American officers have turned their military experience into financial gains from foreign governments since the Revolution. Even the one some call the “Father of the American Navy,” Captain John Paul Jones, used his service and fame as a war hero to command a Russian warship for Catherine the Great.
Jones, originally from Scotland, arrived in Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1774 and was soon commissioned into the Continental Navy. During the Revolutionary War he commanded ships off the Atlantic coast, in the Caribbean and in European seas, capturing and destroying more than a dozen British ships.
The war introduced Jones to “emoluments”, defined at the time to include bounties or money paid for naval victories. In a letter of October 17, 1776, to Robert Morris, a member of the Maritime Committee of the Second Continental Congress, Jones listed 16 ships he had captured or destroyed and lamented the “paltry emolument”.[s]paid for by the Continental Navy.
He warned that Britain and other foreign powers were paying more and that it was “necessary to make the emoluments of our navy equal, if not superior, to theirs”, if not lose the best men.
The framers of the Constitution shared his concern that foreign payments could harm American interests. In Federalist Paper 22, Alexander Hamilton warned: “One of the weak sides of republics…is that they offer too easy an entrance to foreign corruption.
Some of the framers had received lavish gifts from foreign states. When Benjamin Franklin left as a minister in France, King Louis XVI presented him with a snuffbox encrusted with 408 diamonds and encrusted with the king’s portrait. Thomas Jefferson and two other ministers in France also received snuffboxes. The King of Spain, Charles III, presented Minister John Jay with a horse.
To combat potential bribes, the drafters in 1787 adopted—almost without debate—language based on the 1781 Articles of Confederation which prohibited all persons “holding an office of profit or trust” from accept any “present, emolument, office or title, of whatever nature” from any “foreign state” without the approval of Congress. This provision is now known as the foreign emoluments clause.
As Edmund Randolph, Governor of Virginia and delegate to the Constitutional Convention, said at the time: “This restriction is intended to prevent corruption.
The Foreign Emoluments Clause remained unchanged for more than 230 years, except for one key adjustment: in 1977, Congress delegate its authority to approve the overseas work of retired military personnel to the secretary of their military service and to the secretary of state.
In June 2017, the State of Maryland and the District of Columbia sued President Donald Trump for violating the Foreign Emoluments Clause by taking advantage of payments from foreign executives at his DC hotel. Trump appealed to the Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled the case moot because he was no longer in office.
At the height of the Revolutionary War, Jones sought Congressional approval to sail a French ship to attack the British in Jamaica. The Continental Congress approved, although James Madison opposed. In the end, the colonies defeated Britain before Jones and the French fleet fought.
After the war, the Continental Navy was disbanded, and Jones, in his late thirties, found himself without a ship to command. Despite the American ban on receiving emoluments from a foreign power, Jones decided to take advantage of the fact that foreign governments wanted to reward him.
In 1788 Jones was offered a command in the Russian Navy by Catherine the Great, who sought his expertise to fight the Ottoman Empire in the Black Sea. Jones accepted the offer and went to work as a rear admiral commanding the 24-gun flagship Vladimir.
Jones later wrote to Jefferson, then minister to France, that despite the job, he had not “given up” America. He wrote: “I can never give up the glorious title of citizen of the United States!
He admitted that he did not get “explicit approval” from Congress to work for the Russian Navy. But he argued that the approval of the Continental Congress of 1782 for him to serve in the French navy should also apply to his service in Russia, as both jobs “facilitated my improvement in the art of leading the fleet and military operations”.
Because the United States had no navy, there was “no public employment for my military talents” and “no emoluments or profit of any kind” from the military, Jones said. He asked Jefferson to work things out with Congress.
Despite the constitutional ban, Jefferson endorsed the idea. He wrote to a friend that Jones was “young enough to see the day” where an American navy could fight the British “ship to ship” and that “we should then give him every possible opportunity to gain experience” .
Jones’ command of the Vladimir helped the Russian Navy defeat the Ottomans in a key battle in 1788 and secure control of the Crimean peninsula.
Despite the victory, Jones—hated and discredited by his fellow fleet officers—was recalled to St. Petersburg. There he was accused of rape and beat a 10-year-old girl. A campaign in the Russian court led by the French ambassador saved Jones from trial. However, Catherine the Great effectively banished Jones from Russia for his actions and he fled to Paris in international disgrace.
Jones spent his final years in France, surviving on his Russian pension. He died on July 18, 1792 and was buried in what would become an unmarked grave. The “father of the United States Navy” was largely forgotten until 1905, when the United States Ambassador to France had his body exhumed and brought back to the United States.
Jones’ remains were interred at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. President Theodore Roosevelt praised Jones as a man whom “every officer in our navy should feel in every fiber of his being a burning desire to imitate”. The president made no mention of Jones’ time in the Russian Navy.
Jones rests in an ornate marble tomb in the academy’s chapel. The tomb lists every ship he commanded in war, with one exception – the Vladimir.