February 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 2
It was a bright day for the Republic, that afternoon of May 15, 1815, when the U.S.S. Constitution victoriously dropped anchor oil the Battery at New York. Of all the gala homecomings that Castle Clinton’s low brown walls would witness in the next century and a half, none would be charged with more patriotic fervor.
For the citizen of 1815 recognized in this ship, as clearly as the historian who would teach his great-grandchildren, a prime instrument that had done much to make the United States a power to be respected both on the seas and in the capitals of the world. In the war just ended, beyond settlement of old scores and salving of old wounds, he sensed that from a resident of a somewhat apprehensive renegade colony he had changed into a citixen of the world. And for this in large part he thanked Old Ironsides.
What no one could know at the time was that for Constitution May 15, 1815, was not only a day of triumph but a day of translation from instrument to institution, from mortal to immortal. One career had ended; another was about to begin. As wooden ships go, Old Ironsides, at eighteen, was already fully entitled to the adjective in her nickname. Her cue now was to accept her laurels gracefully and, after a few years in ordinary, to fade quietly from view.
Constitution missed the cue. Instead, she commenced a second career, which was to last almost nine times as long as the span in which she performed most of the feats the textbooks celebrate. Throughout it lier guns have never been fired in anger—though occasionally they have given stern admonition to pirates, slavers, and their ilk. Yet she has had narrower escapes from destruction in the past 154 years than in all her encounters with Barbary corsairs and British fleets. She is standing into hazardous waters again today.
One of the first six frigates authorized March 27, 1794, by the Fourth Congress, Constitution was designed by Joshua Humphreys and laid down at Hartt’s shipyard in Boston. Subsequent events seemed to mark her as anything but a lucky ship. Her construction lagged behind that of lier sisters, and when she was finally ready in September, 1797, she twice refused to descend the ways before she could be floated. Superstitious beards wagged, but Constitution was to repudiate these omens.
She and her sisters in this first fully intentional United States Navy were loftily rigged, solidly built vessels—though Constitution ’s, dimensions of 175 feet on the waterline, 43 feet 6 inches beam, and 2,200 tons displacement by no means put her in a class with the world’s heaviest men-of-war. Like all important combat vessels of the day, she was ship-rigged: a three-master with square sails on fore, main, and mizzen. This similarity of rigging makes it far harder for the twentieth-century eye to differentiate the various warship classes of 1800 than to sort out modern destroyers, cruisers, and battleships at a glance. But the distinctions were there. The sloop of war, light, agile, and speedy, with guns on only one deck, was the nineteenth-century destroyer. The frigate, heavier but still fast and handily maneuverable, with two tiers of guns, was the cruiser. Deadliest of all, though slow and ponderous, with three or more rows of guiiports, was the ship of the line, or line-of-battle ship, whose abbreviated name remained synonymous with maximum killing power at sea until the advent of the carrier and, since World War II, the nuclear submarine.
Line-of-battle ships were far too rich for the young-republic’s blood. Humphreys’ solution for this problem was the “superfrigale,” which could outpunch anything afloat except a line-of-battle ship and could outmaneuver and outrun even one of those. Constitution was a “forty-four”; the customary British frigate was rated at thirty-eight guns. Constitution ’s main royal truck (the tip of lier tallest mast) was 170 feet above the deck, almost 200 feet above her keel. Her main yard, supporting the largest of the eleven square sails normally set, was 95 feet long and almost 50 feet above the deck. These dimensions spelled speed: even at the age of sixty-eight, the ship once reeled off 13½, knots (15½ statute miles per hour) for several hours.
Besides striking power and speed there was a third requirement: endurance. For this Humphreys selected unusually heavy timber and put it together with unusual sturdiness. One authority says, “He made the frames, planking, and spars fully equal in size to a line-of-battle ship.” Herein lies the real basis for her most popular name.
