By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)
Constitution was built on a slip laid for the purpose in Edmund Hartt’s shipyard in the North End of Boston, approximately at the eastern end of the present day Coast Guard Base. Her keel was laid in the summer of 1795, and in late August 1797, she was about ready to enter her element.
The year 1797, with the launching of three frigates, marked the beginning of the United States Navy. First to wet her keel was United States, the design sister to Constitution, on 10 May. Constellation, built to a smaller design, was launched at Baltimore on 7 September. In Boston, the burgeoning bulk of the frigate had dominated the waterfront for months. The citizenry had evinced considerable pride in her from the earliest days of her construction, and now that the other two frigates had been launched, they were most anxious that “their” ship likewise be afloat. It may have been this local pressure that caused Claghorn to set 20 September as the big day and have invitations sent to President Adams and other luminaries.
The announcement of the launch date set off a flurry of activity. Enterprising nearby property owners and boatmen sought to capitalize on the occasion by erecting viewing platforms for paying customers on the one hand and hiring out their boats to well heeled rubberneckers on the other. People even were expected to gather on Noddle’s Island across the way to see the might frigate launched. In town, dinner, dances, and dramatics would celebrate the occasion.
The 20th of September dawned cold, but bright, an altogether pleasant day. Thousands thronged from Boston and the nearby countryside to take every possible perch from which the launching could be observed. At 11:20 A.M., the calculated moment of high tide, Claghorn gave the order to knock out the blocks and a hush fell over the crowd as it gathered itself to cheer the frigate’s first moments afloat. Soon, all the blocks were gone but the ship failed to move. A mortified Claghorn ordered the use of the driver screw to get her going, and she did. After twenty seven feet, she would move no farther. A portion of the ways had settled half an inch, and left her stuck. The blocks and shores were replaced, and the disappointed thousands went home. The frigate’s first moment in the sun had been a fizzle.
The next day, after taking measurements and laying his plans carefully, Constructor Claghorn wedged the ship up two inches in a fifty minute operation, and set about correcting the defects in the ways as he knew them. By evening, all appeared to be in readiness for another attempt.
On 22 September, with almost no one the wiser, the launch sequence again was started. This time, the ship moved thirty one feet and was about to enter the water when she stopped abruptly. Claghorn was sorely tempted to try and force her on in, but he recognized the real possibility of her becoming hung up, half in and half out, and wisely desisted. The settling of another portion of the ground ways, this time by one and 5/8 inches, had frustrated the plan.
This second miscarriage only served to heighten the verbal storm between Federalists and Democrats. And among seafaring folk there were those who were wagging their heads knowingly and declaring that the vessel was an “unlucky ship.” Nearly a month passed before the next period of maximum high tides.
A cold, overcast day was 21 October 1797. An east wind swept across the Hartt yard. Early that morning, George Claghorn caused one of the frigate’s 24 pounders, which were not yet on board, to be fired as an announcement to anyone interested that he was ready to try again at high tide.
By noon “a very numerous and brilliant collection of citizens assembled at the spectacle.” Among those on board for the occasion were Captain Samuel Nicholson, prickly as a porcupine and eager to have sole authority over the frigate as her first commander; Captain James Sever, visiting from his post at Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Mr. George Ticknor; newspaper publisher Mr. Benjamin Russell and his guests, the Duc de Montpensier, the Comte de Beaujolais, and the Duc de Chartres all French aristocracy displaced by the French Revolution. De Chartres one day would become King Louis Philippe.
A few moments later, Claghorn gave the order to knock out the wedges and shores, and this time the large frigate moved promptly and swiftly into the harbor waters. As she went, Captain Sever broke a bottle of Madeira on the heel of the bowsprit, declaring her to be named “Constitution.”
For all the satisfaction he must have felt that day, Captain Nicholson was frustrated in the exercise of what he considered to be one of his prerogatives: the breaking of the national ensign aboard the new ship. While he was attending a post launch dinner, two shipyard workers long vexed by the Captain’s irascibility, slipped aboard and hoisted the Stars and Stripes. Nicholson, of course, was furious, but the flag remained, fluttering in the cold, damp air.
[Adapted from a paper purchased by the Naval Institute in the 1980s but never published. Published in edited form in a special section of Naval History, July/August 1997, and in a separate booklet, USS Constitution: “Old Ironsides.”]