Declaration of Independence Desk

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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-The story of the '''writing-box or desk'''<ref>This article is based on James A. Bear, Jr., [http://tjportal.monticello.org/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?BBID=4502 ''Monticello Keepsake,''] April 12, 1976.</ref> on which Thomas Jefferson wrote his famous [[Declaration of Independence|Declaration]] is an interesting one. This box was crafted in [[Philadelphia]] in 1776 by the celebrated cabinetmaker Benjamin Randolph, one of [[Philadelphia|Philadelphia's]] foremost carvers and cabinetmakers. There is an interesting relationship between this desk and one made at Monticello nearly half a century later by [[John Hemmings | John Hemmings]]. +'''Artist/Maker:''' Benjamin Randolph (active 1760-1790)<ref>This article is based on Stein, [[Short Title List|''Worlds'']], 364-365.</ref>
-Hemmings, Monticello's resident craftsman,+'''Created:''' 1776
-had made a small, probably portable, desk+
-with appropriate carving and inlay as a family+
-wedding gift for [[Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge|Ellen Wayles Randolph]], Jefferson's+
-third grandchild, and [[Joseph Coolidge]],+
-Jr. of Boston. The marriage vows were said in+
-the [[parlor]] at Monticello on 27 May 1825,+
-after which the newlyweds set out on an extended+
-overland trip of over 1,000 miles to Boston.+
-The bulk of their baggage, which consisted+
-chiefly of "the documents" of Ellen's+
-childhood, "letters, correspondencies, notes,+
-books, &c. &c." was dispatched by Jefferson's friend, the Richmond factor, Colonel [[Bernard+
-Peyton]]. Unfortunately the shipment was lost+
-when the vessel carrying it went down in a+
-violent Atlantic storm.+
-This intelligence reached Monticello through+'''Origin/Purchase:''' [[Philadelphia]]
-John Hemmings, who had, quite by chance, overheard+
-two of Colonel [[Bernard Peyton|Peyton's]] agents reading+
-aloud his letter informing them of the loss. Jefferson informed Ellen that Johnny Hemmings+
-was "''au desespoir''" while relating the melancholy+
-news. Jefferson then consulted with him+
-about his making another desk. Hemmings refused; his eyesight+
-had failed so badly that he could no+
-longer execute detailed work. Another solution+
-had to be found.+
-It then occurred to Jefferson that he could+'''Materials:''' mahogany
-provide a worthy substitute, but not one "claiming+
-the same value from its decorations." Randolph's desk had come to mind while Jefferson+
-was replying to a query on ways to celebrate+
-the Fourth of July. +
-Jefferson modestly wrote of the writing-box+'''Dimensions:''' 24.8 x 36.5 x 8.2 (9 3/4 x 14 3/8 x 3 1/4 in.)
-as "claiming no merit or particular beauty." It+
-reflected his penchant for simple lines and+
-sparse ornamentation, the only decorative element+
-being a band of light stringing around the+
-small drawer, and an inlaid keyhole escutcheon.+
-The decoration was a first in its own right,+
-for it anticipated the use of inlay as a major decorative element in the design of American+
-furniture. A relatively small object, it was+
-14 3/8 inches long, 9 3/4 inches wide, and 3 1/2+
-inches high. The side drawer had neat compartments+
-for paper, ink, and writing instruments.+
-Oddly enough there are no references in Jefferson's Memorandum Books which indicate a+'''Owner:''' Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
-payment for such an item. That of 2 September+
-1776 comes closest: "pd. B. Randolph's workmen+
-for 3. boxes 9/." The chances are that+
-these were mere containers for transporting to+
-Monticello Jefferson's innumerable [[Philadelphia]] purchases.+
-While at Monticello, the writing-box appears+'''Provenance:''' [[Thomas Jefferson]]; by gift to [[Joseph Coolidge|Joseph Coolidge, Jr.]]; by descent to J. Randolph Coolidge, Algernon Coolidge, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, and Ellen Coolidge Dwight; by gift to the United States and transmitted by President Rutherford B. Hayes to Congress in 1880
-to have occupied no special place and if pointed+
-out as an American relic none of the fifty or+
-more visitors' accounts in our files says so.+
-Jefferson put the writing-box in the hands of Colonel [[Bernard Peyton|Peyton]] for shipment to Mr. Coolidge sometime early in 1826. His covering letter+'''Historical Notes:''' One of the most precious historical relics of the United States is the lap desk or writing box upon which Jefferson wrote his draft of the [[Declaration of Independence]] in 1776.<ref>For a full account, see Silvio A. Bedini, [http://tjportal.monticello.org/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?BBID=2436 ''Declaration of Independence Desk: Relic of Revolution''] (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981).</ref> He presented the desk to his grandson-in-law Joseph Coolidge, Jr. of Boston, who had married [[Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge]], one of his favorite granddaughters. He attached an affidavit to the desk:
-predicted that "its imaginary value will increase+
-with the years" and should its recipient+
-live another half century "he may see it carried+
-in the procession of our nation's birthday, as the relics of the saints are in those of the church."+
-Mr. Coolidge replied that the "desk arrived+<blockquote>"Th. Jefferson gives this Writing desk to Joseph Coolidge, Jr. as a memorial of affection. It was made from a drawing of his own, by Ben. Randall, a cabinet maker of Philadelphia with whom he first lodged on his arrival in that city in may 1776 and is the identical one on which he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Politics as well as Religion has its superstitions. These, gaining strength with time, may, one day, give imaginary value to this relic, for its association with the birth of the Great Charter of our Independence. Monticello, Nov. 18, 1825"<ref>Ibid, 36.</ref></blockquote>
-safely, furnished with a precious document which adds very greatly to its value; for the+
-same hand which half a century ago, traced+
-upon it the words which have gone abroad upon+
-the earth, now attests its authenticity and consigns it to myself."+
-Mr. Coolidge did indeed live for a half century,+Although the affidavit was addressed to Joseph Coolidge, the writing box was intended for both Ellen and Joseph, at least in part to console her for the loss in a shipwreck of her belongings en route from Virginia to Boston-among those irretrievable items was a lap desk made especially for her by John Hemings, Monticello's proficient slave joiner. Commiserating with his granddaughter, Jefferson tendered her a priceless replacement.
-dying 15 December 1879, but never saw+
-the writing-box carried in any procession. Indeed+
-it remained in his Boston house except for+
-being exhibited at a meeting of the Massachusetts+
-Historical Society in 1857 and at Boston's+
-own Centennial celebration in 1876. His+
-children, Dr. Algernon Coolidge, Thomas Jefferson+
-Coolidge, and Mrs. Ellen Coolidge+
-Dwight realized the importance of their desk+
-and summarily presented it to the United States+
-government.+
-It was received by the House of Representatives+Once Coolidge had received the desk, he expressed his gratitude to Jefferson.
-at what the ''Boston Daily Advertiser'' reported+
-as "an interesting ceremony" on 28+
-April 1880. It then went to the State Department+
-where it was exhibited for a number of+
-years with the original document of the Declaration+
-of Independence. In 1921 the writing box+
-was turned over to the Library of Congress+
-and a few months later it was in the National+
-Museum of American History, where it may be seen today.<ref>More information about the desk, including an image, is available on the Smithsonian Institution website at [http://www.smithsonianlegacies.si.edu/objectdescription.cfm?ID=36 http://www.smithsonianlegacies.si.edu/objectdescription.cfm?ID=36].</ref>+
-Jefferson's note to Joseph Coolidge remains attached+<blockquote>"When I think of this desk, 'in connection with the great charter of our independence,' I feel a sentiment almost of awe, and approach it with respect; but when I remember that it has served you fifty years, been the faithful depository of your cherished thoughts; that upon it have been written your letters to illustrious and excellent men, your plans for the advancement of civil and religious liberty, and of Art and Science; that it has, in fact, been the companion, of your studies, and instrument of diffusing their results; that it has been the witness of a philosophy which calumny could not subdue, and an enthusiasm which eighty winters have not chilled, I would fain consider it as no longer inanimate, and mute, but as something to be interrogated, and caressed."<ref>Joseph Coolidge to Jefferson, February 27, 1826. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.</ref></blockquote>
-to the desk:+
-''+This uncommon desk, made entirely of mahogany, was made to Jefferson's specifications by the prominent Philadelphia cabinetmaker, Benjamin Randolph, with whom Jefferson lodged when he first came to Philadelphia in July 1775 and when he returned in May 1776.<ref>For information about other writing desks associated with Jefferson, see Susan R. Stein, [http://tjportal.monticello.org/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?BBID=13288 "Thomas Jefferson's Traveling Desks,"] ''Antiques'' 133 (May 1988): 1156-1159.</ref> Although a payment was recorded for Randolph's workmen for three boxes in September, the purchase of a writing box or lap desk was not noted in Jefferson's memorandum Books. Jefferson's drawings for the desk do not survive. The desk consists of a rectangular box with a drawer containing compartments for storing writing implements and paper. A hinged writing board is attached to the upper surface of the box.
-"Th: Jefferson gives this Writing desk to+
-Joseph Coolidge junr. as a Memorial of affection.+
-It was made from a drawing of his own+
-by Ben. Randall, cabinet maker of [[Philadelphia]],+
-with whom he first lodged on his arrival+
-in that city in May 1776 and is the identical+
-one on which he wrote the Declaration of Independence.+
-Politics, as well as Religion has it's+
-superstitions. These, gaining strength with+
-time, may, one day, give imaginary value to+
-this relic, for it's association with the birth of+
-the Great charter of our independence. Monticello.+
-Nov. 18. 1825."+
==Footnotes== ==Footnotes==
Line 118: Line 29:
==Further Sources== ==Further Sources==
-*Bedini, Silvio A. [http://tjportal.monticello.org/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?BBID=2435 ''Declaration of Independence Desk, Relic of Revolution.''] Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981.+*Smithsonian Institution. "Legacies: Thomas Jefferson's Desk, 1776," http://www.smithsonianlegacies.si.edu/objectdescription.cfm?ID=36.
*[http://tjportal.monticello.org/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?DB=local&SL=none&SAB1=declaration+desk&BOOL1=all+of+these&FLD1=Title%2C+Author+%26+Subject+%28TASS%29&GRP1=AND+with+next+set&SAB2=&BOOL2=all+of+these&FLD2=Keyword+Anywhere+%28GKEY%29&CNT=50 Look for sources in the Thomas Jefferson Portal] *[http://tjportal.monticello.org/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?DB=local&SL=none&SAB1=declaration+desk&BOOL1=all+of+these&FLD1=Title%2C+Author+%26+Subject+%28TASS%29&GRP1=AND+with+next+set&SAB2=&BOOL2=all+of+these&FLD2=Keyword+Anywhere+%28GKEY%29&CNT=50 Look for sources in the Thomas Jefferson Portal]
-[[Category:Objects (Monticello)]]+[[Category:Writing and Drawing Instruments]]
-[[Category:Personal Life]]+
-[[Category:Furniture]]+

