Declaration of Independence Desk

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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The story of the writing-box or desk[1] on which Thomas Jefferson wrote his famous Declaration is an interesting one. This box was crafted in Philadelphia in 1776 by the celebrated cabinetmaker Benjamin Randolph, one of 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.

Hemmings, Monticello's resident craftsman, had made a small, probably portable, desk with appropriate carving and inlay as a family wedding gift for 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 John Hemmings, who had, quite by chance, overheard two of Colonel 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 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 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 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 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 Peyton for shipment to Mr. Coolidge sometime early in 1826. His covering letter 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 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, 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 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.[2]

Jefferson's note to Joseph Coolidge remains attached to the desk:

"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

  1. This article is based on James A. Bear, Jr., Monticello Keepsake, April 12, 1976.
  2. 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.

Further Sources