From her eighteen-by-twenty-four-inch oak keel rose her great live oak frames, or ribs, tapering from a lateral thickness of fifteen inches at the base to nine inches at the gun deck. These were set much closer together than in ordinary ships—practically touching, in fact, so as to form a vertical stockade of tough timber. Overlaid on the outside by horizontal oak planking seven inches thick and on the inside by five-inch timber sheathing, they conshiuted a virtual coat of armor, effective against much of llie ordnance of the day: they were the “iron sides” acclaimed by her crew when they saw British shot rebounding from them in her first great battle during the War of 1812.
Following her shakedown cruise in July, 1798, under Samuel Nicholson’s command, Constitution was sent out against the French and performed creditably if not spectacularly, chiefly in the West Indies, until the quasi-war came to an end early in 1801. the power, speed, and stamina Humphreys had built into her received their first serious combat testing in the Mediterranean from 1803 to 1805, against Tripoli and other Barbary powers, which were then on one of their recurrent harassment sprees against American shipping and seamen. Under Edward Preble, Constitution led a Mediterranean squadron against the corsairs. But the key date in her history was 1812. When war on England was declared June 18 (ironically, two days after repeal of the British orders-in-council that were the ostensible provocation to hostilities), she dialed from Annapolis with orders to join the squadron of her former commander John Rodgers, off New York. Prophetically, she never made that rendezvous. In her major encounters of the next three years, she would play a lone hand.
Those encounters vindicated Joshua Humphreys’ planning. She struck with overwhelming power and accuracy, survived heroic punishment, and fled magnificently when flight was indicated. Her escapes from British traps are classic suspense stories of the sea.
During the was she had three commanders: Isaac Hull, William Bainbridge, and Charles Stewart. Each was to lead her to one victory that would stand as a classic of sea warfare: Hull’s defeat of H.M.S. Guerrière on August 19, 1812; Bainbridge’s of H.M.S. Java on December 29, 1812; and Stewart’s of the sloop of war Levant and the frigate Cyane in February, 1815. The last, like the land victory won at New Orleans by Andrew Jackson (whose path would cross Old Ironsides’ bows again) was fought after the war had ended but before the signing of the Treaty of Ghent had been officially communicated to all concerned. Three months later, Old Ironsides triumphantly entered New York Harbor, bringing her first career to a close.
Constitution’s second career runs through four fifths of the entire life span of the United States of America. She has flown the flag of an admiral or a commodore for a bout one third of that time—and still does today. After her exploits in the nation’s second war she has served through seven others, not without involvement, although never in a belligerent role. Her still-unfurling afterlife falls into three parts: a little over forty years in which she has been a heroic relic, a patriotic symbol—and a growing problem.
Reading her story, one could say that, like another great lady, her infinite variety can neither be staled by custom nor withered by a very large dose of time. She has received visits and honors from poets, potentates, and at least one pope. A baby has been born aboard.
She has transported botanical specimens, diplomats, locomotives, objets d’art , and livestock. Schoolchildren have swarmed over her decks, from an 1835 fall day in the Mediterranean to the present in bleak Charlestown, Massachusetts. She was the diva of a comic-opera insult to the President of the United States. And she fought her own small Vietnamese war 115 years before American advisers reached that unhappy land.
First, though, she went into temporary seclusion. From 1815 to 1821, while her sister ships did a final cleanup job on the Barbary pirates (who had found the War of 1812 a convenient time to backslide), she slumbered at Boston, undergoing leisurely postwar surgery and cosmetic rehabilitation. She emerged a different ship. Never again would she be a mere naval vessel, though for decades she would sail under naval orders and run naval errands. She was somehow changed, somehow elevated. The first man, perhaps, to recognize her metamorphosis was neither a sailor nor an American. In 1822, a year after she entered the Strait of Gibraltar on the first of five tours as flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron, she was visited by George Gordon, Lord Byron. The young British poet, a martyr two years later to the cause of Greek independence, is said to have walked Old Ironsides’ decks with unwonted reverence and to have observed that he “would rather have a nod from an American than a snuffbox from an emperor.”
