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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Chivalrous Letter to the Countess of Selkirk

By John Paul Jones (1747–1792)

[Born in Kirkbean, Scotland, 1747. Died in Paris, France, 1792. Life and Correspondence of John Paul Jones. 1830.]

MADAM: It cannot be too much lamented, that in the profession of arms, the officer of fine feeling and of real sensibility should be under the necessity of winking at any action of persons under his command, which his heart cannot approve; but the reflection is doubly severe when he finds himself obliged, in appearance, to countenance such actions by his authority.

This hard case was mine, when, on the 23d of April last, I landed on St. Mary’s Isle. Knowing Lord Selkirk’s interest with his king, and esteeming, as I do, his private character, I wished to make him the happy instrument of alleviating the horrors of hopeless captivity, when the brave are overpowered and made prisoners of war.

It was, perhaps, fortunate for you, Madam, that he was from home; for it was my intention to have taken him on board the Ranger, and to have detained him until, through his means, a general and fair exchange of prisoners, as well in Europe as in America, had been effected.

When I was informed, by some men whom I met at landing, that his lordship was absent, I walked back to my boat, determined to leave the island. By the way, however, some officers who were with me, could not forbear expressing their discontent; observing that, in America, no delicacy was shown by the English, who took away all sorts of movable property—setting fire, not only to towns and to the houses of the rich, without distinction, but not even sparing the wretched hamlets and milch-cows of the poor and helpless, at the approach of an inclement winter. That party had been with me, the same morning, at Whitehaven; some complaisance, therefore, was their due. I had but a moment to think how I might gratify them, and at the same time do your ladyship the least injury. I charged the two officers to permit none of the seamen to enter the house, or to hurt anything about it—to treat you, Madam, with the utmost respect—to accept of the plate which was offered—and to come away without making a search, or demanding anything else.

I am induced to believe that I was punctually obeyed; since I am informed, that the plate which they brought away is far short of the quantity expressed in the inventory which accompanied it. I have gratified my men; and when the plate is sold, I shall become the purchaser, and will gratify my own feelings by restoring it to you, by such conveyance as you shall please to direct.

Had the earl been on board the Ranger the following evening, he would have seen the awful pomp and dreadful carnage of a sea engagement; both affording ample subject for the pencil, as well as melancholy reflection to the contemplative mind. Humanity starts back from such scenes of horror, and cannot sufficiently execrate the vile promoters of this detestable war.

  • “For they, ’twas they unsheath’d the ruthless blade,
  • And Heaven shall ask the havoc it has made.”
  • The British ship-of-war Drake, mounting twenty guns, with more than her full complement of officers and men, was our opponent. The ships met, and the advantage was disputed with great fortitude on each side, for an hour and four minutes, when the gallant commander of the Drake fell, and victory declared in favor of the Ranger. The amiable lieutenant lay mortally wounded, besides near forty of the inferior officers and crew killed and wounded; a melancholy demonstration of the uncertainty of human prospects, and of the sad reverse of fortune which an hour can produce. I buried them in a spacious grave, with the honors due to the memory of the brave.

    Though I have drawn my sword in the present generous struggle for the rights of men, yet I am not in arms as an American, nor am I in pursuit of riches. My fortune is liberal enough, having no wife nor family, and having lived long enough to know that riches cannot ensure happiness. I profess myself a citizen of the world, totally unfettered by the little, mean distinctions of climate or of country, which diminish the benevolence of the heart and set bounds to philanthropy. Before this war was begun, I had, at an early time of life, withdrawn from sea service, in favor of “calm contemplation and poetic ease.” I have sacrificed not only my favorite scheme of life, but the softer affections of the heart, and my prospects of domestic happiness, and I am ready to sacrifice my life also, with cheerfulness, if that forfeiture could restore peace and good-will among mankind.

    As the feelings of your gentle bosom cannot but be congenial with mine, let me entreat you, Madam, to use your persuasive art, with your husband’s, to endeavor to stop this cruel and destructive war, in which Britain never can succeed. Heaven can never countenance the barbarous and unmanly practice of the Britons in America, which savages would blush at, and which, if not discontinued, will soon be retaliated on Britain by a justly enraged people. Should you fail in this (for I am persuaded that you will attempt it, and who can resist the power of such an advocate?) your endeavors to effect a general exchange of prisoners will be an act of humanity which will afford you golden feelings on a death-bed.

    I hope this cruel contest will soon be closed; but should it continue, I wage no war with the fair. I acknowledge their force, and bend before it with submission. Let not, therefore, the amiable Countess of Selkirk regard me as an enemy; I am ambitious of her esteem and friendship, and would do anything, consistent with my duty, to merit it.

    The honor of a line from your hand in answer to this, will lay me under a singular obligation; and if I can render you any acceptable service in France or elsewhere, I hope you see into my character so far as to command me without the least grain of reserve.

    I wish to know exactly the behavior of my people, as I am determined to punish them if they have exceeded their liberty. I have the honor to be, with much esteem and with profound respect, Madam, etc., etc.

    “RANGER,” BREST, 8 May, 1778.