When the USS Constitution was launched in 1797, it was twenty‑two years after the start of the Revolution, fourteen years after the Revolution had ended with the Peace of Paris. So those citizens of Lincoln who might have watched the launching at Hartt’s Shipyard would have stood in closer memory to the Revolution than you and I do to the Vietnam War. The sons of Minute Men might well have manned the cannon of USS Constitution, receiving orders from officers who commanded their fathers during the Revolution.
Such connections did in fact occur. When the Continental Navy was formed in late 1775, it proved difficult to get crews for the Navy’s warships because seasoned sailors and landlubbers alike had discovered that serving on privateer ships was much more profitable than Continental service. The crews of privateers divided the prize money they gained by seizing British ships, while sailors of the Continental Navy only received pay of a few dollars per month. (Captain William Smith of the Lincoln Minute Men, for instance, went to sea as the captain of Marines aboard the privateer American Tartar in 1777.) As a consequence, George Washington was compelled to take officers and men from the New England militias to round out the Navy and the Marines. When the Revolution ended, some of these foot soldiers remained as career Navy officers. Silas Talbot, the second captain of USS Constitution who took command in 1799, was an example. Talbot had served during the Revolution first as a militia captain, then as a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army, and finally as a captain in the Continental Naby.
Some other connections between the Minute Men and USS Constitution are tenuous, but amusing. When Paul Revere rowed across the Charles River on the night of April 18, 1775, he feared detection by the crew of the British ship HMS Somerset, afloat in the harbor. During a storm in 1778, HMS Somerset ran aground off Provincetown, and her cannon were stripped by patriots and used to arm Castle Island in Boston Harbor. When USS Constitution was commanded to set sail in 1798, some of the cannon ordered for her had not yet arrived, so the Navy sought the loan of guns from Castle Island. The USS Constitution, constructed with Paul Revere’s copper nails and sheathing, probably carried the cannon from HMS Somerset that Revere had once dreaded.
The original 24 pounders that armed USS Constitution had been purchased from Great Britain and thus bore the insignia of King George III. When this was pointed out to Queen Elizabeth during her visit aboard in 1976, the Queen reportedly remarked to Prince Philip, “I say, Philip, we really must talk to the Foreign Secretary about these foreign arms sales when we get home.”
If you and I had been veterans of the Revolution and had stood at dockside when USS Constitution was launched on October 21, 1797, how much would our world have changed in those 20 years or so?
In important ways, the transformation would have been profound. The thirteen original states had failed in their initial union under the Articles of Confederation. But the Constitution drafted in Philadelphia in 1787 had been ratified, and George Washington had been the unanimous selection for President by the Electoral College in 1789. Turbulent events in Massachusetts had helped bring about the change from the Articles to the Constitution. As a result of instability in the currency of Massachusetts (remember, this was an era when each state issued its own money), many farmers in the western counties were incapable of paying their taxes and debts. When pressed by their creditors, a mob had risen up in rebellion in 1786, under the leadership of Daniel Shays, a veteran of Bunker Hill. The rebels seized the arsenal at Springfield, and it required a privately-financed Massachusetts army to put down the rebellion, because the government of the United States had neither army nor money to do it. The image of such an impotent government persuaded many that the Articles of Confederation must be replaced. Our present Constitution was the result.
In October 1797, of course, George Washington would have just completed his second term as President and retired to Mt. Vernon, succeeded as President by John Adams, that high-minded but obstinate son of Massachusetts. Thomas Jefferson had been selected by the Electoral College as Vice President to serve with Adams, although they shared little in common. Many other heroes of the Revolution were still around, but the passing of that era was already foreshadowed whenUSS Constitution was launched. The aging Sam Adams was serving his final year as Governor of Massachusetts. Paul Revere was a celebrated silversmith with a prosperous business in cast iron and bronze. But Benjamin Franklin had died in 1790, and John Hancock in 1793. And Capt. Francis Smith, the commanding officer of the British march to Concord in April 1775, had received one inexplicable promotion after another in His Majesty’s Army, and had died as a lieutenant general in 1791.
The new Republic was growing. The original thirteen states had become sixteen by 1797 (although USS Constitution still flew the official American flag with fifteen stars and stripes). Maine was still a part of Massachusetts, but Vermont had been split off from New York, and Kentucky and Tennessee had been added as new states. American territories that were not yet states extended out to the banks of the Mississippi River as it flowed from Minnesota to the Gulf. Florida remained in the hands of Spain. No one had yet even imagined the Louisiana Purchase. The principal political parties were the Federalists of Washington and Adams, favoring a strong national government and dominant in New England and the North, and the Democratic Republicans of Jefferson, favoring decentralization and dominant in the South. The nation’s capital city had moved from New York to Philadelphia, where it would remain until the turn of the century.
The flag with fifteen stars and stripes had been adopted in 1794, after Vermont (1791) and Kentucky (1792) had joined the Union, but before Tennessee (1796). It remained the official flag until 1818, when the design returned to 13 stripes, with 20 stars for all the states
In other respects, life was remarkably unchanged since the Revolution. America remained a rural society. The second census, which would be conducted in 1800, would show a total population of 5.3 million, of whom 1 million were black slaves. Yet in all of the United States, there were only five cities of note: Philadelphia at 42,000 population, New York at 33,000, Boston with 18,000, Charleston with 16,000, and Baltimore with 13,000. Roughly 95% of the nation’s population still lived in communities of fewer than 2,500 people. And because birth rates and family size were so high, more than half the population was under the age of 17. Although farming in Massachusetts had become closely tied to national and foreign markets, families still lived in comparative isolation, and thus yielded only slowly to changing fashions and technology.
