Today in 1997, the United States Ship Constitution officially set sail for the first time in 116 years. She remains today the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat, having been in service for almost 214 years as of this recording. Planned and built as one of six ships meant to serve as the core of a new navy, her travels, travails and near-abandonment have become an indelible part of the history of the nation she was commissioned to defend.
Officially, the United States Navy was born on October 13th, 1775 when three armed schooners were placed under the authority of the Continental Congress with the mission of intercepting any British supply ships in the waters off Massachusetts. However, the American naval effort during the Revolution was made mostly by the separate colonies’ own naval forces and by private individuals. The colonial fleet eventually grew, but during the course of the war lost 24 ships; when the war officially ended in 1783, there was only one warship left to follow Congress’ orders. While the men and officers of the Navy did not lack for bravery or skill, they lacked resources, especially when compared to the British Royal Navy, which was and would continue to be for more than a century the greatest naval force the world had6+ ever known. It was the French Navy that did the real heavy lifting for the American cause during the War for Independence.
After the war, Congress and the President began look to the interior of the North American continent and away from the sea. Navies are expensive and the young United States could not afford a fleet that had to be manned and ready to fight wars at sea. The last Continental Navy ship was sold in 1783, which left the defense of the American coastline to the Revenue Cutter Service, the forerunner of today’s Coast Guard. Opponents of a permanent navy believed that a large fleet would become a standing invitation to foreign entanglements, something the early Presidents were loathe to contemplate.
Other powers, however, used the new nation's lack of naval strength as an open door to take advantage of Americans who sailed the open seas. During the 1790s, US merchant ships were harassed by France and Britain. Both nations considered the open seaways as theirs to control and since there was nothing the United States could do, her civilian sailors paid the price.
The most notorious group which preyed on American merchantmen were the pirates from the Barbary Coast, an area that today is the coastal areas of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Many European nations, including Britian and France, paid a yearly tribute, basically protection money, to the Dey of Algiers, the leader of the most active group of corsairs. The United States began paying the tribute as well, but that did not stop the capture of eleven American ships during the first few years of the 1790's. It was with this in mind that Congress passed what came to be known as the Naval Act of 1794, which provided for the construction of six ships, four carrying 44 guns and two carrying 36 guns apiece. They were to be considered heavy frigates, powerful enough to take on any ship in their class yet fast enough to avoid the first-rate ships of the line, some of which carried more than 100 guns.
Thus was the USS Constitution born. A peace accord was signed with Algiers in March, 1796, which caused construction of the ships to come to a halt per the wording of the Naval Act. After some goading by President Washington, Congress agreed to fund the completion of the three ships closest to completion. Those three ships became the USS United States, USS Constellation and the USS Constitution. The other three were completed a few years later. After some problems encountered during her initial launching ceremony, Constitution slid into Boston Harbor on October 21, 1797.
Constitution's launching and fitting out coincided with the beginning of what became to be known as the Quasi-War with France, a conflict which occurred almost entirely at sea. But that's for part two.