On this day in 1778, American naval hero John Paul Jones writes a “Chivalrous Letter” to the Countess of Selkirk. Or so it has been called. The less glamorous description of the letter? It was basically an apology.
You may remember John Paul Jones for his daring exploits, as when he stood upon a sinking ship, defying a British captain and refusing to surrender. “I have not yet begun to fight!” Jones reportedly stormed.
It’s the stuff that legends are made of! Perhaps his encounter with the Selkirks is more of an amusing footnote in the life of Jones?
In April 1778, Jones had launched an attack upon the British—on British soil! The British had thought they were safe on their side of the Atlantic Ocean. Let’s just say that Jones rid them of that idea. He hit them at Whitehaven, demonstrating that the American Revolution could hit the British at home, too.
Jones’s attack might have shaken the British a bit psychologically, but it was otherwise fairly unsuccessful. Jones needed another plan. He decided to kidnap one of the local gentry, the Earl of Selkirk. He hoped to prompt the King into “a general and fair exchange of prisoners.”
Within hours of leaving Whitehaven, Jones and a small squad of his men went ashore near the Earl’s castle. Unfortunately, the Earl was not at home. Jones was ready to abandon the mission upon hearing this news, but his men were still itching for plunder. They were ready to head toward the Earl’s home and take what they could. Jones could see that he was about to have a mutiny on his hands, and he did not stop them. Instead, he asked them to limit their activities: Go to the house, demand the family silver, then leave without otherwise searching the house or harassing its inhabitants.
The men did as Jones asked, which is a bit surprising. (They’d been pretty disobedient at Whitehaven.) The Countess of Selkirk noticed some “horrid-looking wretches” who soon knocked on her door and demanded the silver. The Countess was apparently pregnant and alone with her children, a handful of servants, and a few house guests. Thus, she complied. The exchange was surprisingly civilized! The Countess maintained her calm, and the Selkirks later said that the men “behaved with great civility.”
Jones later heard of the Countess’s grace under pressure. When he and his men arrived back in France, he decided to write the Countess a letter. He lamented the necessities of war, but promised to purchase her silver and “gratify my own feelings by restoring it to you, by such conveyance as you shall please to direct.”
Jones was quite a character, so perhaps it is unsurprising that he was pretty proud of the letter he’d written! He sent it to the Countess via three separate routes, and he had the letter distributed widely. One of his routes went through Benjamin Franklin, who called the letter “gallant.”
The Earl was much less impressed. He wrote Jones and chastised him for the kidnapping plot, noting that it would have done nothing more than to “distress a family that never injured any person, and whose wishes have certainly been very friendly to the Constitutions and Just Liberties of America.” The Earl was angry! If Jones’s actions had caused harm to any member of his family, the Earl concluded, “no quarter of the Globe should have secured you nor even some of those under whose commission you act, from my vengeance.”
Apparently, Jones never received the letter, but he did make good on his promise to return the family’s silver.
"Chivalrous Letter" from John Paul Jones to the Countess of Selkirk (reprinted HERE)
Evan Thomas, John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy (2003)
Letter from Benjamin Franklin to John Paul Jones (May 27, 1778)
Letter from John Paul Jones to Benjamin Franklin (May 18, 1778)
Memoirs of Rear-Admiral Paul Jones (modern edition available HERE)
Samuel Eliot Morison, John Paul Jones: A Sailor's Biography (1959)