PARIS — “I feel the end is near,” starts the letter, “Yet though I was born in Scotland, and learned my trade sailing under the flag of England, I have learned that, though a man may be born to one people, he may die as part of another.”
“For thus has it been with me,” it continues, “so while men may look at my life and say ‘Scot’, or ‘Englishman’, in my heart I die a Russian.”
So begins the newly discovered last will and testament of Captain John Paul Jones, beloved naval hero of the American Revolutionary War. Jones is best remembered in the United States for his audacious operations in British waters while commanding the USS Ranger, his victory in the Battle of Flamborough Head while commanding the USS Bonhomme Richard, and for his timelessly inspirational quotes in the heat of battle, in particular his famous reply of “I have not yet begun to fight!” when asked to surrender by the captain of the HMS Serapis, which Jones subsequently captured.
Jones’ will was recently uncovered in a Paris archive by Dr. Brigitte Cuvelier, a Belgian historian researching French consular correspondence in the late 18th century. It was dated 17 July, 1792, the same day Jones was found dead on the floor of his Parisian apartment. Jones had found his way to Europe in the aftermath of the American Revolution following an incident in which Congress briefly granted him command of the ship of the line USS America before, in the words of Jones’ letter, “yanking her out from under my feet” to compensate America’s French allies.
Jones soon found himself unemployed and forgotten until being hired by Empress Catherine II of Russia, referred to repeatedly in the letter as “Her Imperial Majesty Ekaterina”, who strongly praised Jones’ abilities and achievements.
Jones was ultimately edged out of Catherine’s service by jealous Russian nobles, and returned to Paris for the rest of his life, taking up residence in the apartment in which he eventually wrote his will. Jones spent his final years repeatedly requesting to return to Russian service, though never attempting to return to the United States, a contrast that Jones explains fully for the first time in the uncovered document.
Jones has many harsh words for his one-time allies in the United States, whom his letter denounces as “ungrateful”, “rapacious”, and “disloyal”, though these are only approximations of the terms used by Jones, who wrote entirely in Russian.
A note Cuvelier found enclosed with the document explained that the will was originally discovered on Jones’ desk, and was apparently the last document he ever wrote, an assertion supported by a trailing line leading off the page from the end of Jones’ signature, which he wrote as “Павел Джонз”. The letter’s final paragraph includes instructions for its delivery to the Imperial Russian consulate, a heartfelt request to be buried on Russian soil, and an appointment of the Russian ambassador as executor of Jones’ estate. It is unclear why the letter was never delivered.
However, Cuvelier has a theory.
“It’s important to keep in mind that Jones’ death occurred during an extremely volatile period of French history,” said Cuvelier. “It seems likely that the French government could have fully intended to deliver the letter, but the chaos of the Revolution might have somehow prevented this, or at least caused it to be forgotten.”
The document remained undiscovered through the end of the French ancien regime, the Napoleonic Empire, and five French Republics, not to mention the 1905 exhumation of Jones’ body and its transportation to be reinterred in the United States, an eventuality Jones’ letter foresaw and explicitly prohibited.
“They are scum pretending to be nobility,” Jones says of Virginia’s planter elite, reserving particular anger for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom he excoriates by name throughout the document. Jones then goes off on a tangent in which he contrasts the divinely ordained nobility of the Russian autocracy with the “bottomless, godless, clutching greed” of a plantation aristocracy “strutting about in the cloak of a republic”, and describes the benevolence of Russian serfdom, in which “even serfs are in some way subjects”, as superior to American racial chattel slavery, in which African-American slaves were treated as “mere property”.
“I would rather have my bones scattered, forever lost, across the bottom of the seas, than have even a grain of American soil laid upon my coffin,” Jones concludes.
In response to the letter’s discovery, the Russian government has issued a press release praising Jones’ service in the Russo-Turkish War, and has announced plans to rename an Admiral Grigorivich class frigate, currently under construction in Kaliningrad, for Jones. Furthermore, the Russian Orthodox Church, to which Jones explicitly affirmed his membership in his will’s second to last paragraph, has acknowledged his burial request, and has begun preparations to inter him in a place of honor in Novodevichy Cemetery alongside other notable Russians following a Mass held in Moscow’s rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.
The United States Naval Academy, which currently houses Jones’ body in an ornate marble sarcophagus, has declined to comment on this story.
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