On March 27, 1794 Congress authorized the construction of six frigates, one of which was the USS Constitution launched on September 20, 1795. The forty four gun frigate was composed of steel-hard oak hull for which she quickly gained the nickname "Ironsides." Serving in the undeclared naval war with France (1798-1800) she was the Flagship in the Mediterranean squadron in the Tripolitan War (1801-1805). In the War of 1812 the Constitution won battles with the British frigates Guerriere and Java; the former battle took place off the coast of Boston on August 19, 1812 and by 1830, the Constitution was badly in need of repair so the Navy proposed breaking her up.

When Oliver Wendell Holmes died in 1894 on October 7th at age 85, the USS Constitution was still afloat, much to the credit of his poem, and was being used as a receiving ship at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Composed in ababcdcd form he used a clever and effective approach to save the doomed battleship. Instead of protest, he takes the symbolism of harpies a half-woman, half-bird predators of classical mythology to devour the once noble ship and combines it with emphasis by using reverse psychology. "Go ahead," he seems to say. "Tear the old ship apart! It's only the symbol of American freedom." In his Author's note Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote about his inspirations and the ship Old Ironside:

    This was the popular name by which the frigate Constitution was known. The poem was first printed in the Boston Daily Advertiser, at the time when it was proposed to break up the old ship as unfit for service. I subjoin the paragraph which led to the writing of the poem. It is from the Advertiser of Tuesday, September 14, 1830:--

    "Old Ironsides.--- It has been affirmed upon good authority that the Secretary of the Navy has recommended to the Board of Navy Commissioners to dispose of the frigate Constitution. Since it has been understood that such a step was in contemplation we have heard but one opinion expressed, and that in decided disapprobation of the measure. Such a national object of interest, so endeared to our national pride as Old Ironsides is, should never by any act of our government cease to belong to the Navy, so long as our country is to be found upon the map of nations. In England it was lately determined by the Admiralty to cut the Victory, a one-hundred gun ship (which it will be recollected bore the flag of Lord Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar), down to a seventy-four, but so loud were the lamentations of the people upon the proposed measure that the intention was abandoned. We confidently anticipate that the Secretary of the Navy will in like manner consult the general wish in regard to the Constitution, and either let her remain in ordinary or rebuild her whenever the public service may require."--New York Journal of Commerce.

Holmes was just 21 when he wrote "Old Ironsides" in 1830. He penned the three short stanzas quickly one afternoon while dallying at law school. Explaining in his notations that after he read the an article in the September 14th issue of Boston Advertiser about plans to scrap the Constitution he composed this poem, it was published the next day in the aforementioned Boston Advertiser, picked up by major newspapers, copied and passed out as leaflets. The poem struck such a nerve in young America, that the Secretary of the Navy shifted his position, and ordered the USS Constitution refit for active duty adding another layer to the creation of its bulletproof image. Today the USS Constitution is still berthed in the Boston Harbor for all to see.


Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, " Holmes, Oliver Wendell," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.

www.flash.net/~dadis/frigates/frigates.htm -

RPO -- Oliver Wendell Holmes : Old Ironsides:
eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/ displaypoem.cfm?poemnum=1032

CST Approved.

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