On this the date in 1806, the Lewis and Clark expedition returned to St. Louis after three years in the wilderness. This is also a notable date in American law enforcement (Billy the Kid was arrested for the first time in 1875); in U.S. elective politics (Republican vice presidential nominee Richard Nixon saved his political career with his famous "Checkers Speech" in 1952); and in race relations (nine black students who had enrolled at Little Rock's Central High School were forced to withdraw by a threatening white mob in 1957).
Sept. 23 is also a notable day in American music: John Coltrane was born on this date in Hamlet, N.C., in 1926 and four years later to the day, Ray Charles was born in Albany, Ga. On Sept. 23, 2019, poet, singer, and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter died at his home in San Rafael, Calif.
Hunter, along with lead singer and guitarist Jerry Garcia, wrote many of the Grateful Dead's iconic songs, including my favorite, "Uncle John's Band." The third verse of that upbeat tune begins with an interesting U.S. historical reference.
Goddamn, well, I declare, have you seen the like?
Their walls are built of cannonballs, their motto is "Don't tread on me"
That motto was actually flown on some of the earliest ships in the United States Navy, which reminds me that today's date is also when American naval officer John Paul Jones was asked by his British counterpart if he was striking his colors -- that is, surrendering his sinking ship.
"I have not yet begun to fight!" Jones replied. Or did he?
* * *
The Sept. 23, 1779 naval battle that made Scottish-born John Paul Jones an American hero took place just off the English coast near Yorkshire. A thousand British subjects lined the shore watching, although none of them heard the auspicious words attributed to the brave young captain.
Jones was the skipper of the large and lumbering Bonhomme Richard, a ship given to him by the French upon the request of Benjamin Franklin, America's man in Paris. (Bonhomme Richard is the French translation of "Poor Richard," the pen name Franklin used when writing "Poor Richard's Almanac," then being published in France.)
"I intend to go in harm's way," Jones told the French, before doing exactly that -- pillaging and pirating along the British coast.
The man entrusted with stopping him was Royal Navy Capt. Richard Pearson, who headed a small fleet sent to intercept Jones. Pearson's boat -- a smaller, faster, and better armed warship called Serapis -- led the British convoy.
During the fateful battle that followed, Jones' ship collided with Serapis. Jones quickly ordered his men to lash the two together, leading to a deadly scene in which the two crews fired, point-blank, at each other for two hours.
As nightfall overtook them, the Americans' situation was desperate. A full moon and fire from the Bonhomme Richard's burning masts revealed a scene of carnage; meanwhile seawater poured through gaping holes in the ship's hull.
Two of Jones' officers, thinking him dead, tried to surrender. This enraged Jones, who was very much not dead. Above the din, Pearson appeared on the rail of his own ship and asked Jones if he wished to strike his colors. What exactly did Jones answer? Nobody knows for sure, although everyone who was there reported that Jones refused to surrender and did so with valorous aplomb.
"I answered him in the most determined negative" is what Jones wrote vaguely to Ben Franklin days later. One contemporaneous account in British newspapers quotes Jones as replying, "I may sink, but I'm damned if I'll strike."
A London Evening Post account goes further, reporting that Jones said that he wouldn't dream of surrendering, and was intent on making Pearson strike his own colors. A midshipman aboard Jones' ship recalled that his captain answered Pearson this way: "Yankees do not haul down their colors until they are fairly beaten."
A deserter from Jones' ship, then aboard the Serapis, thought he heard the captain say something like "Whenever the devil was ready to take him, he would rather obey his summons than strike to anyone."
The words we recall today were furnished by none other than Capt. Pearson, who qualified his account (at his own court-martial) by saying he didn't hear it personally, but that one of his midshipmen heard and relayed it to him.
"It was to the effect that he was just beginning to fight."
"History," noted naval scholar Rick Beyer, "had its quotable quote."
As for the outcome of that famous battle, the Bonhomme Richard eventually sank beneath the waves, but not before Jones captured the Serapis, which he sailed to the Netherlands for repairs. Perhaps more significantly, the feisty captain's never-say-die spirit convinced the French to support the colonists' quest for independence. Perhaps equally important, both Jones' bravery and bravado -- the two traits aren't always the same -- embedded itself in the American psyche.
But at this time of pandemic, lockdown, and racial division in our country, I'd point out that although wartime valor helped create this country and keep it safe in the ensuing 244 years, it's not the only national ethos worth celebrating. At this time in our history, I find myself often playing the song "Uncle John's Band" as I write in the morning, humming along to the more pacific opening stanza:
Well the first days are the hardest days, don't you worry any more
'Cause when life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door
Think this through with me, let me know your mind
Whoa-oh, what I want to know, is "Are you kind?"
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.