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One Act of Kindness Inspired Another, and It Gave Us the Oval Office Desk

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By Tom Konecny

They’re strong allies now, but at one point the United States and Britain weren’t on the best of terms. You might recall a little disagreement in the 1770s, and a follow-up War of 1812 which didn’t exactly smooth things over. Things were touch-and-go through the rest of the 19th century.

So you could have excused an American sailor for happening upon an abandoned British ship stuck in icy waters in 1855 and keeping it to himself. Rather, he chose a more honorable approach – he returned the ship to its owners. The payback came not to him, but to entire nation in the form of the most beautiful and famous desk in America.

The HMS Resolute was a Royal Navy exploration ship set to sea in 1852. Part of a five-ship squadron under Edward Belcher, the team was in search of the missing British explorer Sir John Franklin, gone for seven years and counting. By 1854, several ships became trapped in ice and Belcher ordered the abandonment of four of them. The team regrouped briefly on a nearby island and by the time they were ready to leave, two ships had broken free and floated away. Belcher and his men were desperate to go home, so they left anyway.

Meanwhile, Resolute floated slowly eastward in the packed ice, and by 1855 was 1,200 miles from where she was abandoned. In September, whaler James Buddington of New London, Connecticut, noticed the Resolute floating alone in the Davis Strait between Canada and Greenland. His crew jumped aboard and sailed it back to New London, by which point the British government had waived all claims to the ship.

Because Britain and America experienced several areas of tension during 1855, a U.S. senator from Virginia proposed an international act of amity. He drafted a bill to have the federal government buy and refurbish Resolute, then sail her back to Britain as a gift. His bill passed and President Franklin Pierce signed it, authorizing more than $40,000 to complete the work.

After a complete retrofit, Resolute was sailed back to Britain, arriving in Hampshire, England on December 12, 1856. It was towed to an English seaport town, then toured and presented five days later to Queen Victoria in a gesture of goodwill. Tension between the countries diminished, and the gift was seen as instrumental in creating peace. Britain became so enamored and appreciative of the gift that it turned down an offer to reuse the ship for a new search for Franklin; given the role Resolute played in smoothing relations, Britain didn’t want to risk losing her again.

Resolute served in the Royal Navy from that moment on, but it never left home waters. It was retired in 1879 and the Queen ordered at least three desks to be made from the ship’s wood. They were crafted by cabinet makers at the Joiner’s Shop of Chatham Dockyard. The first Resolute Desk – a large partner’s desk – was sent to America in 1880. President Rutherford B. Hayes gratefully received the desk as a gesture of British thanks for the rescue and return of Resolute. Hayes loved its ornate features and placed it in the White House President’s Study. Its elaborate desk panels carved with medallion portraits of Her Majesty and the President were poignant visuals of their budding friendship, as were others with two male and female hands grasping together.

A second desk was presented to the widow of a member of the Franklin search party in recognition of her husband’s efforts. A third desk, a writing table, remains part of the Royal Collection.

The White House Resolute desk has been used since then by every American President except three (Johnson, Nixon and Ford). Seven have used it as their Oval Office desk, where it has largely resided for decades. Dwight Eisenhower was the first to remove it from the Oval Office, and it was returned by John F. Kennedy, then again by Jimmy Carter.

Franklin D. Roosevelt modified the desk by requesting a hinged panel to hide his leg braces, yet it was not finished until after his death. The panel bears one of the few White House seals featuring an eagle that faces the arrows of war instead of olive branches. Truman would alter all future official logos to face the branches as a sign of peace. Those panels, of course, were once famously photographed with Kennedy’s children playing while their father worked.

The Resolute desk is a beautiful part of shared history whose intricate designs fittingly represent the loveliness of friendship and forgiveness.

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