Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

Women of Washington is an educational organization with a focus on understanding local, national, and global issues that are critical to our world today.


As General Washington began training the various New England militias into functional ground troops, he was well aware that the powerful British Navy posed a threat to all of the thirteen colonies dotted along the eastern coastline.  Washington understood the importance of creating a colonial navy if they were to defend themselves against British naval attacks on their coastlines.  In Philadelphia, John Adams, and a small number of his fellow congressmen, had similar views regarding the need of a Continental Navy but fellow members of Congress feared angering the British Naval command.

Historically, maritime laws permitted adversarial countries to license armed merchant ships, known as privateers, to seize enemy ships. The bounty, including treasure, armaments, and captured seamen, was returned to their government who paid the privateers with a percentage of their plunder.  However, the battles between warring ships took place on the open seas where the victors had the opportunity to additionally reward themselves without detection – sometimes earning the label of “licensed pirates.”   

Merchant ships were the life blood of the New World colonies in the 1700. Individual colonies had developed extensive networks of privately-owned merchant ships for import and export trading among themselves as well as internationally.  Many colonies had to establish armed privateer status to ensure that their cargos would reach their destinations because the British were becoming more aggressive in their efforts to control all aspects of colonial life.

In September of 1775, Washington, in preparation to take defensive action against the menacing British navy, outfitted and armed three merchant schooners to cruise the Massachusetts’ coastline.

On October 3,1775, Congress received news that at least two brigs were sailing from England to Quebec carrying large quantities of munitions intended to resupply the British navy and ground troops.  Coupled with this alarming news, and, after reading Washington’s letter informing them of his preemptive steps of arming ships in Massachusetts, Congress appointed a naval committee to prepare for the commissioning of an American naval force.  On February 18, 1776, the Continental Navy was launched.

“I have not yet begun to fight!”

These were the words of Captain John Paul Jones, one of the most interesting personalities that comes out of U.S. naval history.  John Paul (1747-1792) was born in Scotland to a modest family of gardeners.  With limited opportunities for work, at age 13, he sought an apprenticeship with the British Merchant Marines.  He found himself in the company of ship crews doing business with African slavers who sold their own countrymen, women and children to be purchased as slaves in Arabia, Europe, and the Caribbean Islands.  Disgusted by the trafficking of human beings, he returned to ships’ carrying cargo, only.

While on the Island of Tobago, John Paul became embroiled in an uprising by some mutinous seamen and, in self-defense, he killed one of the rioters.  Fear of not receiving a fair trial in English courts, he changed his name by adding Jones as his last name and fled to the American colonies.  As an experienced seaman, Jones joined the newly-formed Continental Navy.

Being well aware of the British government’s abusive treatment of the people of Scotland, Ireland, and even British citizens living in the colonies, Jones became single-minded in his commitment to confront the powerful British Navy.   His seafaring skills were soon recognized and he was made captain of the USS Providence, from which he heroically captured a number of British vessels sailing near Nova Scotia.

He was soon given command of the USS Ranger.  While in France, his conquests of British ships was recognized by the French Navy and the Ranger was given a formal salute – the first American vessel to be recognized by a foreign government.

In 1779, the 32-year-old Captain Jones sailed his ship, USS Bon Homme Richard to the North Sea in search for British naval vessels.  When he came upon the larger, better armed English warship HMS Serapis, a fierce 3-hour gun battle ensued.  In a surprise maneuver, Jones rammed the Bon Homme into the side of the Seripis, badly damaging Jones’ ship.  When the English captain called for his surrender, Captain John Paul Jones responded: “I have not yet begun to fight!”

Whereupon, Jones had one of his officers lob a grenade onto the Seripis, causing the British captain to surrender.  The victorious Jones and his crew boarded the still intact Seripis in time to watch their ship sink into the sea.

After the war ended, Jones settled in Paris where he died in 1792, and was buried in a French cemetery.  The United States eventually recovered Jones’ remains and laid him to rest in a tomb inside the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.  In honor of his remarkable service in the Continental Navy, three battleships have born his name, including the most recent destroyer, USS John Paul Jones commissioned in 1991.