I was completing a little bit of research regarding the recent acquisition of four paintings by George Ropes by the USS Constitution Museum when I stumbled upon a factoid I found amusing and felt I just had to share it here.
The original figurehead mounted on the ship depicted Hercules unfurling the United States Constitution. Unfortunately it was was severely damaged during the Barbary Coast Wars and was replaced by a more simple billet head.
Marching ahead through time a third figurehead was installed on the vessel during the 1833 overhaul. Commandant Jesse D. Elliott ordered a figurehead of President Andrew Jackson for the ship. Laban Beecher, a Bostonian, was commissioned to carve Jackson with a scroll that contained the motto, “The Constitution must be preserved.” The carving was done in secret at first, but eventually a flier began to circulate alerting Bostonians regarding what was taking place in their midst.
The folks in Boston were a bit upset. President Jackson was very unpopular with New Englanders and they were highly offended his image would defile “their” Constitution. Things got so bad that someone offered $1500 to let them steal the carving from his shop prior to its installation.
On the night of July 2, 1834, during a rainstorm, Samuel Dewey (his cousin, George, would eventually serve as commander on the USS Constitution) rowed out to the ship where he promptly sawed President’s Jackson’s head off! Dewey actually delivered the severed head in person to the Secretary of the Navy in Washington D.C. and received NO punishment for defacing property of the U.S. Navy.
Can you imagine the media coverage if this happened today?
The figurehead was covered up and eventually Jackson’s head was magically reattached.
An American Heritage magazine article recounts that President Jackson who was not in good health at the time actually thought the whole thing was amusing while an article by Valentign Byvanck titled The Jackson Figurehead states the nation capitalized on the incident as punishment for the policies and attitude of the president and incorporate it into the ongoing strife between Jacksonians and Whigs.
A more elegant image of Jackson was attached to the ship later and is pictured with this post. It was carved by Boston carvers J.D. and W.H. Fowle. The President was shown in a pose similar to Napoleon with his left hand in his coat front. When Jackson’s image was finally retired the Constitution was adorned with stars and flourishes.
The Naval Academy at Annapolis preserves the second Jackson figurehead for posterity as a statue. I will be attending a wedding in the Naval Academy chapel at the end of May and will make sure I find that figurehead and snap a few pictures to share.