The American Revolution ended in 1783, and the new United States sent its merchant fleet afar to trade and rebuild its economy. However, in 1785, the Continental Navy of the Revolution was dissolved and US merchant vessels thereafter sailed unprotected. This vulnerability became a problem sailing off North Africa in the 1780s and 1790s and Congress eventually authorized a new navy in 1794. Between 1797 and 1800, 6 frigates were launched: United States, Constellation,Constitution, Chesapeake, Congress, and President. USS Constitution, launched October 21, 1797, is the sole survivor. Joshua Humphreys designed the frigates to be the strongest, fastest, and most heavily armed warships of the era. Constitution’s hull is three layers of wood: exterior & interior oak planking and dense live oak framing (ribs) spaced close together as the middle layer. At the waterline, the ship is over 22” thick and this strong, dense hull makes up her “iron” sides. When hit with enemy fire, Constitution’s hull either repelled the cannon shot or absorbed it, helping to prevent serious damage or great loss of life. Between 1798 and 1853, Constitution was victorious with 33 captures and her fame rests in her three stunning victories over Royal Navy vessels in the War of 1812.
“Old Ironsides” was able to resist enemy fire in battle, but her oak structure is liable to wood rot. In her long career, sailing out of Boston to the Mediterranean Sea, around-the-world in 1844-46, and later as a navy training ship from the 1860s to the 1880s, she has needed periodic repairs and overhauls – some minor, some extensive – to keep her sailing. USS Constitution returned to Boston for her 100th birthday in 1897, and the Charlestown Navy Yard has been her home ever since. In the 20th century, the ship underwent several restorations and in the 1927-31 work, approximately 85 percent of the ship was “renewed” (i.e. replaced) to make her seaworthy. The 1992-96 restoration brought back the ship’s structural strength according to Joshua Humphreys’ original 1794 instructions for building the frigates. The work of that four-year restoration enabled Constitution to mark her 200th anniversary by sailing under her own power for the first time in 116 years on July 21, 1997, off the coast of Marblehead, Massachusetts.
The 2007-2010 restoration returned to Constitution the sleek look of the lowered bulwarks and open midships waist and in the process removed 30-35 tons of excess weight from her over 210-year-old keel. With each restoration, USS Constitution is being restored to her War of 1812 appearance, “as far as practicable”, as stated in the mission of the Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston, who conducts the preservation and restoration work on the ship. Although “Old Ironsides” no longer fires her guns in anger, history continues to be made with the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat. In October, 2009, she was designated as “America’s Ship of State” and as such “the President, Vice President, executive branch officials, and members of Congress should use…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.” The draft treaty to end the war with Tripoli in 1805 was signed in Constitution’s cabin. It seems fitting that as America’s Ship of State her history comes full circle and that she should once again be the site for such important affairs of state. As the “ambassador” for the United States Navy through her public tours, USS Constitution is the connection between the Navy’s heritage and the thousands of Sailors and Marines that today serve the United States proudly around the world.
Margherita M. Desy
Historian, Naval History & Heritage Command
Margherita M. Desy is the Historian for USS Constitution at Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston.