Driving with my family not long ago, I caught glimpse of a street sign as we came through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel in New York. “Hey, look kids, Hamilton Ave.,” I called out to the pack of biography-loving young readers crammed behind me.
Without missing a beat, the older kids broke out into song, “I am not throwing away my shot! I am not throwing away my shot!” This is what a rapping Broadway show about a 200-year-old duel and a soundtrack played over-and-over-and-over-again gets you. If you mention the name “Alexander” anywhere near my three-year-old daughter, she automatically says “Hamilton” (with apologies to Alexander the Great and Alexander Graham Bell).
The Hamilton of Broadway is about bootstraps and hustle, fighting and sparring, enemies and rancor, passion and drive, ambition and self-destruction, all of which are a part of the real Hamilton’s story. But the play also leads to a fixation on what and who Hamilton was—orphan, bastard, son, founding father, lawyer, military man, author, advisor. We love labels, and Hamilton has many.
Just a few days earlier, back in Manhattan, on a trip to the New York Historical Society, my kids had the chance to see some of the artifacts that surrounded and played into Hamilton’s story at the museum’s “Summer of Hamilton” exhibit. Walking in, the kids made a bee line for the two bronze, life-size statues of Hamilton and Burr, weapons drawn, prepared to make history. A few more feet away, we looked at replicas of the weapons used during the Weehawken duel. And then, turning around, we saw the other side of Hamilton, the hand written (and legible) letters that made the kids thankful they know cursive and a single piece of furniture more central and symbolic to Hamilton’s life and achievements than just about any other—a pine writing desk.
It is a desk from later in his life, not the desk on which he poured out a majority of the Federalist Papers, (these little masterpieces of political thought, it is believed, were mostly written from a small lap desk). The desk reminds us of what Hamilton created for us. Hamilton without his desk and his pen would have left a much smaller legacy behind—he would have been a man of vision without a vehicle to advance his ideas, a gifted sculptor without a tool. His desks were a launching pad, a laboratory, a testing ground, a proving ground, a place to begin, a place to defend, a place to light fires and put down rebellions.
From a desk, he helped found a country. From a desk, he defended a form of government, he set out arguments, he criticized and critiqued, and he produced a voluminous defense for his positions. He and his co-authors—John Jay and James Madison—wrote the Federalist Papers at a fervent pace, often publishing multiple pieces in a week. Taken together, Hamilton alone composed thousands upon thousands of words in less than a calendar year—at a desk.
In 1905, N. Hudson Moore wrote an essay about this singular piece of furniture, noting the interest we pay to the desks of the greats. The desk—as we know it—was rarely referenced in America to prior to 1700, when lap desks sufficed for most. “By the middle of the 18th century, reading and writing became less of an accomplishment and more of a necessity, and the number of desks rapidly increased,” Moore wrote. “It was the age of polite letter writing and of diaries and the memoirs from which we glean so much of history and even more . . .” Then came side-board desks, bureau-desk combinations, the bookcase-desk, empire-style desks, the “Massachusetts Desk” meant for dual occupancy, and “pretty little desks” for women.
But desks, of all stripes, have fallen out of favor in many places. In some education circles, student comfort, relaxation, and bodily emancipation are the primary focus. Desks aren’t considered good for students who need to move to learn, and who prefer beanbags to hard, flat surfaces. Parents are also to blame for failing to put the writing life—and the writing desk—at the center of the home. On a recent tour of Mark Twain’s home in Connecticut, one of my kids noted that there was a desk in practically every room of the house. The desks of those days are the TV screens of today’s homes.
Not long after our museum visit, we went to Brooklyn to pick out a desk for one of our sons who is entering elementary school and would now need a place to do his school work. Despite the fact that our children often spread out across the dining room table to do their homework, my husband has always insisted that each child needs a desk. He sees it as not just a piece of furniture but also a place that creates a mindset, along with a posture and a focus. We picked out a simple desk with three slim drawers and white legs that would fit right next to our son’s bed.
The final song in Hamilton is titled, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” It’s a song that begs us to think about the words we might put down on paper, the words that give life to those who are gone. In the song, Eliza, Hamilton’s wife sings, “I try to make sense of your thousands of pages of writing/You really do write like you’re running out of . . . time.” Desks can’t stop time, but they can help us record the passage of time. And for the greatest men and women, desks are the birthplaces of the eternal—where words are formed from nothing, and live on long past the time that those who wrote them are gone. For the rest of us mere mortals, a desk can still be the place where ideas and sentiments are learned and transmitted—from father to son, mother to daughter, generation to generation.