Constitution returned home, but sailed at just about the time of Byron’s death for a second Mediterranean tour during which, while maintaining punctilious neutrality, she extended all possible nonmilitary succor to the Greek population, then suffering under Turkish suppression and reprisals. On one occasion, as a form of “relief,” Commodore Daniel Patterson purchased from a starving local group an ancient buried statue: the colossal headless Ceres now preserved at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Later, when the Western powers had ensured Greek independence by crushing the Turkish and Egyptian fleets at Navarino, Old Ironsides’ quiet presence at Smyrna, while most western Europeans were fleeing or cowering in terror, has been credited with averting a massacre. On this same cruise Constitution was hostess to the King and Queen of Greece, to the redoubtable Viceroy of Egypt, Mahomet Ali, and to over two hundred orphan children shepherded by American and English missionaries.
Though she had already achieved a sort of immortality, the old frigate had begun to demonstrate that in structure she was desperately mortal. Wooden ships require virtually continuous repair and replacement, but these, even when scrupulously performed, cannot indefinitely postpone the day when the choice is rebuild or destroy. Constitution has reached that point five times in her career—at quarter-century intervals, on the average. The sixth crisis is now past due.
The first awaited her in 1828, on her Fourth-of-July arrival in Boston from the Mediterranean, and it was the direst peril she has ever survived. A hardheaded board of officers surveyed her and pronounced her past economic repair. The Navy Department concurred and consigned her to scrap. Oliver Wendell Holmes, then a law student at Harvard and soon to be a physician, read the papers and wrote a poem that began, “Ay, tear her tattered ensign down …”
The resultant gale of public indignation swept away the disposal order and kindled congressional fervor to enact appropriations for Constitution ’s complete reconstruction. In all her years of rough use, the ship had never been drydocked. Opportunely, the Navy was just completing Dry Dock No. 1 in Charlestown, and on June 24, 1833, Old Ironsides became the first vessel to occupy it. After a year of radical surgery at the hands of naval constructor Josiah Barker, a worthy successor to Joshua Humphreys, she emerged from what would henceforth be called Constitution Dock.
Having escaped the fire, Constitution temporarily found herself in an anticlimactic frying pan: the figurehead affair. In her long life she has borne eight or nine bow adornments, starting with a wooden Hercules who, demigod or not, was no match for Moorish cannon balls at Tripoli. Neptune, his successor, gave way before 1812 to a nonrepresentational carved scroll known as a billethead, or fiddlehead. This went ashore at Constitution Dock, since yard commander Jesse Elliott planned to refit her with a figure of President Andrew Jackson. Maritime Boston, strongly Federalist, thought otherwise. On the night of July 2, 1834, a young mariner, Samuel Dewey (cousin of one George, who would later command Constitution before moving on to Manila Bay), rowed out, climbed up, sawed off Jackson’s head under the noses of the Marine guard, and escaped. Great and even more furious hubbub ensued, but beneath it all everyone except minor officialdom seems to have kept the affair in perspective as a political prank, and Dewey was not arrested when he brazenly and in person returned the head to the Secretary of the Navy some months later. Even Old Hickory himself, although he was ailing at the time, is said to have viewed Dewey’s impudent exploit with amusement. Meanwhile, the offending effigy had received a new head at New York, which Old Ironsides bore for nearly a quarter century until it was supplanted by a rather more elegant image of the old Indian fighter. This second Jackson figurehead is the one preserved at the Naval Academy today. Since its removal the ship has worn less controversial bow scrolls.
Though she knew neither the “battle-shout” nor the “conquered knee,” Constitution between the ages of thirty-eight and fifty-eight was a very busy and increasingly honored lady. She was flagship on her old Mediterranean station three times: 1835-38, 1848-51, and 1853-55. In 1839-41 she headed the Pacific Squadron, and for a year thereafter was flagship of the Home Squadron, based at Norfolk under Commodore Stewart, her old captain against Cyane and Levant . Her busy calendar included a round-the-world cruise in 1844-46 under “Mad Jack” Percival’s command. In these twenty years she is conservatively estimated to have sailed over 200,000 miles.
