With more than 5.2 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you’re throwing a term paper together at the last minute, or reading up on Christmas carols, because you just haven’t heard enough of them while doing your shopping this week. We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,234,584-week series, Wiki Wormhole.
This week’s entry: The Resolute desk
What it’s about: The most important desk in America. Since 1961, when Jacqueline Kennedy brought it into the Oval Office for her husband to use, five U.S. Presidents have sat at the Resolute desk, signing legislation and making decisions that have governed the fate of the nation.
Strangest fact: The desk is probably the only piece of White House furniture to cross the Arctic Circle. In 1854, Britain sent the HMS Resolute northward on a journey of Arctic exploration. The vessel became trapped in the ice, and the sailors abandoned ship. The wreck was discovered two years later by an American whaling ship, and the Resolute was returned to Queen Victoria. The ship was dismantled, and timbers were used to build a desk, which Her Majesty presented to then-president Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. (Two more desks made from the ship’s remains now reside in the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the National Museum Of The Royal Navy). It moved around the White House as presidents came and went, but didn’t become the desk until the Kennedys put it front and center.
Biggest controversy: Kennedy may have averted WWIII while sitting at the Resolute desk, and the Resolute itself may have also averted a war. The ship was part of a squadron of five British vessels sent to find explorer Sir John Franklin, who was lost seven years earlier searching for the “fabled Northwest Passage,” which must be described as “fabled” in every instance. The whole fleet became trapped in ice at various points, and their frustrated commander, Edward Belcher, decided to abandon four ships and head home. Even when two of the ships became unfrozen, he declined to recover them, hightailing it back to England. Belcher was court-martialed (as was customary for any captain who lost a ship) but acquitted.
As this was happening, tensions were running high between the U.S. and Britain, and the two nations seemed headed toward a third war (after the Revolutionary War and War Of 1812). President Franklin Pierce had severed diplomatic relations. When whaling captain James Buddington found the Resolute adrift in the North Atlantic and returned the ship to Connecticut, Senator James Murray Mason—thus far a very vocal hawk—suggested refurbishing the ship and returning it to England. The ship was refit at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and piloted back to the U.K., where it was used by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The gesture worked, tensions eased between the two countries, and a war never materialized.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Wiki Wormhole favorite Rutherford B. Hayes is forever immortalized in the desk. Alongside carved relief images of Arctic explorers on the side of the desk, the front panels show portraits of Hayes and Victoria. The desk’s drawer handles are male and female hands embracing, symbolizing the concord between the two heads of state.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The desk’s stay in the Oval Office very nearly didn’t survive Kennedy. JFK’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, found the desk too small for him and commissioned a replacement while the Resolute desk toured as part of an exhibition of Kennedy’s effects. Nixon preferred the desk he had used as vice president, which had previously belonged to Woodrow Wilson (Ford used the Wilson desk as well). Jimmy Carter brought the Resolute back to the Oval Office, but George H.W. Bush, like Nixon, preferred his vice-presidential desk. Bill Clinton brought the desk back again, and it’s been in the Oval Office ever since.
Also noteworthy: The desk has been modified twice. While it didn’t grace the Oval Office until 1961, other presidents used it elsewhere in the White House, and Franklin Roosevelt added a hinged panel to hide his leg braces. (An odd bit of trivia: The panel contains one of only three presidential seals in the White House in which the eagle faces the arrows, not the olive branch.) Kennedy also had the desk raised on a plinth, a wooden base made to fit the desk. By the time the desk made it back to the Carter Oval Office, the plinth was gone, but Reagan had a new one built, as he kept bumping his knees on the inside of the desk.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Replicas of the desk are often featured in the movies, none more important than in history’s greatest cinematic monument, National Treasure: Book Of Secrets, in which a secret compartment in the desk reveals an important clue to Nicolas Cage.
Further down the Wormhole: Every president who used the Resolute desk in the Oval Office also has a replica in his presidential library. And while George H.W. Bush had the desk elsewhere in the White House, the Bush Center at the University Of New England in Maine has a replica that was built by the Kittinger Furniture Company of Buffalo, New York. The City Of Good Neighbors has no less than 19 sister cities around the world, two of which (Cape Coast and Aboadze) are in Ghana. That country, in the middle of Africa’s Gold Coast, was the first sub-Saharan nation to declare independence from European colonial powers, in 1957. But decades before that, the Ashanti (living in what would become Ghana) rebelled and won de facto independence in the War Of The Golden Stool. We’ll look at that fight, and the remarkable woman who led it, next week.