by Mary Rattray
On November 2, 1880, a large crate arrived at the White House. No one knew what was in it, as they weren’t expecting any deliveries that day. (This was in the days before the Secret Service.) President Rutherford Hayes stood by as workmen opened the mysterious package. Inside was the most beautiful desk he had ever seen, made from dark oak with repeating carved panels all around. He was delighted, but still did not know who had sent it until he noticed the brass plaque accompanying it that read: “Presented by the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland to the President of the United States.”
This is the story of how a ship sent on an Arctic expedition ended up at the White House.
The Arctic during the 1800s was still undiscovered territory. In 1852 the ship the Resolute was sent to the Arctic Ocean to search for missing explorer Sir John Franklin. The ship was built strong with three thicknesses of oak on her bow, but this did not stop her from becoming ice bound. After two winters stuck in the ice the Resolute was abandoned. For over a year she drifted as a ghost ship. Then American whalers spotted her and discovered she was the HMS Resolute (Her Majesty’s Ship) and brought her home to Connecticut.
“From Old England’s Thames to New England’s Thames,” ran the headlines.
But the British soon heard about it and wanted their ship back. Britain and America were not very friendly at this time. They had already fought two wars and now there was tension again over slavery, which Britain was pressuring America to abolish. President Franklin Pierce thought a war with Britain would distract people from starting a civil war at home. Finally after much debate, the Senate voted to return the ship to Britain as a token of goodwill in the hope that it would promote more peaceful relations.
When the Resolute arrived back in England, celebrations went on for weeks. The ship became the toast of the two countries. Even Queen Victoria visited it.
“Allow me to welcome Your Majesty on board The Resolute . . .” Captain Hartstene said.
“I thank you, sir,” she replied.
The Resolute served in the Royal Navy for twenty-three years until she was decommissioned. No longer in service, she was sent to the breakers dock for salvage.
Queen Victoria ordered that a desk be made from her best timbers. This was the gift that she sent to the White House. The desk, made from the ship that sealed a lasting friendship between Great Britain and the United States, has been in the White House ever since.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt wanted to hide his leg braces, he had the kneehole panel added. Years later, First Lady Jackie Kennedy, found the desk downstairs in the broadcast room when she was restoring the White House. John Kennedy, who loved the sea, loved the desk and was the first president to use it in the Oval Office. Young John Kennedy Jr. liked to play under the desk pretending the panel was a secret door.
Kennedy and every president who has used it since have all placed their own inspirational items on it. JFK kept a lot of things on his desk. One special item was a paperweight made from the coconut on which he carved an S.O.S. when his PT boat was sunk in World War II. He also had a Breton fisherman’s prayer written on a plaque: “Oh God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”
Lyndon Johnson was too big for the desk so he used a bigger, plainer desk. Nixon and Ford did not use it, but Jimmy Carter brought it back to the Oval Office. He kept his desk clear except for a glass donkey kicking up its heels, given to him by the Atlanta Democratic Party. Reagan liked jellybeans and kept a jar on his desk. He also had it raised a couple of inches as he was over six feet tall. Both Reagan and Clinton displayed the motto “It can be done” on their desks.
The desk is still in the Oval Office today. When our next president is elected, look to see if the Resolute desk is used. And if so, what special inspirational items are on it?
Abbott, James A., and Elaine M. Rice. Designing Camelot: The Kennedy White House Restoration. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold. 1998.
Bausum, Ann. Our Country’s Presidents. Washingon, D.C.: National Geographic. 2005.
Buckland, Gail, and John Zweifel. The White House in Miniature. New York: W.W. Norton and Co. 1994.
Matthews, Elizabeth. HMS Resolute: And How She Prevented a War. Auxilium ab Alto Press: Bedfordshire, England. 2007.
Monkman, Betty C. Photographed by Bruce White. With the support of the Hon. Walter H. Annenberg White House Publications Fund. The White House. Its Historic Furnishings and First Families. New York: Abbeville Press. 2000.
Rubel, David. Encyclopedia of the Presidents and Their Times. New York: Scholastic Inc. 1994.
Sandler, Martin W. Resolute. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. 2006.
©2008 Mary Rattray; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance