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The Resolute Desk

The Resolute Desk (a.k.a President’s Desk) has to be the most well known desk in the world. The desk was a gift from Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880 and was built from the timbers of the British Arctic Exploration ship Resolute. Many presidents since Hayes have used the desk at various locations in the White House, but it was Jackie Kennedy who first brought the desk into the Oval Office in 1961 for President John F. Kennedy. It was removed from the White House for only one time, and this was after the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, when President Johnson allowed the desk to go on a traveling exhibition with the Kennedy Presidential Library. After this it was on display in the Smithsonian Institution. President Jimmy Carter brought the desk back to the Oval Office, where President Ronald Reagan, PresidentBill Clinton, President George W. Bush and now President Barack Obama have used it in this, its most famous location.


The desk has been modified twice. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered a hinged front panel for the key hole opening in order to hide his leg braces. The panel was commissioned in 1944 but President Roosevelt did not live to use it: it was not delivered until 1945, following the president’s death on April 12. President Harry S. Truman had the panel installed anyway to honor Roosevelt’s memory. The panel features the presidential seal—one of only four in the White House that have the eagle’s head turned towards the 13 arrows in the eagle’s left talon, as opposed to the now-official arrangement with the eagle turned towards the olive branch in the right talon with the 13 leaves.


The second modification to the desk was made under Ronald Reagan. President Reagan used a chair he had brought from the capital in California; it was tall enough that his knees bumped into the desk when he moved. As a result, the desk was raised two inches to accommodate Reagan and his chair; this was achieved by adding a separate, uniform base to the desk.


When president Lyndon B. Johnson took office in 1963, he found he was too large for the desk, and instead commissioned a plainer replacement which was built for him by the Senate cabinet shop. Richard Nixon, who succeeded Johnson in 1969, intended to use the desk of former president Woodrow Wilson, although due to a mix-up he served his term with the desk of former vice-president Henry Wilson. Gerald Ford, who succeeded to the presidency in 1974 following the resignation of Nixon, followed Nixon’s precedent. Jimmy Carter, Ford’s successor, returned the desk to the Oval Office, where it remained until George H. W. Bush had it removed (Bush preferred the desk he used while serving as Vice President during the Ronald Reagan Administration). Bill Clinton subsequently brought it back where it has remained since.


After the ship Resolute was broken up, Queen Victoria asked for several desks to be built from her timbers. Four desks were designed and made by William Evenden. A large partners desk was presented to President Hayes on 23 November 1880, while a smaller lady’s desk was presented to the widow of Henry Grinnell; this desk is now in the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Finally, the queen had two desks made for herself: a twin to the one given to the president and people of the United States, currently in Windsor Castle; and a writing table, which she had made for her private yacht, the HMY Victoria and Albert II. This writing table is in the collection of the Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth.


The plate on the front of the desk presented to President Hayes bears the following inscription:


H.M.S. RESOLUTE forming part of the expedition sent in search of SIR JOHN FRANKLIN IN 1852, was abandoned (74° N 101.367°W?) in latitude 74 degrees 41 minutes N longitude 101 degrees 22 minutes W on 15th May 1854. She was discovered and extricated in September 1855 in latitude 67 degrees 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 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.