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Legacies: Collecting America's History at the Smithsonian, by Steven Lubar and Kathleen M. Kendrick
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Thomas Jefferson's desk, 1776
Thomas Jefferson's desk, 1776

This desk, one of numerous inventions Jefferson devised for his own convenience, was designed in May 1776 and built by Benjamin Randolph, a Philadelphia cabinetmaker and prominent patriot. It features a lap desk with an adjustable book rest and a lockable drawer, and Jefferson planned to use it while traveling between Monticello and Philadelphia. Jefferson gave the desk to his granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge and her husband in 1825, and their children gave it to the nation in 1880. Urging its acceptance, Senator John Warfield Johnston of Virginia declaimed: "On that desk was done a work greater than any battle, loftier than any poem, more enduring than any monument. . . ." It was displayed at the U.S. State Department for more than forty years and then transferred with other relics to the Smithsonian in 1921.

When the desk was displayed in 1876, politicians lauded the relic with language both political and religious. Robert C. Winthrop, president of the Massachusetts Historical Society, called it "as precious and priceless a piece of wood as the secular cabinets of the world have ever possessed," "among the choicest and most famous treasures of the Nation." Similar praises accompanied the desk's presentation to the nation in 1880. William W. Crapo, U.S. congressman from Massachusetts, called the desk "a precious memorial of Jefferson" and tied its story to the politics of the day. Crapo, a liberal and progressive Republican, saw the desk as a symbol of Jefferson's commitment to popular government, liberty, and union.

See also: Presidential Memorabilia, Popular Objects

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