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Gift to a Grandson-in-Law: Jefferson's letter to Eleanor Wayles Randolph Coolidge


When Thomas Jefferson's favorite granddaughter, Eleanor Wayles Randolph, married Joseph Cooldge in 1825 the ship carrying all of her bridal gifts from Richmond to Boston sank, destroying all its cargo, including the writing desk, crafted by slave John Hemings, that Jefferson gave the couple. Upon hearing of this mishap, on November 14, 1825 Jefferson wrote to Ellen to say that he was sending his lap desk to Coolidge as a replacement.

We condole with you on the loss of your baggage, (especially) that beautiful writing desk . . . it has occurred to me however, that I can replace it, not indeed to you, but to Mr. Coolidge, by a substitute not claiming the same value from its decorations, but from the part it has borne in our history and the events with which it is associated.

I received a letter from a friend in Philadelphia lately, asking for information of the house and room of the house there, in which the Declaration of Independence was written, with a view to future celebrations of the 4th of July in it; another enquiring whether a paper given at the Philosophical Society there, as a rought draft of the declaration was genuinely so. . . .

If these things acquire a superstitious value, because of their connection with particular persons, surely a connection with the greater Charter of Independence may give a value to what has been associated with that; and such was the idea of the enquirers after the room in which it was written. Now I happen still to possess the writing box on which it was written. It was made from a drawing of my own by Ben Randall [sic], a cabinetmaker in whose house I took my first lodgings on my arrival in Philadelphia in May, 1776, and I have used it ever since. It claims no merit of particular beauty. It is plain, neat, convenient, and asking no more room on the writing table than a moderate 4" volume, it yet displays itself sufficiently for any writing. Mr. Coolidge must do me the favor of accepting this. Its imaginary value will increase with the years, and if he lives to my age, or another half-century, he may see it carried in the procession of our nation's birthday, as the relics of the Saints are in those of the Church. . . .


Thomas Jefferson to Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge, November 14, 1825, quoted in Silvio Bedini, Declaration of Independence Desk: Relic of Revolution (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981) 34-35.