“Old Ironsides” is the nickname of the three-masted frigate USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned ship in the world still afloat.
Muslim Barbary Pirates of North Africa had captured the American ships Polly, Betsey, Maria, Dauphin, and Philadelphia. The USS Constitution was sent to fight the Muslim pirates in:
- the First Barbary War, 1803
- the Battle of Tripoli Harbor, 1804
- the Battle of Derne, 1805
When the USS Constitution returned, Francis Scott Key wrote the poem “When the Warrior Returns from the Battle Afar,” published in Boston’s Independent Chronicle, Dec. 30, 1805.
Key wrote it to the same tune which nine years later he used for the Star-Spangled Banner:
In conflict resistless each toil they endur’d
Till their foes shrunk dismay’d from the war’s desolation:
And pale beamed the Crescent, its splendor obscur’d
By the light of the Star-Bangled Flag of our nation.
Where each flaming star gleamed a meteor of war,
And the turban’d head bowed to the terrible glare.
Then mixt with the olive the laurel shall wave
And form a bright wreath for the brow of the brave.
The USS Constitution sailed against the British in the War of 1812 and caught slave traders off the coast of Africa in the 1850s.
The USS Constitution was about to be decommissioned and broken into scrap when it was saved by a poem titled “Old Ironsides,” written by poet, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.:
Her deck, once red with heroes’ blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o’er the flood,
And waves were white below. …
As dean of the Harvard Medical School, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., was known for proposing that diseases were spread person to person, a theory which predated the discovery of germs. Dr. Holmes tried to admit the first African-Americans and the first woman to Harvard Medical School. He invented the “American stereoscope,” which was a 19th century hand held device to view 3-D pictures.
Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., wrote a poem about Pilgrim pastor John Robinson of Leyden, published in “The Professor at the Breakfast Table,” 1860:
Before the Speedwell’s anchor swung,
Ere yet the Mayflower’s sail was spread,
While round his feet the Pilgrims clung,
The pastor spake, and thus he said: –
‘Ye go to bear the saving Word
To tribes unnamed and shores untrod:
Heed well the lessons ye have heard
From those old teachers taught of God.’
Dr. Holmes’ son, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., was born March 8, 1841. He graduated from Harvard and enlisted in the Army against his father’s wishes. He was injured in the Civil War three times, including a gunshot wound to the chest at the battle of Ball’s Bluff, Oct. 1861.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., edited the American Law Review, was a Harvard Law professor, and chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt appointed Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Known as “the Great Dissenter” for his unconventional opinions advocating broad freedom of speech, he served over 30 years, to a more advanced age than any other justice.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., replied to a reporter on his 90th birthday, March 8, 1931: “Young man, the secret of my success is that at an early age I discovered I was not God.”
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