These decades were marked by a growing esteem and affection for the old ship on the part of citizens of many other countries, including old enemies. In February, 1836, when she lay at Malta surrounded by British naval might, her hosts accorded her the unprecedented honor of a Washington’s Birthday salute. A gaudy painting survives to show how she was “dressed” (some would say overdressed) to receive this tribute. (See pages 24-25.) Nine years later, when Percival brought her into Singapore from the Indian Ocean with a dangerous proportion of his crew down with fever, one of the first to board was the senior Royal Navy officer present, Commodore Henry D. Chads, who had last visited her thirty-three years earlier to surrender the beaten Java , whose commander had been fatally wounded. Chads extended to Percival all the courtesies of the port, including every medical facility at his command.
For all her success as diplomat and peacemaker, though, Old Ironsides was still a man-of-war, under orders to look to United States interests and, if necessary, to defend them with force anywhere at any time. Thus, as she lay at Callao, Peru, in 1841 in company with British warships whose admiral and crews had just participated in the funeral tribute to her squadron’s commander, Commodore Alexander Claxton, news belatedly arrived of the ominous crisis between the two nations arising from the “Patriot War” on the Canadian border. For several years Canadians had been embittered by “liberation” raids launched from American soil without significant efforts at restraint by United States authorities, while American hotheads were enraged by British seizure and destruction of the small American steamer Caroline , which had been running supplies across the Niagara River to the insurgents. A chill descended on the ships at Callao. For all they knew, their countries were already at war. No shots were fired, but not until Old Ironsides had completed an apprehensive seven-week haul around the Horn did she learn from a Brazilian vessel that she need not expect a broadside from the first British warship she encountered.
Again, in 1845, of the bulge of Cochin China, now a part of Vietnam, she found herself in a situation that involved a calculated risk of hostilities. While moored at Touron, a few miles down the coast from the capital city of Hue, she received an urgent plea for rescue. Monseigneur Dominique Lefevre, the French bishop of Western Cochin, imprisoned at Hue under sentence of death by the King of Cochin China, besought Old Ironsides (which he took to be French) to act on his behalf. Captain Percival determined that humanity required him to do what he could. For three weeks, by means of hostages, intermediaries, and several armed boat expeditions led by Mad Jack himself, she kept the local authorities off balance. There was no gunplay, except for warning shots directed at threatening Cochinese junks and brigs. Finally, though no definite answer had been received from the king, it was learned that the French fleet had been alerted and was on its way from Singapore; Constitution moved on, having probably saved the French prelate’s life.
While she crossed the Pacific, war was brewing between this country and Mexico. Arriving on the coast in the first days of 1846, she joined Commodore Sloat’s fleet lying off Mazatlán. The United States declared war on May 13, but Constitution ’s only active role was to convoy a frightened fleet of sixteen coffee ships from Rio de Janeiro to the Delaware Capes. Thus ended her martial career.
But she still had much to do and many miles to sail in the nation’s service. She was frequently detailed to transport American diplomats to and from their posts of duty. In 1811 she had delivered our ambassador, Joel Barlow, to France and in 1835 had made a hasty round trip to bring home one of his successors, Edward Livingston. In 1844 sne started her world cruise by dropping our minister to Brazil off at Rio. And in 1849, as sne was moving Consul General D. S. Macauley and his family from Tripoli to Alexandria, her battle-hardened beams and bulkheads echoed to a new and alarming sound: the squall of a newborn baby. Mother and child flourished, and the newcomer, having entered this life at the very center of his country’s naval history, was christened Constitution Stewart Macauley.
Those of the press who acclaimed the 1965 visit of Pope Paul VI as the first contact between a papal foot and American soil had not done their naval homework. By national and international law, the deck of a United States warship is American soil. A few weeks after C. S. Macauley established his citizenship by being born on that soil, Constitution lay at Gaeta, Italy. In a time of turbulence throughout Europe, the then Pope, Pius IX, had been given sanctuary by the King of Naples. With his host, on August a, he visited Old Ironsides, being rowed to her by a boat’s crew made up entirely of captains of the warships of many nations then lying in the harbor.
