I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
An oak desk in the White House is made from wood that was once part of a British naval ship. Queen Victoria had the desk built and shipped to America as a gift to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. Most presidents since have used what is known as the Resolute desk.
In 1845, a British expedition under the leadership of Sir John Franklin set out to discover a Northwest Passage through the Arctic to the Pacific Ocean. The two ships and their crews were never heard from again.
Several expeditions were sent into the Arctic to try to discover what happened to Franklin; in 1852, HMS Resolute was part of one such search. However, Resolute became locked in ice and had to be abandonned in May 1854.
A year and a half later, the vessel was discovered by Captain James Buddington aboard the U.S. whaler George Henry. The Resolute was floating in open water; it had broken free of the ice during the summer and had drifted about a thousand miles to the east.
With some difficulty, the crew of the George Henry were able to sail the Resolute to harbour in New London, Connecticut.
The vessel was repaired and sent back to Britain “as a gift to Her Majesty Queen Victoria by the President and People of the United States, as a token of goodwill & friendship (White House Historical Association).”
A Gift Is Created
In December 1856, the ship arrived at Portsmouth Harbour in England and Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert were there to greet her. HMS Resolute was returned to the Royal Navy and served another 23 years before being decommissioned in 1879.
The ship had been built of massive oak timbers in order to withstand the pressures of Arctic ice. So, Queen Victoria ordered that some of the wood should be salvaged and used to build a desk that she wished to give to America to repay its generosity in returning HMS Resolute.
Cabinet makers at the Royal Navy dockyard in Chatham went to work and produced a large, double-pedestal, partner’s desk. It measures six feet by four feet, weighs 1,300 pounds, and is ornamented with elaborate carvings. Medallions of Queen Victoria and President Hayes cover the drawers on the presidential side of the desk.
The Resolute Desk’s Travels
President Hayes used the Resolute desk in his private study. It remained there for about 80 years and was used by those who followed him.
In 1901, Theodore Roosevelt took up residence in the White House complete with his wife and six children. The residence needed expansion, so Roosevelt ordered that a west wing be added to the building. When completed, Roosevelt had the Resolute desk moved into his new office.
William Howard Taft expanded the West Wing in 1909 and, for the first time, an oval office became part of the structure and the desk was moved in. Just after the Stock Market collapse of 1929, an electrical fire caused significant damage to the West Wing although the desk emerged almost unscathed.
Then, it was the turn of Franklin D. Roosevelt to get into the remodelling business. He moved the Oval Office to its present location and the Resolute desk went with him. He also remodelled the desk.
Roosevelt was very sensitive about the steel braces on his legs needed because of his crippling bout with polio. So that visitors would be unable to see his legs he had a hinged modesty panel installed in the kneehole. The door was carved with the presidential seal.
The Resolute Desk Retired
The White House underwent renovations during President Truman’s administration and the clunking great oak desk was deemed no longer fashionable. It was dispatched to another room and forgotten.
When the Kennedy family moved in in 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy found the desk hiding under a cloth covering. She read the brass plaque on the desk that details its naval origins and thought that her husband, a navy man, might appreciate its history. He did, and once more the Resolute desk returned to the Oval Office.
It was not to remain there long. After President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, President Lyndon Johnson discovered he was too big to comfortably use the desk. Off it went to the Smithsonian’s American Museum of American History, until Jimmy Carter, another ex-navy man, had it returned to the Oval Office in 1977.
It has remained in the White House ever since, although not always in the Oval Office. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama employed the Resolute desk in the Oval Office throughout their terms in office.
The current incumbent of the Oval Office gave a tour of his workplace to visiting French President Emmanuel Macron in 2018. He pointed to the Resolute desk saying it dates from 1814; that would be when the wood was still a tree.
It’s easy to imagine Queen Victoria being told who is currently using the desk and responding with “I am not amused.”
- Replicas of the Resolute desk can be seen in six presidential libraries, as well as several museums. The White House Gift Shop will even sell you one. It is breathlessly described as being “designed for elegance, functionality, and technological sophistication.” $110,000, free shipping in the U.S.
- Under the terms of maritime law, HMS Resolute became the property of Capt. Buddington and his crew because she was found abandonned in international waters. The U.S. Congress voted to purchase the vessel for $40,000, to refit it, and return it to Britain.
- Two other desks were made from the timbers of HMS Resolute. One was given to the widow of Henry Grinnell, a Massachusetts businessman who funded several expeditions to try to find Sir John Franklin. In 1980s and ‘90s, the remains of Franklin and his crew were found in the Arctic. In 2014 and 2016, the sunken wreckage of Franklin’s two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, were located.
- “ ‘Resolute’ Desk.” Office of the Curator, The White House, undated.
- “The Resolute Desk.” Robert McNamara, ThoughtCo.com, October 31, 2019.
- “West Wing of the White House.” The White House Museum, undated.
- “Trump Told the French President That the Resolute Desk Was From 1814. Try Again.” Sarah Polus, Washington Post, April 26, 2018.
- The White House Gift Shop.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor