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Old Ironsides Has New Duties


Old Ironsides is now America's Ship of State. NPS photo.

You probably knew that the USS Constitution – better known as Old Ironsides – is the oldest commissioned warship in the U.S. Navy and a premier attraction of Boston National Historical Park. But did you know that it’s now America’s Ship of State?

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 that President Obama signed into law on October 28th is legislation designed to “authorize appropriations for fiscal year 2010 for military activities of the Department of Defense, to prescribe military personnel strengths for fiscal year 2010, and for other purposes." One of those “other purposes” was to designate the USS Constitution as America’s Ship of State. The president, vice president, executive branch officials, and members of Congress are now able to use the “Old Ironsides” for purposes such as hosting visiting heads of state, signing legislation relating to the armed forces, and signing maritime-related treaties.

Old Ironsides’ primary mission will continue to be education and public outreach. Whether used for these purposes or Ship of State functions, she’ll be in great shape. Her last major overhaul was in 1992-1996 in historic Dry Dock 1 in Boston National Historical Park. (This overhaul allowed the ship to sail under its own power for the first time in 116 years). She is currently undergoing what the Navy calls “pier side repair availability.” When completed, the major renovations will restore the ship to its 1812 configuration in time for the War of 1812 bicentennial commemoration.

World’s Longest Postscript: Here’s the fine print of the Ship of State designation. It actually makes for fascinating reading. Notice the wonderful oxymoron in section (b)(3).


(a) FINDINGS.—Congress makes the following findings: (1) In the Act entitled ‘‘An Act to Provide a Naval Armament’’, approved on March 27, 1794 (1 Stat. 350, Chap. XII), the 3rd Congress authorized the construction of six frigates as the first ships to be built for the United States Navy.

(2) One of the six frigates was built in Boston, Massachusetts, between 1794 and 1797, and is the only one of the original six ships to survive. (3) President George Washington named this frigate ‘‘Constitution’’ to represent the Nation’s founding document.

(4) President Thomas Jefferson, asserting the right of the United States to trade on the high seas, dispatched the frigate Constitution in 1803 as the flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron to end the depredations of the Barbary States against United States ships and shipping, which led to a treaty being signed with the Bashaw of Tripoli in the captain’s cabin aboard the frigate Constitution on June 4, 1805.

(5) The frigate Constitution, with her defeat of the H.M.S. Guerriere, secured the first major victory by the young United States Navy against the Royal Navy during the War of 1812, gaining in the process the nickname ‘‘Old Ironsides’’, which she has proudly carried since.

(6) Congress awarded gold medals to four of the ship’s commanding officers (Preble, Hull, Stewart, and Bainbridge), a record unmatched by any other United States Navy vessel.

(7) The frigate Constitution emerged from the War of 1812 undefeated, having secured victories over three additional ships of the Royal Navy.

(8) As early as May 1815, the frigate Constitution had already been adopted as a symbol of the young Republic, as attested by the [Washington] National Intelligencer which proclaimed, ‘‘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.’’.

(9) Rumors in 1830 that ‘‘Old Ironsides’’, an aging frigate, was about to be scrapped resulted in a public uproar demanding that the ship be restored and preserved, spurred by Oliver Wendell Holmes’ immortal poem ‘‘Old Ironsides’’.

(10) ‘‘Old Ironsides’’ circumnavigated the world between 1844 and 1846, showing the American flag as she searched for future coaling stations that would eventually fuel the steampowered navy of the United States.

(11) The first Pope to set foot on United States sovereign territory was Pius IX onboard the frigate Constitution in 1849. H. R. 2647—257

(12) On April 25, 1860, ‘‘Old Ironsides’’ evacuated the midshipmen of the United States Naval Academy from Annapolis, Maryland, to Newport, Rhode Island, preventing the young officers and the esteemed ship from falling into Confederate hands.

(13) In 1896, Congressman John F. ‘‘Honey Fitz’’ Fitzgerald introduced legislation to return ‘‘Old Ironsides’’ from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in New Hampshire, where she was moored pier side and largely forgotten, to Boston for her 100th birthday.