In 1855 Old Ironsides ended her last service cruise —chiefly in waters between Saint Helena and the Cape Verdes, for the suppression of the slave trade—and came home to find the Union she had helped weld together falling apart over the slavery issue. This was a crisis in which her commission could carry no weight, and she went into five years’ inactive status at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. During this period the Navy, without the need of any urging by Oliver Wendell Holmes (still in his forties), gave her a much-needed rebuilding—though not with a view to really active service in the future. On its completion she was ordered to Annapolis as a Naval Academy training ship, just in time to confront a new peril.
When Lieutenant Commander David D. Porter brought her to Annapolis, Lincoln’s election was only three months away, and secession was in the air. Eight months later, with Sumter lost and Constitution facing recurrent threats of seizure or destruction by southern sympathizers, she was removed from her academy berth and towed to Newport, Rhode Island—whither the Naval Academy itself was transferred for the duration—to continue as a training ship.
Returned to Annapolis with the academy, she spent the years 1867-70 under the caretaker-command of Lieutenant Commander George Dewey. Within a year after Dewey relinquished command, a survey showed Constitution to be in a “critical” state of decay, and she was ordered to Philadelphia for “extensive restoration.” The Navy and Congress seem still to have regarded her maintenance as a matter of course, even though she was now clearly an institution rather than an instrument of defense.
This, her third rebuilding, took a long time. She was supposed to be ready to go on display as a prime exhibit of the Centennial Exposition in 1876, but she was not. Denied the chance to be a star at one fair, she became a slavey for another when, two years later, she was ordered to France as transport for the United States displays at the Universal Exposition in Paris. Without most of her guns, and with a crew of less than sixty, she lifted about 830 tons of cargo, including a deckload of streetcars and a locomotive. After waiting nearly a year, she re-embarked these evidences of American progress and sailed for home. Through what was later ruled a freak of Channel currents, she wound up hard aground on the English coast. As at Singapore three decades earlier, her old enemies came to her rescue, towed her off, and repaired her at Her Majesty’s Portsmouth dockyard. But her trials were not ended. After she had begun a second westward crossing, structural defects (later alleged to have resulted from misapplication of funds during her latest rebuilding) forced her back to Lisbon for further prolonged repairs.
This last foreign voyage, as a cargo ship, recalls an additional function that Old Ironsides had performed virtually from the start of her second career in 1821. In addition to her military, diplomatic, and political functions, she was expected to further the advancement of the arts and sciences in the maturing republic by bringing home whatever artifacts, specimens, and data she might be able to accumulate on her cruises. The headless Ceres was only a beginning. From her 1835-38 Mediterranean cruise she brought back to a score of collegiate, public, and religious institutions a lengthy inventory of works of art, mummies, coins, and experimental breeding stock. On her round-the-world cruise she sent an expedition to the interior of Borneo to collect data on trade, politics, and botany.
After her return from Lisbon, Constitution sank to the humblest station of her long career. Until late in 1881 she cruised the Atlantic coast as a training ship for apprentice boys. Decommissioned at Brooklyn, she was presently towed to Portsmouth Navy Yard, where a square, barnlike structure was erected on her still shapely hull and she became a receiving ship. For the next decade and a half this nondescript water-borne shed floated at the mouth of the Piscataqua, and it seemed that the nation had forgotten Old Ironsides.
Boston, at least, had not. In January, 1897, one of the city’s most persuasive voices—that of Congressman John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, future mayor and grandfather of President John F. Kennedy—was raised on the floor of the House to urge that the frigate be rehabilitated and returned home on her hundredth birthday. Congress acceded, and the old hulk was towed back to Charlestown to be greeted by a centennial salute from the North Atlantic Fleet. Dishevelled as she was, she was placed on public display at the Navy Yard.
