The Resolute Desk: The Story Behind the Iconic Oval Office Fixture

The Resolute Desk is an icon in American history. Its story illustrates America and Britain’s relationship and its tenure in the White House provides a chronological record of U.S. Presidents.

Apr 3, 2021By Austin Bryan
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Ronald Reagan at the Resolute Desk; John F. Kennedy at the Resolute Desk; President Barack Obama at the Resolute Desk prior to announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden, 2011

 

The Resolute Desk is a mainstay feature of the Oval Office. Since its first use in that office by President Kennedy, the desk has become ingrained with the presidency. Its richly stained oak timbers are a treat for the eyes. Its weight and size (over 1,000 lbs and 6 feet long) effectively communicate power and influence. And it’s continued presence in the White House has rendered it an icon in American history.

 

The Resolute Desk’s Origins: The H.M.S Resolute

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The ‘Resolute’ Abandoned and Drifting Out by J. Hamer, 1880, via Christie’s

 

Isn’t it peculiar, then, that something so quintessentially American was actually created by the union’s forsworn mother country: Great Britain.

 

The Resolute Desk’s oak timbers are sourced from the British Royal Navy ship, the H.M.S. Resolute. This ship had been a merchant vessel that was purchased and converted by the British government for the purpose of an arctic expedition.

 

This expedition was not carried out for the purpose of exploration. Rather, the H.M.S. Resolute’s voyage was essentially a rescue mission. Five ships in total were sent to find the remains of British officer and explorer Sir John Franklin and his crew. Franklin’s expedition had set sail in 1845, in search of the Northwest Passage.

 

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The search for Franklin’s, presumably ill-fated, crew began in 1852. A year later, in late 1853, the H.M.S. Resolute was frozen in ice during a particularly unfortunate bout of cold weather. The crew was forced to abandon the ship and seek refuge on the other British expeditionary vessels.

 

The ship, thereafter, became detached from the ice and drifted further out to sea.

 

The Resolute Desk may have never graced American history had it not been for George Henry. He was the American whaler who spotted and re-discovered the ship in late 1855. The captain of the whaling vessel, James Buddington, took control of the H.M.S. Resolute and steered her into port in New London, Connecticut.

 

Transatlantic Reciprocity

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Queen Victoria Visiting the HMS Resolute by William ‘Crimea’ Simpson, 1859, via Christie’s

 

The U.S. government purchased the ship from Buddington for $40,000 before restoring the ship as a gift to Queen Victoria.

 

Such a gesture of goodwill towards Britain was well-timed. It was only days after the H.M.S. resolute reached Connecticut, that President Franklin Pierce delivered his third annual message to Congress. 

 

In his message, President Pierce criticized Britain for what he perceived as violations of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (1850). The treaty principally prohibited either power from fortifying or establishing territorial possessions or colonies in Central America. Such rhetoric was illustrative of a period in time in which the two countries were increasingly at odds with one another.

 

Consequently, Congress appropriated the money necessary to restore and return the H.M.S. resolute in order to lower tensions existing, at that time, in the transatlantic relationship.

 

The ship arrived in Cowes Harbor, on the Isle of Wight, in December of 1856. Queen Victoria welcomed the vessel home personally, accompanied by her husband Prince Albert.

 

H.M.S. Resolute was active in the Royal Navy for an additional 20 years before being decommissioned in 1876. It was stripped down and broken up in the Chatham Dockyard. Queen Victoria requested that the timbers of the ship be used to furnish desks.

 

One of which was to be made specifically for the President of the United States. It would seem that Congress’ gift, offered some decades earlier, was not forgotten.

 

Journey To The Oval Office

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Portrait of Rutherford B. Hayes; with The Resolute Desk, via The White House Historical Association, Washington D.C.

 

Serving as the American chief executive at that time was President Rutherford B. Hayes. Some early conceptual drawings of the Resolute Desk feature portraits of Hayes and Victoria inscribed into the desk. Other interesting early designs featured both the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack, alongside depictions of the arctic.

 

In its design, the Resolute Desk is a partners’ desk. This essentially means that the desk is constructed as two pedestal desks joined at the front to create one large desk. This was a desk model that was fairly popular in the world of finance in Britain so that two partners could share a desk with one another in cooperative work. Of course, the Resolute desk is made with only a single beneficiary in mind: the U.S. President.

 

Hayes, the first president in American history to use the desk, was remarkably fond of the gift. Some still refer to the desk as the Hayes Desk. He used it as his primary desk in the President’s Office. At this point in time, the West Wing and the Oval Office had yet to be constructed and added on to the White House. The President’s Office was located on the second floor of the White House.