Current revision

Artist/Maker: Benjamin Randolph (active 1760-1790)[1]

Created: 1776

Origin/Purchase: Philadelphia

Materials: mahogany

Dimensions: 24.8 x 36.5 x 8.2 (9 3/4 x 14 3/8 x 3 1/4 in.)

Owner: Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Provenance: Thomas Jefferson; by gift to Joseph Coolidge, Jr.; by descent to J. Randolph Coolidge, Algernon Coolidge, Thomas Jefferson Coolidge, and Ellen Coolidge Dwight; by gift to the United States and transmitted by President Rutherford B. Hayes to Congress in 1880

Historical Notes: One of the most precious historical relics of the United States is the lap desk or writing box upon which Jefferson wrote his draft of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.[2] He presented the desk to his grandson-in-law Joseph Coolidge, Jr. of Boston, who had married Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, one of his favorite granddaughters. He attached an affidavit to the desk:

"Th. Jefferson gives this Writing desk to Joseph Coolidge, Jr. as a memorial of affection. It was made from a drawing of his own, by Ben. Randall, a cabinet maker of Philadelphia with whom he first lodged on his arrival in that city in may 1776 and is the identical one on which he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Politics as well as Religion has its superstitions. These, gaining strength with time, may, one day, give imaginary value to this relic, for its association with the birth of the Great Charter of our Independence. Monticello, Nov. 18, 1825"[3]

Although the affidavit was addressed to Joseph Coolidge, the writing box was intended for both Ellen and Joseph, at least in part to console her for the loss in a shipwreck of her belongings en route from Virginia to Boston-among those irretrievable items was a lap desk made especially for her by John Hemings, Monticello's proficient slave joiner. Commiserating with his granddaughter, Jefferson tendered her a priceless replacement.

Once Coolidge had received the desk, he expressed his gratitude to Jefferson.

"When I think of this desk, 'in connection with the great charter of our independence,' I feel a sentiment almost of awe, and approach it with respect; but when I remember that it has served you fifty years, been the faithful depository of your cherished thoughts; that upon it have been written your letters to illustrious and excellent men, your plans for the advancement of civil and religious liberty, and of Art and Science; that it has, in fact, been the companion, of your studies, and instrument of diffusing their results; that it has been the witness of a philosophy which calumny could not subdue, and an enthusiasm which eighty winters have not chilled, I would fain consider it as no longer inanimate, and mute, but as something to be interrogated, and caressed."[4]

This uncommon desk, made entirely of mahogany, was made to Jefferson's specifications by the prominent Philadelphia cabinetmaker, Benjamin Randolph, with whom Jefferson lodged when he first came to Philadelphia in July 1775 and when he returned in May 1776.[5] Although a payment was recorded for Randolph's workmen for three boxes in September, the purchase of a writing box or lap desk was not noted in Jefferson's memorandum Books. Jefferson's drawings for the desk do not survive. The desk consists of a rectangular box with a drawer containing compartments for storing writing implements and paper. A hinged writing board is attached to the upper surface of the box.

Footnotes

  1. This article is based on Stein, Worlds, 364-365.
  2. For a full account, see Silvio A. Bedini, Declaration of Independence Desk: Relic of Revolution (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981).
  3. Ibid, 36.
  4. Joseph Coolidge to Jefferson, February 27, 1826. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.
  5. For information about other writing desks associated with Jefferson, see Susan R. Stein, "Thomas Jefferson's Traveling Desks," Antiques 133 (May 1988): 1156-1159.

Further Sources