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Wednesday, March 4, 2020

March 4, 2020: Boston Sites: The U.S.S. Constitution

[On March 5th, 1770, the events of the Boston Massacre unfolded on King’s Street. On March 5th, 2020, the Northeast MLA convention will begin in Boston. So for both the Massacre’s 250th anniversary and that ongoing convention, this week I’ll highlight some historic sites and collective memories in Boston!]
On what the historic ship-turned-museum helpfully highlights, and what it minimizes.
At the other end of the Freedom Trail from the Shaw Memorial and the State House sits a very different kind of historic Boston site: the U.S.S. Constitution, a late 18th/early 19th century naval ship turned museum (the Bunker Hill Monument National Historical Park is also at this end). As I wrote in Monday’s post, the experience of walking the Freedom Trail, of winding through 21st century Boston while experiencing these historical landmarks and the events and figures to which they connect, is a unique and compelling way to connect to both the past and its relationship to the present. That experience shifts but is also amplified when walkers, still following the Freedom Trail’s painted red path, cross the North Washington Street Bridge (usually known as the Charlestown Bridge), a sizeable bridge (soon to be replaced, it seems) that spans the Charles River and connects the North End to the very distinct neighborhood of Charlestown. Doing so reminds us that the Revolution and its aftermaths, like all of the city’s and new nation’s histories, enfolded multiple spaces and communities, and offers an important revision to any narrative of Boston or history that would focus only on the parts of the city that might seem to be the most “historic.”
That’s all part of what the Charlestown Freedom Trail sites help us remember, but the Constitution site/museum in particular likewise highlights other, more specific and equally valuable historical lessons. The US didn’t really have a navy yet during the Revolution (that side of the war was left to our invaluable allies the French), but over the next few decades, including the “Quasi-War” conflicts of the 1790s and up through the War of 1812, many of the nation’s significant battles involved ships in a central role. The Constitution, one of six frigates authorized by the ground-breaking Naval Act of 1794 and launched in 1797, became a key part of those efforts, protecting merchant shipping during the Quasi-War and single-handedly winning War of 1812 battles against five British warships (including a legendary triumph over the H.M.S. Guerriere that led to the ship’s new nickname of “Old Ironsides”). The Constitution museum is dedicated to the history of the US Navy, particularly in those earliest decades and conflicts, and since you can’t narrate the history of the Early Republic United States at all without those contexts, that gives this museum a truly national significance.
The Quasi-War and the War of 1812 both featured complicated contexts with which Americans could certainly become more familiar, but the U.S.S. Constitution also took part in another Early Republic conflict that is even less well-known and even more fraught: the First Barbary War. Indeed, as I wrote in that hyperlinked post, the Constitution not only participated in that war’s naval battles, but subsequently transported the Tripoli Monument, the tribute to six American soldiers killed in the war, back to the US after its creation in Italy. Yet compared to the Quasi-War and the War of 1812, both of which can be framed (somewhat accurately, if again complicatedly) through a lens of national self-defense, the First Barbary War represents a far different type of international conflict, one in which (whatever the war’s initial causes, which did include attacks on US merchant ships) troops from the new US traveled across an ocean (on ships like to the Constitution) to invade another sovereign nation. That’s a very distinct role for naval vessels and the US military, and one which (in my experience of the museum a few years ago—I welcome any updates and responses in comments as always!) the U.S.S. Constitution historic site and museum does not quite engage with the depth it could.
Next site tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other sites and collective memories (in Boston or anywhere else) you’d highlight?

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