(14) Thousands of school children contributed pennies between 1925 an 1927 to help fund a much needed restoration for ‘‘Old Ironsides’’.

(15) Between 1931 and 1934, more than 4,500,000 Americans gained inspiration, at the depth of the Great Depression, by going aboard ‘‘Old Ironsides’’ as she was towed to 76 ports on the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts.

(16) The 83rd Congress enacted the Act of July 23, 1954 (68 Stat. 527, chapter 565), which directed the Secretary of the Navy to transfer to the States and appropriate commissions four other historic ships then on the Navy inventory, and to repair and equip the U.S.S. Constitution, as much as practicable, to her original condition, but not for active service.

(17) Queen Elizabeth II paid a formal visit to the U.S.S. Constitution in 1976, at the start of her state visit marking the bicentennial of the United States.

(18) The U.S.S. Constitution, in celebration of her bicentennial, returned to sea under sail on July 21, 1997, for the first time since 1881, proudly setting sails purchased by the contributions of thousands of pennies given by school children across the United States.

(19) The U.S.S. Constitution is the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world.

(20) The U.S.S. Constitution is a national historic landmark.

(21) The U.S.S. Constitution continues to perform official, ceremonial duties, including in recent years hosting a congressional dinner honoring the late Senator John Chafee of Rhode Island, a special salute for the dedication of the John Moakley Federal Courthouse, a luncheon honoring British Ambassador Sir David Manning, and a special underway demonstration during which 60 Medal of Honor recipients each received a personal Medal of Honor flag.

(22) The U.S.S. Constitution celebrated on October 21, 2007, the 210th anniversary of her launching.

(23) The U.S.S. Constitution will remain a commissioned ship in the United States Navy, with the Navy retaining control of the ship, its material condition, and its employment.

(24) The U.S.S. Constitution’s primary mission will remain education and public outreach, and any Ship of State functions will be an adjunct to the ship’s primary mission.


(1) IN GENERAL.—The U.S.S. Constitution is hereby designated as ‘‘America’s Ship of State’’.

(2) REFERENCES.—The U.S.S. Constitution may be known or referred to as ‘‘America’s Ship of State’’. H. R. 2647—258

(3) SENSE OF CONGRESS.—It is the sense of Congress that the President, Vice President, executive branch officials, and members of Congress should use the U.S.S. 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.

(4) FEE OR REIMBURSEMENT STRUCTURE FOR NON-DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY USE.—The Secretary of the Navy shall determine an appropriate fee or reimbursement structure for any non-Department of the Navy entities.


Why did this happen a full year before the war?
"On April 25, 1860, ‘‘Old Ironsides’’ evacuated the midshipmen of the United States Naval Academy from Annapolis, Maryland, to Newport, Rhode Island, preventing the young officers and the esteemed ship from falling into Confederate hands."

Nice catch, Joe. In fact, it deserves a hearty "Wow!". It's not every day that somebody finds an egregious typo in a piece of legislation printed in the the Federal Register for God and everybody to see forever. As you've pointed out, the referenced evacuation of Old Ironsides from Annapolis, MD (to prevent it from falling into Confederate hands) happened in April 1861, not April 1860. Old Ironsides arrived in Newport, RI, on May 8, 1861, where it received and answered a thunderous 24-gun salute from the batteries at Fort Adams. BTW, it wasn't just the USS Constitution that holed up in Newport. The US Naval Academy was located there too for the duration of the war. After the war ended, Old Ironsides and the Naval Academy were both ordered back to Annapolis.

While the USS Consitiution, Old Ironsides, is the oldest commissioned vessel in the United States, there is at least one other commissioned vessel elsewhere in the world that is older. HMS Victory, Lord Nelson's Flagship, was launched in 1765 and is still a commissioned warship in the Royal Navy.

My belated thanks to Stuart for the nice catch. I've made the correction. The statement now reads: "....the USS Constitution – better known as Old Ironsides – is the oldest commissioned warship in the U.S. Navy .... " [italics added here for emphasis]

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