It’s the Fourth of July and while many of you may be thinking about fireworks, or barbecues, or Bill Pullman speeches, we here at The NYRD have been doing a lot of thinking about desks. -Yes, we are the kind of people who spend our vacations thinking about office furniture- However, we’re not talking about just ANY desk, we’re talking about the Resolute Desk. It is a desk you know and admire, even if you have never heard the name before or seen a terrible Nicholas Cage movie. So, sit right back, grab a hot dog, light a sparkler, and let us learn you some history.
A Three Hour Tour
Our story begins with the HMS Resolute, a British arctic ship in service to Queen Victoria in the 19th century. We know… stay with us. The Resolute was dispatched as part of a five-ship expedition in April 1852 to search for Sir John Franklin. You see, Franklin had left Britain in 1845 looking for the fabled -and non-existent- Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic, and after 8 years his cable bills had started piling up. So the British Royal Navy decided that maybe it was time to go looking for him. The expedition was met with mixed results, in that they never found Franklin and the commander, Edward Belcher, abandoned four out the five ships. The Queen wasn’t too happy about that last part, so Belcher was nearly court-martialed and never received another naval commission again.
Our story doesn’t end there. The HMS Resolute continued to drift in the ice where she was encased. In 1855, she was discovered by an American whaler named James Buddington and his whaling ship the George Henry. -Now, whaling is not necessarily a worthy profession, but we’ll look the other way on this one- Buddington and his crew freed the Resolute -because: free ship- and sailed her back to Connecticut. Upon learning of the Resolute’s recovery and return to non-frozen land the British government called the whole thing a wash and relinquished all rights and ownership over the vessel.
In the early to middle 19th century America and Britain had a tense relationship. Even after the War of 1812, where they sort-of, kind-of, burned down our White House- tensions continued to flare for the next several decades. They were never crazy about the Monroe Doctrine. We also, inadvertently got tangled up in a Canadian Rebellion, there was some dispute over borders in Maine, more disputes over borders in Oregon, and an assorted other problems that made relations between the two Atlantic countries a bit problematic. It was so bad that Congress even talked about going to war… again with the United Kingdom. However, that all changed with the Resolute. Congress voted to set aside $40,000 to refit the Resolute and sail her back to London. In 1856, a United States Navy Captain presented the refurbished ship to Queen Victoria as a gesture of peace and a way to ease tension between the two countries. The gesture worked… at least for a little while, and the relationship between the UK and the US improved.
A Desk Made for a President
Lady Franklin -Sir John Franklin’s wife- wanted to use the Resolute to go searching for her husband, who at that point had been missing for 11 years. Queen Victoria refused, as he was almost certainly dead, and she feared that any damage done to the Resolute would also damage American-British relations. So the HMS Resolute was kept in safe harbor until she was broken up in 1879. From her timbers, Queen Victoria had four desks made, A lady’s desk, two small writing table, and the Resolute Desk. The first three desks have found their way to museums, and the Resolute Desk was presented by Victoria to president Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. -Little know fact: The B is for Bigalow-
The Resolute Desk was seen as another gesture of peace, and as such the desk has been used by every President since 1880, except Johnson, Nixon, and Ford. It started its tenure in the second floor office of the White House, but in 1902 it was moved to the newly constructed West Wing. -Back when it still have that new Martin Sheen to it- Yet, it still remained in the second-floor residence as a personal desk for use by Presidents. In 1952 Truman moved the desk to the new broadcast room, which is kind of like an ancient form of a podcast room. He used it when making radio and television broadcasts. When President Kennedy was elected he moved the desk into the Oval Office in 1961. After he “left” office, Johnson selected another desk to use in the Oval, and the Resolute Desk spent a year in a Kennedy Library traveling show before being moved to the Smithsonian in 1966. That is where it would have stayed if President Carter hadn’t requested it be placed back in the Oval Office in 1977. Every modern President, except for George H. W. Bush, has since used the Resolute in the Oval Office.
The desk was modified twice in its lifetime. The first modification was requested by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He wanted a privacy panel created for the front, because he was a little sensitive about people seeing his legs… for some reason. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to see the modification completed and had to suffice with putting a trash can in front of the desk to hide his lower-regions from view. The panel that was put on the front of the desk was created with the Presidential Seal at the time, which means it’s one of the last existing seals to show the eagle’s head pointing toward the gripped arrows instead of the olive branch, indicating war over peace. Truman was the one who changed the seal to move the eagle’s head to point at the olive branch, at the end of World War II. The second modification was to create a base for the desk to raise it up… because people nowadays are taller.
The inscription on the desk’s plaque reads: H.M.S. ‘Resolute’, forming part of the expedition sent in search of Sir John Franklin in 1852, was abandoned in Latitude 74º 41′ N. Longitude 101º 22′ W. on 15th May 1854. She was discovered and extricated in September 1855, in Latitude 67º N. by Captain Buddington of the United States Whaler ‘George Henry’. The ship was purchased, fitted out and sent to England, as a gift to Her Majesty Queen Victoria by the President and People of the United States, as a token of goodwill & friendship. This table was made from her timbers when she was broken up, and is presented by the Queen of Great Britain & Ireland, to the President of the United States, as a memorial of the courtesy and loving kindness which dictated the offer of the gift of the “Resolute’.
It is also worth noting, that despite what conspiracy websites and terrible Nicholas Cage movies tell you, there is no twin Resolute desk sitting in Buckingham Palace or any other British Royal Residences.
Legacy of the Resolute
The HMS Resolute is a legacy of peace. The ship itself was given as a gift of peace and the Resolute Desk was then given as another gift of peace. Since it’s arrival in the US, the Resolute Desk has become a symbol synonymous with the power and office of the President, and that is important. It is a symbol of peace -despite that the seal on it indicating war- and it should be a reminder to anyone who sits behind it that the United States always works better when it is making allies instead of enemies. -Also, it once made for that cute JFK picture, but we’re getting off-track. That symbolism of peaceful relations is something worth remembering, and it should be something that every occupant of that desk takes into consideration.
After all, the President of the United States does not sit on a throne. The symbol of his power is not a giant golden chair located in the center of some great hall where he issues decrees and proclamation with absolute authority. He is not a king. No, this symbol of the American Presidency is, a desk, an object meant for work. A desk is a place where people sit, and write, and read, and make compromises. It is a place that a dedicated professional uses to accomplish an important task. It is the place of an American President, not the throne of an American King, and that is something we should all keep in mind as we celebrate this patriotic holiday.