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Letters from Navy founding father rediscovered

May. 19, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Capt. John Paul Jones
Capt. John Paul Jones (National Archives)
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A letter written by Capt. John Paul Jones, one of the Navy's founding fathers. (Charleston Library Society)

Read the letters

If you’re visiting Charleston, S.C., stop by the Charleston Library Society at 164 King St. Admission is free.. The letters are often on display, but if they aren’t on your visit, you can pay a $5 research fee.
“We hand over the documents. It’s a pretty cool experience,” said Rob Salvo, the society’s assistant for research and reference.
The library society is also working on how to digitize all of the letters in its collection so they can be read online. For more information, visit www.charlestonlibrarysociety.net.

Capt. John Paul Jones may have served more than 200 years ago, but his letters reveal that the topics of his day can still resonate.

For example, Jones, as a founding father of the Navy, was quite vocal about the quality of leaders needed at the time.

“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,” Jones writes in one of 11 letters housed at the Charleston Library Society in South Carolina.

The letters, which total 13 pages, are being adopted by Navy veterans and family members with the Charleston Commandery, the local chapter of the Naval Order of the United States — a group dedicated to preserving the histories of the sea services.

The chapter’s plan is to restore the documents, at a cost of $400 to $1,000 per page.

The letters had fallen out of institutional memory, said Rob Salvo, the assistant for research and reference at the Charleston Library Society.

But recently, Hartley Porter, a member of the Charleston Commandery, inquired about renting some library space for the Order’s conference, slated for Oct. 30 to Nov. 2. That’s when she learned of the the letters.

“The head librarian took me into the vault and took these things out,” Porter said. “They were just amazing.”

The historical committee of the Charleston Library Society obtained the Jones collection in 1835 and found them authentic.

Retired Rear Adm. Bob Besal, one of the founders of the Charleston chapter, shared Porter’s sense of awe.

“I actually held these papers in my hand,” Besal said. “I thought that these are absolutely incredible.”

The letters will be displayed at the annual conference, which this year is themed “From John Paul Jones to Nuclear Power.”

Forgeries of Jones letters have turned up in the past, said Dennis Conrad, a historian at Naval History and Heritage Command, and the real ones are often ID’d by signature, topic of the letter and addressee.

Researchers familiar with Jones’ handwriting and signature have found no reason to doubt the authenticity of the ones on display in the library, Salvo said.

Many of the letters are addressed to Joseph Hewes, who was appointed Navy Secretary in 1776 and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

The documents, written in 1777, point out Jones’ experience as a real sailor. A native of Scotland, Jones became a sailor on merchant ships when he was only 13, according to a Naval History and Heritage Command paper written by Conrad. After a 1773 ship mutiny in which Jones stabbed and killed the instigator, he fled to America as the Continental Navy was being formed. As the captain of the sloop Providence, Jones captured 24 ships in 12 weeks, hoping these successes would lead to a senior position in the newly formed Navy.

One of Jones’ letters included a ranked list of 18 captains, with Jones at the bottom. The higher your rank, the greater precedence you got in picking ships. He wrote the secretary to inquire how he might move up the list of names, while not-so-subtly pointing out that 13 others were less senior than he and their “superior merits and accomplishments abilities on the list were at best presumptive.”

Burn!

“They are pretty brazen,” said David Porter, husband of Hartley Porter and a retired commander. “Anyone who has served in the Navy ... would be astonished that someone of his rank and seniority would make these kind of statements.”

Jones ended up commanding the sloop Ranger, though he likely would’ve preferred a larger ship, Conrad said.

Besal said sailors can draw “inspiration” from Jones’ career, during which he transformed from the son of a working-class family to a respected leader.

“I would lay down my life for America,” Jones wrote.

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