Now Constitution was through—both as a warship and as a useful piece of naval equipment. The United States was down to the hard, ultimate question: was she worth saving as a symbol of national unification, national sea power, and international co-operation toward the goals of civilized mankind?
In 1900 Congress made a first tentative stab at an answer. It authorized the Secretary of the Navy to restore her hull and rigging, provided that the Massachusetts State Society of the United States Daughters of 1812 could raise by public contribution the estimated $400,000 required. The effort failed miserably.
By 1905 she was in such poor condition that proposals were openly made for her “honorable” disposal as a target for the Atlantic Fleet. But even after three quarters of a century the faint echoes of Holmes’s verses were heard. Congress repudiated the idea of liquidation by gunfire and halfheartedly appropriated $100,000. With this the farmyard structure was removed from her hulk, and she was given new spars, some superficial woodwork, and a set of dummy guns (her old armament had gone—no one remembers where). But her basic hull timbers, dating all the way from 1794 to 1871, continued to rot. It was not thought safe to dry-dock her, even had funds permitted.
Late in 1923, when her case seemed really hopeless and she was being kept afloat only by a tug that came each night to pump her out, the Navy Department ordered her surveyed to determine the cost of putting her “in a good state of preservation.” The board estimated $400,000 and urged her restoration. Secretary of the Navy Curtis D. Wilbur took a look for himself and concurred. Empowering legislation was passed on March 4, 1925, along the same “do-it-yourself” lines as the 1900 act; i.e., the Navy was authorized to restore the ship “as far as may be practicable” and “to accept and use any donations … which may be offered.” Thus, without appropriation, was launched one of the most difficult, but in the end one of the most successful, ship resurrections of all time. A fund-raising drive co-ordinated by a national executive committee aided by patriotic, fraternal, and community groups across the country succeeded in raising from rich men, poor men, and millions of schoolchildren the surprising total of $650,000. Despite the naval board’s estimate, this proved insufficient, and Congress ultimately supplied a balance of $271,000.
Meanwhile, the vast job was already in motion, under direct charge of Lieutenant John A. Lord of the Navy’s Construction Corps. His problems were staggering. There were no adequate and authentic plans, and two years’ research was required to supply the lack. Simultaneously there began a frustrating search for suitable materials, for men with the skills necessary to rebuild a wooden ship, and for the long-disused special tools that such a project required. Lord was tireless, and his search turned up amazing finds, such as 500,000 board feet of live-oak ship timber—virtually unobtainable on the 1925 market—which the Navy had sunk for preservation in the fresh water of Commodore’s Pond at Pensacola before the Civil War and had then forgotten as metal warships supplanted wood.
Constitution ’s moment of truth came at 11:30 A.M. on June 16, 1927, when she re-entered the dry dock she had christened ninety-four years earlier. Many were confident she would fall apart as the water left her. No one was sure she would not. But Lord crammed her sagging, distorted hull with internal props and braces, supported her with a literal forest of external shoring, ran hog chains from bow to stern over a timber pyramid amidships to control bending stress, and prayed. Old Ironsides stood like a statue, and the work began.
It had still not ended when she floated out of the dock two and three-quarters years later, flying the fifteen-star national ensign of 1812 and rearmed with replicas of her original guns: thirty long 24’s and twenty 32-pounder carronades. She had still to receive almost a quarter mile of masts and spars—Douglas fir sticks donated by the lumbermen of the Pacific Northwest—and her new suit of seventy-two sails, just under an acre of canvas. A new ship, yet the same, with an estimated 15 per cent of her original material still in her, she made ready for sea again on her last, most triumphant cruise.
Commanded by Louis J. Gulliver and under tow of the mine sweeper Grebe —her new sails cautiously furled—she travelled over 22,000 miles between July, 1931, and May, 1934. More than 4,600,000 people visited her during calls at ninety American ports from Bar Harbor, Maine, to Bellingham, Washington. In Christmas week, 1932, shunning Cape Horn, she passed through the Panama Canal, built a third of a century after her last commissioned cruise.
