The Diplomatic Reception Rooms atop the U.S. Department of State headquarters building in Washington, DC contain two of the most important writing surfaces of the Revolutionary War era. These two wonderfully preserved pieces of furniture are in rooms used daily by American diplomats as well as open during certain hours to the general public.
Thomas Jefferson’s writing desk during the period of his penning the 1776 Declaration of Independence
While not confirmed, this desk was likely used by Thomas Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence. However, Jefferson did use the desk to pen many important documents while he lived in Philadelphia and attended the Continental Congress. It is an American style mahogany desk fabricated in Philadelphia.
After Jefferson left Congress, he sold the desk to John Dickerson, a fellow delegate and local resident. Upon Dickerson’s death, the desk was sold to a Doctor Gallagher whose family gave to the Department of State in 1963. Interesting, President Richard Nixon requested this desk be sent to the White House so that he could use it to sign the 26th amendment. This ammendment granted 18-year-olds the right to vote.
1783 Treaty of Paris signing desk
This tambour style (rollable top) desk is the surface upon which the American and British treaty commisisoners signed the 1783 Treaty of Paris recognizing American independence and ending the eight-year conflict. The mahogany and mahogany veneer desk measures 38 inches tall, by 34 inches wide and 50 inches long. The center of the tambour lid tilts up to aid in writing.
On the morning of September 3, 1783, the American commissioners Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and John Adams visited the apartments in the Hotel de York of the chief British commissioner David Hartley (1731-1813). On this desk owned by Hartley, the commissioners signed the definitive treaty ending the war.
As common in the 18th century, important people traveled with their furniture and Hartley returned to London with this storied desk. After his death, the desk passed to John Wilmot, the chief commissioner settling loyalist claims from the Revolution. The desk remained in Wilmot’s family until 1843 when it was sold to H. G. Newton. In 1926 Newton family sold the desk to J. Wilson Sons for shipment to the United States and auction where is purchased by Benjamin F. Stein. In 1963, the Stein family donated the desk to the Department of State for use in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms.
Amazingly the leather and brass hardware on the desk are original. State Department curators have placed copies of the first two and last pages of the treaty on the writing surface.
Viewing these historic pieces of furniture
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms are a special gem. In addition to the two desks, visitors encounter many other important pieces of American decorative arts, all with captivating stories and provenances. The Diplomatic Reception Rooms are open on weekdays to public tours. The docents are highly knowledgeable with engaging vignettes. For tour information and scheduling, see the Department of State’s website. I highly recommend visiting this little known piece of Americana while visiting the nation’s capital.
For more information on these desks and on the other furnishing in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms see Objects in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms.