Thomas Jefferson's Mahogany Writing Box
This table was believed to have great historical significance by the family in which it descended for nearly 150 years. Although not made in America, it is surely one of the historically most intriguing objects in the Collection.
Tradition states that Dr. William F. Gallaher of Philadelphia purchased the table from the estate sale of the effects of Governor John Dickinson (1732–1808) of Delaware, and that Dickinson had, in turn, bought it from Thomas Jefferson when Jefferson left Philadelphia in 1776, after writing the Declaration of Independence on it.1There is no surviving record of an estate sale for Governor Dickinson. Dickinson prevented an estate inventory from being taken, so it has not yet been possible to determine if he owned an architect’s table at the time of his death. A signature on the table does indeed confirm that it was owned by the Gallaher family by 1825; the history previous to this time is uncertain. Family tradition also states that Jefferson sent the diagram for this architect’s desk from Monticello to Philadelphia to his wife’s kinsman, Benjamin Randolph, the eminent cabinetmaker. Mrs. Jefferson was a Randolph.
It is possible that at one time Governor Dickinson owned the table and that he, in turn, may have acquired it from Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson wrote the Declaration while living in three rooms on the southwest corner of Market and 7th streets in Philadelphia and recorded that he used a small portable writing desk that had been made in Philadelphia by Randolph, with whom he had resided in 1775.2This small desk was given by Jefferson to his granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge and her husband, Joseph, in 1825 as a wedding gift. Formerly in the Department of State, it is now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. See Fitzgerald 1982, fig. V–2; and Silvio A. Bedin, Declaration of Independence Desk: Relic of Revolution (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981), 57. Another of Jefferson’s writing desks is owned jointly by Monticello and the Department of state (see Acc. No. 85.51). See Stein, 1156–59, for a discussion of Jefferson’s traveling desks. It is not impossible that Jefferson had a large and elaborate imported drawing table such as this one to use as well.
An architect’s table has always been a specialized piece of furniture. Developed in England in the late 18th century to serve fashionable gentlemen interested in architecture, it commonly had an adjustable drawing board and a sliding drawer for supplies.3Aronson, 31. Both the design and the secondary woods of the Collection’s table indicate, if not conclusively, that this example is of standard English rather than American manufacture. No American-made architect’s tables are recorded.
In recent years, this table has played a vital symbolic role in American history. Since it entered the Department of State’s collection, it has been used for several important ceremonial occasions, most significantly on July 4, 1971. On that Independence Day, President Richard Nixon signed the 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age to eighteen, on the table while it was in the East Room of the White House.
Alexandra W. Rollins
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.