Frigate Constitution—designed by Joshua Humphreys and built at Hartt's Shipyard in Boston, Massachusetts—was launched on 21 October 1797 and christened by Captain James Sever. The ship was one of six frigates authorized by Congress with passage of the Naval Act of 1794. Constitution was constructed with timbers from Maine to Georgia, as well as copper bolts and spikes supplied by Paul Revere. She was put to sea on 23 July 1798 with Captain Samuel Nicholson as her first commander. Following patrols along the U.S. east coast, Constitution became the flagship of the Santo Domingo Station where she captured multiple ships including 24-gun Niger, Spencer, and letter-of-marque Sandwich during the Quasi-War with France. At the war’s end, she was placed in ordinary at the Charleston Navy Yard.
Amid growing tensions with pirates off the Barbary Coast, who regularly seized American merchant ships and crews, Constitution was recommissioned on 14 August 1803 under the command of Captain Edward Preble as the flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron. Preble led the squadron and vigorously brought the war to Tripoli. On her decks, tactics for destroying the captured frigate Philadelphia were laid as well as those for blockading and assaulting the fortifications of Tripoli. In August 1804, the squadron bombarded enemy ships and shore batteries with effective results. Commodore Samuel Barron and later Captain John Rodgers were next to command the squadron and Constitution, continuing to successfully blockade and seize enemy vessels. Successful naval action generated the negotiation of peace terms with Algiers and later the Tunisians. Constitution continued presence patrols for the next two years before she set sail for Boston under the command of Captain Hugh Campbell arriving in November 1807. While there, the frigate was placed out of commission and underwent repairs for the next two years.
In August 1809, Constitution was recommissioned and became the flagship of the North Atlantic Squadron. Later, Captain Isaac Hull was appointed as Constitution’s commanding officer. Constitution carried out a dignitary mission to France before returning to American shores for overhaul in March 1812. As tensions began to rise with Britain, Constitution was readied for action. On 20 June 1812, the declaration of war was read to the crew, and on 12 July, she set sail rejoining the North Atlantic Squadron. Five days later, Constitution sighted five ships on the horizon that the crew believed to be the American squadron, but ultimately was identified as a powerful British squadron that included the frigates Guerriere and Shannon. As Constitution came to within range, the British squadron opened fire. Hull cleverly towed, wetted sails, and kedged to draw the ship slowly ahead of her pursuers. For two days, all hands were on deck in a desperate attempt that ultimately led to their escape.
On 19 August, Constitution again sighted the powerful Guerriere while cruising off the Gulf of St. Lawrence. As the ships drew nearer, Guerriere opened fire on Constitution, however, the round either fell harmlessly into the ocean or glanced of the ship. Hull subsequently gave the order to fire on the British ship that ultimately destroyed Guerriere's mizzen mast, damaged her foremast, and cut away most of her rigging. Both crews tried to board each other’s ships, but heavy seas prevented it. As the ships began to separate, Guerriere desperately fired point blank into the cabin of Constitution, but the fires were quickly extinguished. Guerriere was dead in the water. The British ship struck her flag and the crew of Constitution boarded the ship, but it was in such bad condition that it was burned and the crew were taken as prisoners. It was a dramatic victory for the young American Navy and Constitution. In only half an hour, the United States “rose to the rank of a first-class power.” Constitution’s victory provided confidence and fresh courage that ultimately strengthened a young nation. It was during this engagement, Constitution earned her nickname “Old Ironsides” as Sailors reported seeing cannon balls bounce off her hull.
Later that year, Constitution stood out from Boston with Commodore William Bainbridge as her commander. On 29 December, while off the coast of Brazil, Constitution added another conquest to her already impressive portfolio— British 38-gun frigate Java. Although she lost her wheel early in the fighting, Constitution shattered Java’s rigging, eventually dismasting her, and mortally wounded the captain. Java was so damaged that she, too, had to be burned and the crew taken as prisoners. Constitution returned to Boston in early 1813, and Captain Charles Stewart assumed command of the ship. On 15 February, Constitution seized and destroyed the schooner Pictou, while on a cruise in the Windward Islands, and nine days later, chased another schooner, Pique, who eventually escaped. She also captured three merchantmen on the cruise. Constitution safely returned to Boston, but was unable to depart for about nine months due to a stubborn British blockade.
In December 1814, Constitution departed Boston and headed southeast. She seized the merchant brig Lord Nelson and later captured Susannah on 16 February 1815. Four days later, she gave chase to the frigate Cyane and the sloop Levant, who were bound for the West Indies. Constitution opened the engagement by firing her broadsides, and in less than an hour, Cyane struck her colors and soon after Levant surrendered. While sailing with her prizes, Constitution encountered another British squadron who managed to retake Cyane. As she continued to head stateside, the crew received word peace terms had been agreed upon and the war had ended. During the War of 1812, Constitution ran the blockade at Boston seven different times and made five cruises ranging from Halifax, Nova Scotia, south to Guiana, and east to Portugal where she captured, burned, or took as a prize nine merchantmen and five enemy warships.
After arriving in Boston, Constitution underwent extensive repairs for the next six years. In May 1821, she returned to commission under Commodore Jacob Jones and again served as flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron. She continued guarding American shipping lanes through July 1828. In 1830, Constitution was found to be unseaworthy and Congress considered selling or scraping the ship, but public sentiment elicited instead an appropriation of money for reconstruction that began at Boston in 1833. Two years later, Constitution returned to commissioned status and she served in a variety of missions for the next two decades. In March 1845, Constitution began a memorable 30-month circumnavigation of the globe while under the command of Captain John Percival. In the fall of 1848, Constitution returned as flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron, and after being decommissioned briefly in 1851, patrolled the west coast of Africa for slavers until June 1855. Constitution was decommissioned again for another five years.
In August 1860, Constitution was assigned to train midshipmen at Annapolis, Maryland, and in 1871, underwent rebuilding at Philadelphia before she was recommissioned again in July 1877 to transport goods to the Paris Exposition. Once she returned, Constitution returned to duty as a training ship before she was decommissioned and towed to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to serve as a receiving ship. In 1897, she made way to Boston to celebrate her centennial, but remained in decommissioned status. Public sentiment once again saved the ship from destruction in 1905, and she was partially restored as a museum ship. Twenty years later, she was completely renovated with the financial assistance of numerous donors.
On 1 July 1931, Constitution returned to commissioned status. The following day, Constitution hoisted her sails for a tour of 90 U.S. ports along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts, where thousands of Americans saw at first hand one of history's greatest fighting ships. On 23 July 1954, Congress authorized the Secretary of the Navy to restore Constitution “as far as may be practicable” back to her original condition, but not for active service. She was later named a National Historic Landmark in 1960 due to her extraordinary history. On 21 July 1997, she set sail for the first time in 116 years to commemorate her 200th birthday, and again in August 2012 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. Constitution was designated America’s Ship of State in 2009. From 2015–2017, Constitution was renovated by Naval History and Heritage Command’s Detachment Boston, which included new copper sheathing on her lower hull and other important upgrades.
Today, the Sailors of Constitution, in partnership with the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Detachment Boston, the USS Constitution Museum, and the National Park Service, work to preserve, protect, and promote Constitution for the people of the United States and the world as a living link to the Sailors and Marines of the past, present, and future. Annually, more than 500,000 people walk across Constitution’s decks. She remains the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat, and the world’s oldest vessel that can still sail under its own power.