All Hands on Deck: Learning Adventures Aboard Old Ironsides
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USS Constitution, Johnson

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Design a Figurehead
Creating a design concept, incorporating symbolic representation

Have teams of students design a new figurehead that could be carved and mounted on Constitution and is worthy of her lifetime of service to America and its goals and vision for a free world. Explain that the designs must make specific references to Constitution’s history. Teams might divide the different tasks among their members, including research, collecting visual images for inspiration, drafting the design drawings and presenting the concept to the class. Presentations must include an explanation of the symbols used in the design. Have the class critique all the designs and vote on the best one.

To help the class understand the symbolic importance of the figurehead, you might relate the following episode in Constitution’s history to the class. First, have a volunteer read the handbill aloud, with feeling. Then, provide the background below

During Constitution’s 1833 overhaul, Commandant Jesse D. Elliott ordered a figurehead of President Andrew Jackson for the ship. Bostonian Laban Beecher was commissioned to carve Jackson holding a scroll with the motto, “The Constitution must be preserved.” The President may have been pleased, but New Englanders were not. Politically unpopular with Bostonians, this westerner’s likeness upset many who believed it had no business gracing “their” Constitution. Beecher declined an offer of $1500 to allow someone to “steal” the figurehead from his shop. Instead it was installed, and Elliott ordered a guard to watch it, but to no avail. On a rainy night of July 2, 1834, Samuel Dewey rowed to Constitution, climbed aboard and sawed off the Jackson head. After showing the head to a group of friends and merchants, Dewey returned it, in person, to the Secretary of the Navy in Washington. Though the Secretary was irate, he could not punish Dewey. The mutilated figurehead was draped until the head was repaired. Later, it was replaced with an entirely new Jackson figurehead, which remained aboard until 1874.

For inspiration, you might share with the class the following passage about Constitution written by Commodore William Bainbridge:

...the ship! Never has she failed us! Never has her crew failed in showing their allegiance and belief in the country they served, or the honor they felt, in belonging to the ship that sheltered them, and on whose decks they fought, where many gave their lives. To have commanded the Constitution is a signal honor; to have been one of her crew, in no matter how humble a capacity, is an equal one. Her name is an inspiration. Not only do her deeds belong to our Naval record, but she herself is possessed of a brave personality. In light weathers, in storm or hurricane, or amid the smoke of battle, she responded with alacrity and obedience, and seemed ever eager to answer the will of her commander. May the citizens of this country, in gratitude, see that she, like her namesake and prototype, will never be forgotten. Her commanders in the future, as in the past, will see to it that her flag never shall be lowered. She was conceived in patriotism; gloriously has she shown her valor. Let her depart in glory if the fates so decree; but let her not sink and decay into oblivion.

quoted in Tyrone G. Martin’s A Most Fortunate Ship

Have on Hand- photocopies of the handbill and Commodore William Bainbridge’s passage about Constitution

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