November 9, 2009
USS Constitution Designated America's Ship of State
CHARLESTOWN NAVY YARD, Mass. -- On October 28, USS Constitution became America's Ship of State.
"USS Constitution's primary mission will remain education and public outreach, and any Ship of State functions will be an adjunct to the ship's primary mission," noted the National Defense Authorization Act For Fiscal Year 2010 in section 1022. "It is the sense of Congress that the President, Vice President, executive branch officials, and members of Congress should use the USS Constitution for the conducting of pertinent matters of state, such as hosting visiting heads of state, signing legislation relating to the armed forces, and signing maritime related treaties."
USS Constitution's 71st and current commanding officer, Cmdr. Timothy Cooper, could not be more excited about this law signed by President Barrack Obama, after the House of Representatives and the Senate passed the bill earlier in October.
"I am really proud - and humbled - to a part of this honor," Cooper said. "USS Constitution has always been the most visible reminder of the beginnings of our Navy. Now, USS Constitution is a visible reminder of America, and all that we stand for."
USS Constitution was launched into the Boston Harbor on October 21, 1797. In her years of active service, from 1798 - 1855, the three-masted wooden frigate fought in the Quasi-War with France, the Barbary Wars and the War of 1812. Today, Old Ironsides' is the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world, has a permanent crew of 73 active duty U.S. Navy Sailors, and is visited by nearly half a million people every year.
The origins of Old Ironsides' status as America's Ship of State were in July of 1997, when then-Cmdr. Chris Melhuish, USS Constitution's 65th commanding officer had a vision for the future of the ship, shortly before he took command.
"The idea struck me after Cmdr. Michael Beck [USS Constitution's 64th commanding officer] challenged me to create my vision for the ship, following his vision, which was to sail the ship for the first time in 116 years, for USS Constitution's bicentennial."
The status of the ship had inherently changed after that historic sail, and USS Constitution should no longer be thought of as a pierside museum exhibit, recalled Melhuish, who retired at the rank of captain, in 2006.
"The best description of the ship was 'Ship of State,'" he said. "That was the vision, and then began the long process of translating that vision into a concept."
In October of 2006, he laid out that concept on paper, which was endorsed by the Congress of the Naval Order of the United States, and by Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England.
Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy sponsored the bill in 2008, but it did not make final passage into the National Defense Authorization Act For Fiscal Year 2009, which would take another year.
"The people of this country, through Congress, have done the right thing, which should have been done in 1815," said Melhuish, referring to a National Intelligencer article that appeared then.
"Let us keep 'Old Iron Sides' at home," the newspaper author opined, shortly after USS Constitution won a string of victories against her British adversaries in the War of 1812. "She has, literally, become a Nation's Ship, and should be preserved. Not as a 'sheer hulk in ordinary' (for she is no ordinary vessel); but, in honorable pomp as a glorious Monument of her own, and other Naval Victories."
"One hundred and ninety-four years later, we have recognized our greatest ship," Melhuish said. "I'm very, very happy about that."
To learn more about USS Constitution, visit www.history.navy.mil/ussconstitution.