In clothing, the breeches, powdered wigs, long‑tailed coats, and tri‑corner hats for men were giving way to long trousers, shorter vests, short and snug coats, shorter hair without queues, and stovepipe hats. These changes were first adopted by the young and the urban, so that the clothing styles of the Revolution would become increasingly the style of the older and the rural in coming decades. Men continued to be clean shaven, with few beards or mustaches. Among women, the full skirts and long sleeves of the 1700’s were giving way to the trim silhouette of the “classical” style, which revealed more of arm and figure. And the coarse home woven linen and woolens grew less common as British factory made fabrics of cotton and wool became more plentiful.
The birth of USS Constitution was itself the story of a nation standing on the threshold between the past and the future. Washington had originally felt the United States did not need a navy, so long as American merchant ships could be armed if the need arose. But American ships were increasingly harassed by the European powers and preyed upon by the pirate states of the Barbary Coast, which held captured American sailors for ransom. In its wisdom, an offended Congress decided it had had enough — almost. In 1794, it authorized the construction of six warships of the class called frigates — but stipulated that the ships should not be built if a treaty could be reached with the Barbary states instead. Indeed, a treaty was signed in which the United States paid almost a million dollars in ransom to free its citizens, and Congress promptly halted all but the three ships already under construction: USS Constitution, USS United States, and USS Constellation.
As “44’s” carrying forty‑four cannon and crews of 400, USS Constitution and USS United States were the largest warships in the American Navy, but by no means the largest of warships. (USS Constellation, at 38 guns, was somewhat smaller.) Among the European powers, the backbone of combat fleets were ships of the line with two or three gun decks, mounting from 64 to as many as 140 cannon and with crews up to 1,000 sailors and marines. But the frigates had been selected because they fit an appropriate naval strategy for a young American nation. As their designer, Joshua Humphreys, expressed it, America should build “such frigates as in blowing weather could be an overmatch for double-deck ships, and in light winds could evade coming action.” They would be large enough to take on other warships their size, to show the flag on all seas, to intimidate lesser states, and to raid the commercial shipping of enemies, but trim and swift enough to retreat when confronted by a more powerful opponent. In combat service that lasted from 1797 to 1855, USS Constitution did all these things.
USS Constitution was completed at a total cost of $302,700, some 260% above the original estimate (largely due to the difficulty of finding appropriate timber for her sturdy construction). Although USS Constitution was rated as a “44,” in fact she carried a variety of cannon during her service, as many as 55 on one occasion. The thirty cannon on the main gun deck were 24 pounders, that is, cannon firing cast iron balls weighing 24 pounds. The cannon on the topmost deck were often a mix of 12, 18, and 32 pounders. So, in her most famous engagement againstHMS Guerriere during the War of 1812, a broadside from USS Constitution hurdled almost 700 pounds of iron at high velocity against the side of Guerriere at a range of perhaps no more than 25‑50 yards. HMS Guerriere responded in kind, but USS Constitution’s stout construction was more than a match. When a few of Guerriere’s cannon balls bounced off her sides,USS Constitution acquired her nickname, ‘Old Ironsides.’
Of life on board, we know enough: it was tedious and repetitive. A crew of 400 was needed for combat — to man the cannon, cope with battle damage, form a boarding party, and such — but not for routine sailing of the ship. So a good deal of daily life was consumed by repetitive maintenance tasks that kept the men busy and out of trouble. Apparently USS Constitution had a group of about 20 sailors who formed a musical band of fifers and drummers and played on board for the amusement of the crew during chores. As compensation for a tedious life, the Captain was paid about $75 per month plus allowances for his rations, for a total of about $2,000 per year, while in contrast, the common sailors earned about $17 per month, the same as a skilled laborer in Boston (but with room and board provided by the Navy). And a half pint of rum each day.
So, a Lincoln Minute Man standing at Hartt’s Shipyard in 1797 would have surveyed a Boston not much changed from the time of the Revolution. Yet ‘Old Ironsides’ would have been a glimpse of America’s future, a symbol and an instrument of a United States in ascendance in the world. When USS Constitution sent a party of Marines ashore at Danang, Vietnam, in 1845, to rescue several imprisoned French missionaries, it foreshadowed more of America’s future than anyone might have imagined. As modern Minute Men, when you stand at the rail of ‘Old Ironsides’ on her 200th birthday cruise, all this will be reversed. Virtually nothing in Boston remains the same — only the ship beneath your feet is unchanged, a symbol of where America once began.
- • Bruce Grant, Captain of Old Ironsides: The Life and Fighting Times of Isaac Hull(Chicago: Pellegrini and Cudahy, 1947).
- • John Keegan, The Price of Admiralty (New York: Penguin Books, 1988).
- • Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790‑1840 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).
- • Tyrone G. Martin (Captain, USS Constitution, 1974‑1978), A Most Fortunate Ship: A Narrative History of ‘Old Ironsides’ (Chester, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1980).
- • Elliot Snow and Allen Gosnell, On the Decks of ‘Old Ironsides’ (New York: Macmillan, 1932).