 

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt at his desk in the Oval Office by Commander Edward M. Murray, 1943, via the White House Historical Association, Washington D.C. 

 

The proposal for the West Wing came from President Theodore Roosevelt. Prior to the expansion, the president’s family lived on the second floor alongside offices of the executive branch. These offices were relocated to the West Wing upon its completion in 1902, with the second floor of the White House becoming the first family residence.

 

Theodore Roosevelt did not use the Resolute Desk during his presidency. Instead, he used a desk (constructed by one of the designers for the West Wing) which has since been named the Roosevelt Desk. This desk was the first desk to have been used by the president in the West Wing.

 

Teddy’s successor, President William Howard Taft, further enlarged the newly constructed West Wing and added the first Oval Office. Taft also chose to use the Roosevelt Desk, meaning that it was now also the first of eventually six desks to have been used in the Oval Office in American history.

 

The Resolute Desk, meanwhile, was left in a study on the second floor, in the first family residence. There it would remain in relative obscurity for some decades. The Roosevelt Desk was used by the next four presidents, until its time in the spotlight was abruptly ended by a destructive fire in the West Wing, on Christmas Eve, 1929. The Roosevelt Desk was damaged and had to be removed for restoration. Repairs to the West Wing were completed some months later, and with them, a new desk was constructed. Thus, the Hoover Desk became the second desk to enter the Oval Office.

 

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Ronald Reagan at the Resolute Desk, via the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum 

 

The Hoover Desk remained in the Oval Office throughout President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration. It was also during FDRs terms, however, that the Resolute Desk re-emerged into the public eye. This is because FDR conducted many of his famous fireside chats from the Resolute desk.

 

FDR also made one of the most notable additions to the desk by requesting the addition of a wood panel over the desk kneehole with the presidential seal (not to be mistaken for the Great Seal of the United States). The panel was added following FDR’s passing, during President Truman’s administration. Interestingly, Truman quickly rendered the seal carved in the Resolute desk as outdated. In 1945, and a little over two months following the conclusion of the Second World War, the administration changed the presidential seal by turning the eagle’s head away from the bundle of arrows and towards the olive branch. The eagle on the Resolute desk, however, is still facing the arrows.

 

In the Oval Office, Truman and Eisenhower returned to use of the Roosevelt Desk. It was during the Kennedy years that the Resolute Desk would begin garnering the status and recognition it enjoys today.

 

The Resolute Desk In The Oval Office

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John F. Kennedy at the Resolute Desk, via Business Insider 

 

Jacqueline Kennedy suggested the Resolute Desk to her husband, noting its intricate and attractive design as well as its compatibility with John F. Kennedy’s interest in history and the sea. And so in 1961, the Resolute Desk became the third desk to enter the Oval Office.

 

The desk would gain national prominence when, a few weeks following the president’s assassination in late 1963, the magazine Look published photographs of Kennedy’s son John crawling through the Resolute’s kneehole while his father worked. Further increasing the American public’s interest in the desk, the item of furniture was loaned to the Smithsonian Institution in 1964 and circulated around the country for the next few months as part of a fundraising effort for the Kennedy library. Following its tour, it was placed on display in what is today known as the National Museum of American History.

 

The Johnson and Wilson Desks were used throughout the administrations of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford (while the Resolute was with the Smithsonian). They are the fourth and fifth desks, respectively, to be used by U.S. Presidents in the Oval Office.

 

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter requested the return of the Resolute Desk to the Oval Office. The Resolute Desk would be used by every succeeding president, with the exception of President H.W. Bush, who opted to use the C&O desk (the sixth and final desk to have been used in the office).

 

Significance Of The Resolute Desk In American History 

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President Barack Obama at the Resolute Desk prior to announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden, 2011, via Town and Country Magazine

 

The Resolute Desk has carved a very interesting place for itself in American history (specifically that of the presidency). It has behind it tendrils of history that connect it to the country’s former royal possessors and future inseparable allies. The design of the desk appropriately communicates the weight of the office and the responsibility assumed by the person who is chosen to inhabit it.

 

It also has, by this point in time, been a continuous part of numerous presidential administrations of various political affiliations or leanings; from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan and from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. The Resolute desk has become a piece of American iconography that is seemingly immune to politicization and serves as a fairly fitting symbol for the peaceful transfer of power that is so essential to the nature of the presidency and republican government.



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By Austin BryanAustin Bryan is a contributing writer at TheCollector, with a primary interest in U.S. history. He is currently completing a B.A. in History at Chapman University. Austin lives in Colorado and enjoys it very much.