John Paul Jones on fighting on
There are several stirring quotes in the annals of the United States Navy, reflecting the inspired and intrepid leadership of its commanders in its earliest days. “We have met the enemy and he is ours…” is an example. “Don’t give up the ship,” is another, uttered by the dying James Lawrence as his command, USS Chesapeake, was being overrun by the crew of HMS Shannon. The British were so impressed by Lawrence’s courage and gallantry that he was given a full military funeral with honors after his death, and the British returned Chesapeake’s commission pennant, an unheard of gesture.
But the quote most often cited and remembered came from John Paul Jones. Its provenance is questionable in that there are two versions, the first; “I have just begun to fight,” and the second, “I have not yet begun to fight.” It is generally agreed that Jones responded first with the reply, “No sir” followed by the storied line, in response to a demand from the British captain of HMS Serapis whether the BonHomme Richard had struck its colors, signifying surrender. Where the quote originated is difficult to determine, but it did not originate that night off Flamborough Head on the deck of BonHomme Richard.
Several survivors of the action reported an exchange of words between the contending Captains, including the two Captains themselves, Jones and British commander Pearson. Their written records of the battle are detailed and vivid and none report the words which have come down through history as Jones’ immortal cry of defiance. Pearson reported hearing the cries of “quarter” coming from BonHomme Richard, with its colors shot away, and called out to ask if the American was asking for quarter. He reported receiving no response and ordered his crew to board the American.
Jones wrote that he responded that he was “determined to make you strike”, meaning surrender. Other witnesses reported other replies, but none were close to what history made famous. Shortly after the battle newspaper accounts appeared in Britain, where many had watched the fight from the shore, and later in France and the United States, each with differing accounts, and none containing Jones’ cry. After the Revolutionary War was over and Jones was seeking employment in the navies of Europe, he wrote of the battle but did not claim to have shouted the famous line.
Not until 1825, when the United States Navy was resting on the laurels earned against the Barbary pirates and the British Navy, did, “I have not yet begun to fight” appear in print, in an article written by Richard Dale. Dale had been the Richard’s first lieutenant during the battle and had earlier written differing responses that night by Jones to Captain Pearson’s query. So it is likely that the US Navy’s most famous battle cry originated with Dale, nearly fifty years after Jones’s victory over HMS Serapis. Jones almost certainly never said it, but nothing he ever said better reflected his spirit.