It has been over thirty-five years now since her return to Boston, and during this time the lot of Old Ironsides has been happier than at any earlier period in the last century. A national monument afloat, she is the mecca for endless waves of pilgrims, preponderantly of school age; the number topped a half million in 1965 alone and was running ahead of that rate in the fall of 1969.
With so many eyes on her she is less likely to slide into oblivion than in the past. Moreover, she has solid, if honorary, official status. A commissioned warship (the Navy calls it a special commission), she is also the flagship of the First Naval District Commandant, presently Rear Admiral Joseph C. Wylie. Her immediate commander nowadays is typically a junior officer whose actual grade strikes the layman as incongruous with his billet. But he is also typically a man who sought his rather daunting assignment and who is dedicated to his venerable charge. Her present captain is Lieutenant J. W. Powers, U.S.N.R., an unpretentious but clearly efficient officer who loves the ship, is an active student of her history, and is fully aware of his extraordinary mixture of responsibilities as commander, curator, host, and competitor for the maintenance dollar. He is proud to be fifty-third in a list that begins with Sam Nicholson and includes Preble, Hull, Bainbridge, Stewart, and Dewey.
All of this status, care, and public exposure have assured Old Ironsides of continuous repair and replacement such as she has certainly not known since she was on full combat status. This work is performed on a regular schedule, projects and timing being worked out between her skipper and navy yard specialists, subject to what can be allowed from appropriated funds.
Such care has put off the evil day much longer than after any previous rebuilding. So has the ship’s annual “cruise,” a ceremonial occasion in recent years, when she is towed from her dock, turned in the harbor, and remoored facing in the opposite direction, to equalize as far as possible the effects of weather on each side. But she is admittedly near the point where piecemeal repair will not be enough. Her sails are long vanished. Though she is impeccably shipshape, she now contains only about 8 per cent of her original material, and the observant visitor can see only too many telltale signs that once more she is floating on borrowed time. Forty years is a very long time for a wooden hull to survive without major rebuilding.
Recognizing this, a group of private citizens led by Leslie C. Stratton, Jr., organized “Project Old Ironsides” in 1968, with the primary objective of reawakening national concern for Constitution ’s future and incidentally of raising funds to ensure it. The program recalled similar efforts in 1925 (even to the extent that Mr. Stratton’s father was a prime mover in that earlier campaign), except that this time the whole initiative has been in private hands. Evidently assuming that the legislation of 1900 and 1925 had set a firm, continuing policy of financing the ship’s survival from private contributions rather than appropriations, the Stratton group proposed no appeal to Congress but sought simply to raise a fund for remittance to the Navy to supplement public moneys already available. Contributions to this fund are still being received.
While no one on Project Old Ironsides has made a firm estimate of the cost of putting the entire frigate back in pristine condition (barring a thorough board of survey, probably no one could), it seems highly questionable that the job can again be done by voluntary means. Even in 1927 Congress had to put up one fourth of the funds. The total bill was almost a million dollars; considering what lias since happened to the dollar, it seems very doubtful that Constitution could be fully restored today for twice that figure. A lot of money, some will say, especially in these days of legislative “economy.” Yet it seems quite possible that the old ship could be made good as new for less than the cost of a single advanced jet fighter plane. Not so much money, after all, when taken in context.
A wooden ship is not like the Washington Monument, though it may mean as much in the story of a people and a people’s ideals. It is more like an image carved in snow: it does not melt as fast, but it melts, usually imperceptibly and in places where the loss is not noticed until the whole structure collapses.
We are down to that hard, ultimate question again. Is Old Ironsides worth saving? If so, the American people and Congress have little enough time left to debate ways and means. As one of her many historians made a fictional character say, “Why so rich a government should not bear this expense is difficult to understand.”
Somebody must bear it, and soon, unless the valiant “eagle of the sea” is to keep her much-postponed rendezvous with the waiting “harpies of the shore.”