Jones’s Tr of his letter of 5 Apr.: “The three foregoing letters of 24, and 30 March and 5 April are exact copies of what I had the honour to write to the Count de Bernstorff. (signed) J Paul Jones.—N.B. After the above letter had been delivered to the Minister, the subsequent answer was received from his Excellency.” (4) Tr of Bernstorff to Jones, 4 Apr. 1788, stating that, in response to Jones’s request for an answer to the letter he had delivered from TJ, he has been authorized to pledge the king’s word that negotiations for a treaty of amity and commerce would be renewed, on the basis of the forms already agreed upon, as soon as the new Constitution should be adopted; that, as stated in conversation, Jones’s want of full powers from Congress presented a natural and insuperable objection to a definitive discussion of this primary object or even of the secondary object concerning the prizes; and that, moreover, it would be improper and contrary to all received usage to change the place of a negotiation from Paris to Copenhagen, since that negotiation had not been broken but only suspended (Tr, in French, DLC: Jones Papers, certified by Jones as a true copy on 29 Aug. 1788; Tr in DNA: PCC, No. 87, ii, in the hand of William Short, accompanied by a translation by John Pintard; PrC of Short’s Tr in DLC: TJ Papers. All of the enclosures are printed in Dipl. Corr., 1783–89 description begins The Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States of America, from the Signing of the Definitive Treaty of Peace … to the Adoption of the Constitution, Washington, Blair & Rives, 1837, 3 vols. description ends , ii, 152–5, and, again, iii, 718–21, where Bernstorff’s letter appears in a different translation).

1The preceding thirteen words have been deleted in MS; it is very doubtful whether this was done by Jones or by TJ; possibly it was done by John Henry Sherburne, to whom TJ lent his recipient’s copies of Jones’ letters and who printed the present letter in his Life of John Paul Jones, Washington, 1825, p. 297–9.

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