The frigate Costitution occupies a special place in the hearts of the American people not simply because she is the oldest warship in the world still afloat and in commission.
Built at Boston and launched on 21 October 1797, she was the third of six frigates ordered by Congress to form the basis of a new United States' Navy. Measured by her builders at 2,200 tons, she was 175 feet in length with a 42 foot beam, and was rated at 44 guns although she would often carry more in the years ahead. Leaving Boston on her first commission in July 1798, she played a minor role in the quasi-war with France (1798-99), but then went on to distinguish herself as a flagship to the Mediterranean Squadron during the Barbary Wars of 1803-04. By the time war with England was declared in 1812, she was back in Boston and put to sea on 12 July under the command of Captain Isaac Hull. On 19 August she sighted the British frigate Guerriere and engaged her at close quarters in one of the most celebrated encounters in American naval history. After a desperate fight lasting two hours Guerriere, by now battered into a dismasted wreck, struck her colours and surrendered; it was a bitter blow for British naval pride and an incident from which Constitution emerged with the affectionate sobriquet "Old Ironsides" which she has never relinguished. In the last week of December 1812, she scored a similar victory when she took the Royal Navy's frigate Java off the coast of Brazil in another spectacular action which merely cemented her reputation into the American consciousness.
By now a national treasure, there was an outcry led by Oliver Wendell Holmes when it was announced in 1830 that Constitution was to be disposed of. Saved within days, she was repaired and refitted for a further twenty years active service. Subsequently rebuilt several times, most recently in 1994-95, she is preserved at Boston and was afloat again this year to fire her usual Independence Day salute on 4 July.
Please turn to lot 398 for another portrait of U.S.S. Constitution also by Jacob Petersen of Copenhagen.