The grand new exhibition on the American Presidency in our National Museum of American History displays hundreds of objects—General Washington's uniform and sword, the hat Lincoln wore the night he was shot and the drum that was struck at his funeral, a Roosevelt-era teddy bear, a Clinton saxophone, campaign paraphernalia and White House china and scores of other everyday items that have acquired an outsize significance because they touched the official history of the nation. But among all the items, none deserves its position of special honor more than the portable lap desk on which Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson designed the desk while a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1776, and had it built by a Philadelphia cabinetmaker. The "writing box," as he later called it, is of mahogany, and of modest size: 9 3/4 inches long by 14 3/8 inches wide by 3 1/4 inches deep. There’s a folding board, lined with green baize, attached to the top—when it is opened, the writing surface grows to 19 3/4 inches. A drawer in one end of the desk has space for paper, pens and a glass inkwell. The whole is about the size of an attaché case—barely larger than the first generation of laptop computers in our own day. But this 18th-century think pad, at least, earned the name.
The desk on which a new nation announced itself to the world in 1776—in Jefferson’s script of marvelous clarity and straight-line precision—had a long career of service. Indeed, Jefferson used it for almost 50 years, through all his subsequent life as politician, ambassador, statesman, inventor, architect, educator, President and private citizen. And as the United States grew and prospered with each passing year, the significance of the writing box grew too.
In 1825 Jefferson’s granddaughter, Ellen Randolph, married Joseph Coolidge of Boston. As a wedding present, Jefferson had a "beautiful"—his word—inlaid desk made for her new home in Massachusetts by a cabinetmaker at Monticello, John Hemings (the half brother of Sally Hemings, and one of five slaves freed by Jefferson in his will). But the ship carrying the desk from Richmond to Boston went down at sea, and Hemings was too old and dim of sight to make another. So Jefferson decided that Joseph Coolidge should have as a replacement the writing box on which he had drafted the Declaration. "It claims no merit of particular beauty," he wrote to Ellen in November 1825. "It is plain, neat, convenient, and taking no more room on the writing table than a moderate 4to. volume, it yet displays it self sufficiently for any writing." And, he added, "Its imaginary value will increase with the years...."
Lest the authenticity of the desk be in doubt, Jefferson attached an affidavit in his own hand—and, it’s satisfying to suppose, written on the desk—under the writing board: "Politics as well as Religion has its superstitions. These, gaining strength with time, may, one day, give imaginary value to this relic, for its association with the birth of the Great Charter of our Independence." The association was not just with that Charter, of course, but with the long, momentous course of a singular life.
The Coolidge family kept the desk for the next 50 years (but almost certainly did not use it), and, true to Jefferson’s prediction that it might be "carried in the procession of our nation’s birthday, as the relics of the Saints are in those of the Church," the desk had acquired by 1876, the centennial of the Declaration, the status of a sacred object. The family presented it to the nation in 1880, and their gift was first displayed in the Department of State. The Smithsonian has had the desk since 1921—and does it justice today by making it a focal point of the Presidency exhibition.
The desk wears its status lightly. Up close, you can’t help but notice a series of ink stains on the surface of the drawer. They are the careless, reassuring evidence of life. They mark the desk to this day with the daily humanity of the man who leaned on the writing box for half a century and supported on its sturdy wood the immense store of his mind.