Friday, May 29, 2009

No Desk!

I've been the butt of a running joke on this trip. When we were preparing for the trip the kids and I watched a history channel series on the American Revolution loaned to us by my friend at West Vista Urban Farm. In one dramatic reenactment Thomas Jefferson is in Philadelphia, seated at a wooden desk, writing the Declaration of Independence. The voiceover says, In this room Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence.

"This is so exciting!" I say to the kids. "When we are in Philadelphia we might see that!"

"What?" Evelyn says, "The Declaration of Independence?"

"Well, no," I say, "That is in DC. I meant the desk."

"Ooooh! The desk! The desk!" Evelyn says. She then goes on to say things like, oh, maybe we'll see the pants he was wearing when he sat at the desk!

So imagine my surprise when, in perusing a DC visitor's guide, I discover that Thomas Jefferson's desk is in fact on display in DC in the Museum of American History. I was ready to go right away.

But there was the Museum of Natural History to visit, and an exhibit on the Unsettlement of the Contintent, about the settlement of Jamestown, Santa Fe and Quebec. Having just visited Jamestown I thought it would be fascinating to see the very different histories of the settlement of Santa Fe and Quebec. (It was.) And there were tours of the Library of Congress and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to make and monuments to see.

It didn't help that whenever anyone mentioned the desk Greta would lie down on the floor and kick and scream "No desk!" This trip has not been tailor made for a 4 year old.

So on our last day in DC we finally made it to the American Presidency exhibit of the Museum of American History. And there it was, in the center of the room, in glass.

The desk.

It looked nothing like the one in the dramatic reenactment. It was a small, portable desk of Jefferson's own design. I was snapping away, trying to hold still enough to get photos without flash in the dim light.

And Mike and Evelyn start cracking up.

They had been reading. The desk is flanked by two quotations. Jefferson, when he gave the desk to his granddaughter and her husband, attached this note inside the desk:

Politics as well as religion has its superstitions. These, gaining strength with time, may, one day, give imaginary value to this relic, for its great association with the birth of the Great Charter of our Independence.

And to his granddaughter, Eleanora Randolph Coolidge, he wrote in a letter:

Mr. Coolidge must do me the favor of accepting this. Its imaginary value will increase with 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.

What I did not suffer after having been made fun of by Jefferson himself. Evelyn said, "Can you see it? The desk has an aura of power and magic!" For the rest of the American Presidency exhibit Evelyn ran to me with, "Oooh! The wedge that Lincoln used to split wood!" and "Look! Look! Warren Harding's silk pajamas! He slept in those pajamas!"

The great irony is that after being so excited merely by the desk that the Great Charter of our Independence was written on I did not make it to see the charter itself. We kept passing the National Archives and deciding not to wait in the 45 minute line. We planned to go the last day after school groups had left for the day, but we arrived moments too late. It was closed. We did not see either the Declaration of Independence or The Constitution in person.

However, I, ahem, am no longer one to give too much importance to a relic. It is not the paper (or the desk) they are written on, but the words that matter.


Kat said...

That's pretty funny to be taunted by Thomas Jefferson. Not everyone can say that.

Susan said...

Kat, I wonder if his notes actually contributed to giving the desk more importance than it would otherwise have had. Maybe not since there are people (me) who were excited about the desk without knowing about the notes. I am very happy to be mocked by Jefferson, and appreciative of his foresight, because there is nothing I like more than a good story.

J.G. Wilder said...

Of course the novelist is interested in the STORY part of the history, which is why desks and pajamas are so evocative. At the same time, I can't help but wonder if we might be in a wee bit better shape as a country if there were a few more people out there, young students, say, who were all aflutter about the idea of seeing Jefferson's desk in the flesh . . . " Jefferson who?" is what you're more likely to hear, or "What's a desk?"

Susan said...

Jennifer, I am cracking up at "What's a desk?" it could happen. You are right about the details. I want to feel as if I am there and that is all about the details. I guess we wouldn't have history museums if people weren't interested in seeing Thomas Jefferson's desk, right?

patricia said...

Ha! I got similarly excited at the sight of the desk at the Smithsonian, and also got some teasing from my family. Although nothing so witty as, "Can you see it? The desk has an aura of power and magic!"

Well, I guess only us writers understand the sacredness of furniture where writing happens. At least you can know that you're not the only one who finds such things thrilling. (And we too missed seeing the Declaration and the Constitution.)

Stefaneener said...

Group taunting. What fun.

I would pay some money (but not my height in $100 bills) to see Greta doing the "no desk!" wail.

And my next request from Mr. Woodworker is, in fact, a Jefferson desk.

So there, Ev and Mike.

Kristin said...

That was a very entertaining post. I sure laughed when Evelyn said that "maybe we could see the pants that he was wearing at the desk."

I'm all about the relics too. I love artifacts. They make learning more concrete than words, so don't give up on either please.