Paris-Made 18th Century Silver Box Commemorating John Paul Jones
and the Battle of Flamborough Head
The most important period artifacts often represent a deep and complicated history. Such is the case with this solid silver commemorative box in the form of a treasure chest. The box owes its existence to one of the most interesting periods in history- the establishment of the United States as a sovereign nation in the years after the Revolutionary War, the massive changes brought about by the French Revolution, and how the relationship between America and France evolved during the period.
The box celebrates famed American Continental Navy Captain John Paul Jones, specifically the American Revolutionary War Battle of Flamborough Head where a fleet of French ships under American Naval command with mixed French and American crews united to defeat ships of the British Royal Navy. The victory was so important it to led the French crown backing the Americans in the fight for independence from Britain.
However, this box was made 20 years after the battle took place, and even after the death of John Paul Jones himself. Intriguingly, this clearly well-made and luxurious item was made in Paris right at the end of the French Revolution, when the market for fine decorative items had all but disappeared with the decline of the French monarchy and aristocracy.
It's the symbolic importance of the battle, of Jones and even his ship, the BONHOMME RICHARD, which combined with when the box was made that gives us an idea of its purpose - a reminder of former good relations between America and France right at the moment when the two countries were in an undeclared war, and American envoys entered Paris to negotiate peace with the new French government of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Since the end of the American Revolutionary War, Franco-American relations had been steadily deteriorating. When word of the French Revolution reached America in 1789, Americans hoped that democratic reforms in France would make the country an even better ally against monarchical Britain. Unfortunately, with revolutionary change came political instability, violence, and calls for radical social change in France that most of America's founders felt went too far. Many in the American government were concerned that becoming involved in overseas conflicts would drag their fledgling nation into economic and political losses the country couldn't afford. Thus America began to distance itself, withdrawing from military and financial agreements with France.
Tensions continued to escalate as the French Revolution wore on, leading to multiple conflicts culminating in the so-called Quasi-War; an undeclared war fought almost entirely at sea between the United States and France from 1798 to 1800. Largely dismantled after independence, the U.S. Navy was quickly re-established and gained the upper hand against France, ironically with limited support from the British Royal Navy.
American President John Adams was a Federalist, one of those who wanted to stay out of foreign wars, but he continued to seek diplomatic solutions with France. He was concerned about the cost of the Quasi-War along with perceived French ambitions to gain territory in North America. Adams was also facing an election in 1800, and American voters were souring on Federalist isolationist policies and warming to opponent Thomas Jefferson's more pro-French views.
France was looking for peace as well. Napoleon's new government had been installed in November of 1799, and the French Revolution was winding down, giving way to the new French Republic. France was motivated to stop the war that was keeping them from their North American stronghold in Louisiana and disrupting important trade routes to their Caribbean colonies.
An American Commission was selected to travel to France and negotiate on behalf of the United States: prominent American statesmen William Vans Murray, Oliver Ellsworth, and William Richardson Davie. The three would spent most of the year 1800 in France, negotiating with notorious French diplomat Tallyrand, and eventually signing the Convention of 1800 which ended the war and normalized relations between the two countries.
What better gift to a member of the American diplomatic envoy than an elegant silver box, the work of skilled Parisian silversmiths and engravers, which bore so many reminders of a time when America and France were such good friends and comrades in arms? The Battle of Flamborough Head, which brought France to America's aid in the Revolutionary War, is shown at its most important moment, when John Paul Jones would take an outrageous risk by lashing his damaged vessel to the broadside of the British ship HMS SERAPIS, taking fire until aid came in the form of the ALLIANCE to win the battle.
John Paul Jones was not only a hero of the American Revolution; he held the French title of Chevalier due to his bravery at Flamborough Head and was widely admired in France. Jones would retire to Paris in 1790, dying there in 1792. His initials are featured on the lid of the box, on the plate which slides aside to reveal a hidden lock.
Jones' ship, the BONHOMME RICHARD, featured prominently on the box, was itself a symbol of French and American friendship. The ship was a former French merchant vessel operating as an East Indiaman, when she was purchased by King Louis XVI of France in early 1779 and placed at the disposal of the American Continental Navy under Jones' command. Jones renamed her BONHOMME RICHARD in honor of Benjamin Franklin, another American popular in France. Franklin was at the time the American Commissioner in Paris and Jones's direct superior. Bonhomme Richard was a French nickname for Franklin referring to his book Poor Richard's Almanac or in French Les Maximes du Bonhomme Richard.
Besides the outstanding depiction of the battle, this box also features paired stylized dolphins on the top bracketing the JPJ initials, and on both sides where each pair sweep over an anchor. Once the box is opened the top reveals a complex period locking mechanism and cloth-lined interior. The box stands on four silver ball feet.
During the French Revolution French silver marks, which had previously featured a crown motif, fell into disuse as did the market for the luxury goods they often adorned. The silver mark on this piece was the first mark of the French republic, identifying pieces made in Paris between 1798 and 1809. There is also a maker's mark, the initials LC within a laurel wreath, but the exact silversmith to which this mark belongs has been lost to time.
The Battle of Flamborough Head
The Battle of Flamborough Head was one of the most legendary naval actions of the war. A combined French and American fleet took on a British merchant convoy that included British Naval vessels on September 23, 1779.
The fight was bloody and intense, with the three ships featured on the box figuring prominently. Jones, aboard his ship BONHOMME RICHARD, engaged HMS SERAPIS and after about four hours it seemed a British victory was inevitable due to the SERAPIS' greater firepower. After a shattering series of cannon fire to the BONHOMME RICHARD's broadside, the commander of SERAPIS finally called on Jones to surrender. He replied, "Sir, I have not yet begun to fight!"
Jones eventually managed to lash the ships together, nullifying his opponent's greater maneuverability and allowing him to take advantage of the larger size and considerably more numerous crew of BONHOMME RICHARD. Eventually ALLIANCE was able to break off from engaging the smaller British fleet ships and give aid to the badly damaged BONHOMME RICHARD ... after nightfall, SERAPIS's captain surrendered.
Though BONHOMME RICHARD sank after the battle, the battle's outcome was one of the factors that convinced the French crown to back the colonies in their fight to become independent of British authority, making this box an important reminder of the strong relationship between the two countries.
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