In order to pay off debts incurred during the American Revolution, Congress disbanded the Continental Navy. The Alliance, the last remaining vessel in the Continental fleet was sold in August, 1785. Over the next few years, repeated incidents involving American merchant vessels made it clear that the United States needed to protect its property, citizens, national security on the high seas. Many Founders, including John Jay and Thomas Jefferson, advocated that several ships be built to address the situation. However, opponents feared a bureaucracy, in the form of a Department of the Navy, would arise and lead to further debt. They, instead, suggested the Congress use a series of sanctions or bribes to remedy the situation. By late 1973, George Washington became convinced it was time to take action. During his State of the Union Address on December 3, 1793, Washington stated: “”If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace, . . . it must be known, that we are at all times ready for war.” After forming a committee to study the matter, Congress passed the Naval Armament Actof 1794 on March 27th which included the authorization to build six frigates. One of those frigates was the U.S.S. Constitution.
The Constitution is also known as “Old Ironsides.” The ship boasts 44 guns (which sometimes increased to as many as 50) and 3 masts. It sails at speeds up to 13 knots, and is 175 feet in length at the waterline The vessel’s cost was slightly more than $300.000.00. The Constitution was launched by Captain James Sever with a bottle of Madeira wine on October 21, 1797. Its maiden voyage, patrolling the waters of America’s East Coast, began on July 22, 1798.
It is easy to understand why the Constitution is such a remarkable ship after learning of her battles and missions. Although vessels constructed at that time were expected to sail for only one or two decades, the Constitution has carried on for two centuries. She participated in the Quasi War with France, the Barbary Wars, and then in the War of 1812. She was involved in a famous battle with HMS Guerriere during which the ships fired at each other while they were locked together. The Constitution was virtually unscathed after the battle, while the Guerriere lost its masts. After British prisoners boarded the Constitution, the Guerriere was burned. Purportedly, members of her crew watched British ammunition bounce off of the sides of the Constitution. This led to the nickname of “Old Ironsides.” The Constitution went onto sail across the globe including to ports in South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, the Mediterranean, and Hawaii. The US Navy has a wonderful recount of the battles of the U.S. Constitution at: http://www.history.navy.mil/ussconstitution/history.html
The Constitution was retired in 1881. Although Congress authorized that the Constitution be restored in 1900, it appropriated no funds to do so. After the Secretary of the Navy suggested using her as target practice in 1905, Moses H. Gulesian offered funds to restore the Constitution, as well as initiating a public outcry against sinking such a national treasure. Congress later appropriated $100,000.00, and her restoration began in 1906. Old Ironsides was designated as a museum in 1907. Although her crew once swelled to over 400, she now has 60 sailors and officers assigned to her.
The Constitution continues to call the Boston Naval Shipyard as its home. Guided tours of the vessel are available year round. Although its status is technically inactive, she last sailed on her own power in August, 2012 in honor of the 200th anniversary of her victorious battle with the Guerriere. Each year 150 lottery winners board the Constitution and are passengers on her Fourth of July turnaround cruise. Access the form for a chance to take part in this ceremony here: http://www.history.navy.mil/ussconstitution/Lottery.html