By Mass Comm. Spec. 2nd Class Casey Scoular, USS Constitution Public Affairs
This year marks USS Constitution’s 222nd birthday—the big triple-two. Our ship was launched into Boston Harbor on Oct. 21, 1797, making her the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world.
This year also marks another big milestone: October heralds the 10th anniversary of Constitution’s designation as America’s Ship of State.
On Oct. 28, 2009, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act; section 1022 designates USS Constitution as America’s Ship of State.
But why? With so many titles and accomplishments, ranging from “Old Ironsides” to “the Eagle of the Seas” to “Boston’s only undefeated team” (33-0), why add “America’s Ship of State” to the mix? What exactly does a ship of state do?
Before we get into that, let’s look at how USS Constitution earned her awesome reputation.
At the start of her national service, USS Constitution protected America’s merchants during the Quasi War with France and had a few at-sea Ws under her belt by the time she finished mopping up corsairs during the first Barbary War.
Her record at this time is 17-0; however, her greatest test was still to come: the powerful British royal navy.
The British were fighting Napoleonic France at sea and needed men for their navy. So they decided to start taking our Navy Sailors and forcibly drafting them into the Royal Navy. Not cool! The United States was fed up with this practice and the trade restrictions imposed against neutrals, so we declared war on Britain. So began the War of 1812.
At the outset of the war, we were looking at David-and-Goliath odds. The American people feared they would be back under British rule again because Britain had the best navy in the world. After the British naval victories over the French, Spanish, and Dutch navies during the Napoleonic Wars, the royal navy was seen as invincible.
But Isaac Hull and the crew of USS Constitution changed that.
USS Constitution faced HMS Guerriere in August of 1812 and defeated her in our Navy’s first frigate-to-frigate battle at sea. She earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” during that fight, when cannonballs were seen bouncing harmlessly off the side of her tough live-oak hull. Huzzah!
The American people welcomed Capt. Isaac Hull and his crew back to Boston as heroes.
Constitution’s victory had given the American people the hope they so desperately needed and proved that the royal navy could be beaten.
Constitution delivered more victories, defeating another British frigate, HMS Java.
The royal navy’s confidence was shaken, and the British admiralty commanded captains to not engage American frigates unless in squadron force (two or more against one).
USS Constitution answered the challenge, simultaneously defeating both HMS Cyane and HMS Levant in the last phase of the war.
In 1815, the National Intelligencer, a famous newspaper of the day, hailed Constitution as a symbol of the up-and-coming United States:
“Let us keep Old Ironsides at home, she has literally become the nation’s ship and should thus be preserved in honorable pomp, as a glorious monument of her own and our other naval victories.”
Constitution became a symbol of the American people and our ability to triumph over seemingly unbeatable odds.
In the late 1820s, Constitution was awaiting repairs. Incorrectly believing the ship was destined for the scrapyard, physician-poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (father of the eventual Supreme Court justice) wrote a poem in 1830 that implored the government not to destroy this symbol of the United States.
His poem, titled “Old Ironsides” motivated the citizens of Boston as well as the nation to demand Constitution’s immediate repair.
Aye tear her tattered ensign down
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon’s roar;—
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.
Constitution was repaired and put back into service. Her 1844-46 world cruise exhibited the American flag around the world.
Now claiming the title of 32-0, she would claim one last victory at sea. On Nov. 3, 1853, while combating the slave trade, she captured an American slaving vessel, H.N. Gambrill, cementing her score at 33-0.
In 1860, USS Constitution evacuated the midshipmen from the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis to Newport, Rhode Island, in fear that the Confederates would capture the city and the beloved ship.
She served as a training ship from the 1860s until the 1880s, when she was taken off the active duty roster and resigned to service in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
In 1896, President Kennedy’s grandfather, Rep. John Fitzgerald, successfully campaigned to have Constitution moved back to Boston for her 100th birthday.
Again, the citizens of Boston and the United States wanted Constitution to be honored and revered for her service.
During the early portion of the 20th century, Old Ironsides was in Boston and began falling into disrepair. The Navy said it would restore her, but it could not fund the full extent of the work needed.
Unsurprisingly, there was a huge outpouring of support, and people from all over the United States contributed funds to the restoration. School children from across the country even donated their pennies to see Constitution restored.
The “Pennies Campaign” was a huge success, and from 1931-1934, Constitution traveled around the country on a national cruise to thank the citizens of the nation for their donations.
As far away from Boston as Bellingham, Washington, huge crowds of people came to see her. In the Puget Sound area alone, she attracted a crowd of more than 500,000 people.
She even served during WWII, as a receiving barracks for troops transitioning between duty stations.
In 1976, during bicentennial celebrations, she hosted Queen Elizabeth II while on her tour around the country. By now, of course, our two countries had long been close allies.
Constitution represents the United States, from our ingenuity and fierce fighting spirit to our warm hospitality and friendship.
She has done so much for our country and the people of our country have expressed so many times how much they love ‘Old Ironsides’.
So to the question of why call her our Ship of State, I think the better question is: What took us so long?
But if you’re still wondering what exactly a Ship of State does, here’s what the aforementioned Defense Authorization Act states on the matter:
“It is the sense of Congress that the President, Vice President, executive branch officials, and members of Congress should use the USS Constitution for the conducting of pertinent matters of state, such as hosting visiting heads of state, signing legislation relating to the Armed Forces, and signing maritime related treaties.”