Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Preserving our Constitution

By Mark W. Danielson

With a new president in office who has taught Constitutional law, one might think that I’m referring to our country’s governing document, but this story is about the USS Constitution; one of our nation’s most valuable artifacts. Amazingly, this proud ship was never boarded by enemy forces or lost a battle, yet she barely survived her post-war days. This is a brief look at her unique history.

George Washington may have argued to form the US Navy, but that service branch wasn’t established until 1794. Congress approved its foundation after our merchant ships were repeatedly harassed off of Africa’s Barbary Coast. In the same year, plans were drawn to build a warship that could defeat a ship of the same size or out sail a stronger opponent. On October 21, 1797, that ship, named the USS Constitution, was launched for the staggering sum of $302,718.

Tripoli declared war on the United States over the issue of merchant ship tariffs in 1801, and in response, the USS Constitution joined the US naval blockade in 1803, making her presence known by bombarding Tripoli’s forts. The war ended on June 3, 1805, when Tripoli officials signed the treaty aboard the USS Constitution.

While her action in Tripoli was a significant event in her history, it was the War of 1812 that earned the USS Constitution her notoriety. In spite of being severely outnumbered, the US Navy sailed into a far superior British fleet to defend our nation’s freedom. In one of her most memorable battles, the USS Constitution pulled alongside one of Britain’s largest warship. Cannons blazing, the USS Constitution’s cannon balls tore into the HMS Guerriere while the enemy’s shots bounced off her hull. Observing this, one of the HMS Guerriere’s crew exclaimed, “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” From that point on, the USS Constitution became known as “Old Ironsides”. This historic thirty-five minute clash left 78 Brits dead or injured compared to the US Navy’s minimal loss of 14.

In 1830, Old Ironsides was declared unseaworthy, but a poem of her nickname by Oliver Wendell Holmes saved her from being scrapped. In 1833, under pressure from its constituents, Congress approved money for Old Ironsides’ restoration. From 1835 to 1855, she made numerous voyages, including a record journey of 495 days at sea that covered 52,279 miles. From 1853 to 1855, she patrolled the African Coast in search of illegal slave traders, but then sat out the Civil War. Later, she became a training ship at the US Naval Academy, and in 1878 made her last cruise abroad, sailing to Paris for the Universal Exposition. Sadly, her sailing days ended in 1881 when she became a navy barracks ship in Portsmouth, NH. (photo below)

In 1887, Massachusetts Senator and grandfather of future president John F. Kennedy, John Fitzgerald, spearheaded the effort to bring Old Ironsides back to her birthplace of Boston harbor. This action may have bought the warship some time, but in 1905, the Secretary of the Navy planned to use her as a target until she was sunk. Once again, the public’s outcry meant the US Navy had no choice but to keep her afloat.

In the late 1920’s, America’s citizens funded another major restoration, and from 1931 to 1934, the USS Constitution toured 75 cities along all three US coastlines, covering 22,000 miles. By the time she returned to Boston harbor, six million visitors had walked her decks. In 1997, during her 200th birthday celebration, she sailed under her own power for the first time in over a century. Today, the USS Constitution still graces Boston harbor as the US Navy’s oldest commissioned ship, and on every July 4th, makes way into the harbor to celebrate our Nation’s birthday. She returns to her dock one hundred-eighty out to ensure that she weathers evenly. Her present mission as the US Navy’s ambassador is suiting, for there is no better symbol to represent our American spirit.


Ben Small said...

Been there, Mark. It's a magnificent vessel with a great tradition. Good place to eat just across the street, too. :<)

Chester Campbell said...

Interesting historical note, Mark. I've seen the ship at its moorings but never visited it. Happy to note some old things are still useful. :)

Jean Henry Mead said...

Love the photos and the of history of our magnificent sailing ships, Mark. (I have a tall ship model on my computer desk.)

Mark W. Danielson said...

When I was there recently, I was fortunate to have seen a magnificent model ship display at the USS Constitution museum. The gentleman who was overseeing the ship modeling club's event had spent seven years building his model. Another modeler spent over 20 years building his. The detail on these replicas is remarkable, but even more so is that it took far more years to build the models than the actual USS Constitution. It just goes to show that patience is virtue.