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The Hot Seats: 5 Famous Senate Desks

It may seem reminiscent of elementary school to plead and barter to sit at a certain desk, but plenty of U.S. senators would disagree. Forty-eight of the current Senate desks have been around since 1819, ordered after British troops destroyed the Capitol five years prior. The historic moments that happened at these desks—and the Senate VIPs who sat behind them—mean that some of the desks have taken on lives of their own. In recent decades, senators have decided to leave their own marks by inscribing their names on the inside of the desk drawers.

1. THE DANIEL WEBSTER DESK

The desk once used by Sen. Daniel Webster stands out from the others because it lacks any extra amenities—if you can call a writing box and an extra drawer “amenities.” When the useful additions were placed on all of the other Senate desks between 1820 and 1840, Webster refused, finding the renovations a waste of taxpayer money. Though his successors have had the option of adding the extra pieces, they have all declined, keeping with tradition.

Since the 1930s, it has been tradition for the senior senator from New Hampshire to sit in the same desk Webster once claimed as his own—and it has been official since 1974. That’s when the Senate passed Resolution 469 declaring that the desk would, “at the request of the senior Senator from the State of New Hampshire, be assigned to such Senator for use in carrying out his or her Senatorial duties during that Senator’s term of office.” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen occupies the desk now.

2. THE HENRY CLAY DESK

Even the venerable Abe Lincoln looked up to Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky, calling him "my ideal of a great man." So, it's not surprising that other senators from the Bluegrass State would want to soak in some of his essence. In 1999, the Senate passed Resolution 89, which ensured that Clay's old desk would always be assigned to the senior senator from Kentucky. Sen. Rand Paul sits there at the moment.

3. THE JEFFERSON DAVIS DESK

Before he became president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis was a senator from Mississippi. When a Union Regiment from Massachusetts camped in the Senate chamber in 1861, overzealous soldiers sought out Davis’s desk and attacked it with bayonets, intent on its destruction. Doorkeeper Isaac Bassett heard the commotion, ran in, and demanded to know what was going on. “We are cutting that damned traitor’s desk to pieces,” they told him. Bassett informed the posse that the desk belonged to the government, not Jefferson Davis. It was enough to stop them, but there’s still an inlay patch on the side of the desk from the resulting repairs.

In 1995, Senate Resolution 161 declared Davis’s desk would go to the senior senator from Mississippi. It’s currently occupied by Sen. Thad Cochran.

4. THE JOHN C. CALHOUN DESK

Andrew Jackson may not have thought much of South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun—he once said one of his few regrets in life was not hanging Calhoun when he had the chance—but senators still clamor to sit where Calhoun once did.

When Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina discovered that Sen. Russell B. Long of Louisiana was occupying Calhoun’s former desk, he politely requested the seat. Long declined, informing Hollings that his mother and father had both claimed the desk before him. When Long retired, however, he bequeathed the Calhoun desk to Hollings—and when Hollings left in 2004, he passed it on to Sen. Lindsey Graham.

5. THE STROM THURMOND FILIBUSTER DESK

Some desks are more infamous than famous. It seems no one wants to occupy the place where scandalized presidents Warren G. Harding and Richard Nixon both sat, for example. And then there’s the Strom Thurmond desk. The South Carolina senator proudly inscribed the desk after his long-winded filibuster “achievement” against the Civil Rights Act of 1957: “spoke 24 hrs. 18 min. from this desk in 1957.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa sits there now.

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politics
The Secret Procedure for the Queen's Death
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Chris Radburn—WPA Pool/Getty Images

The queen's private secretary will start an urgent phone tree. Parliament will call an emergency session. Commercial radio stations will watch special blue lights flash, then switch to pre-prepared playlists of somber music. As a new video from Half As Interesting relates, the British media and government have been preparing for decades for the death of Queen Elizabeth II—a procedure codenamed "London Bridge is Down."

There's plenty at stake when a British monarch dies. And as the Guardian explains, royal deaths haven't always gone smoothly. When the Queen Mother passed away in 2002, the blue "obit lights" installed at commercial radio stations didn’t come on because someone failed to depress the button fully. That's why it's worth it to practice: As Half as Interesting notes, experts have already signed contracts agreeing to be interviewed upon the queen's death, and several stations have done run-throughs substituting "Mrs. Robinson" for the queen's name.

You can learn more about "London Bridge is Down" by watching the video below—or read the Guardian piece for even more detail, including the plans for her funeral and burial. ("There may be corgis," they note.)

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Christie's Images Ltd. 2017
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History
Abraham Lincoln Letter About Slavery Could Fetch $700,000 at Auction
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Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, in which future president Abraham Lincoln spent seven debates discussing the issue of slavery with incumbent U.S. senator Stephen Douglas, paved the way for Lincoln’s eventual ascent to the presidency. Now part of that history can be yours, as the AP reports.

A signed letter from Lincoln to his friend Henry Asbury dated July 31, 1858 explores the “Freeport Question” he would later pose to Douglas during the debates, forcing the senator to publicly choose between two contrasting views related to slavery’s expansion in U.S. territories: whether it should be up to the people or the courts to decide where slavery was legal. (Douglas supported the popular choice argument, but that position was directly counter to the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision.)

The first page of a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Henry Asbury
Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

In the letter, Lincoln was responding to advice Asbury had sent him on preparing for his next debate with Douglas. Asbury essentially framed the Freeport Question for the politician. In his reply, Lincoln wrote that it was a great question, but would be difficult to get Douglas to answer:

"You shall have hard work to get him directly to the point whether a territorial Legislature has or has not the power to exclude slavery. But if you succeed in bringing him to it, though he will be compelled to say it possesses no such power; he will instantly take ground that slavery can not actually exist in the territories, unless the people desire it, and so give it protective territorial legislation."

Asbury's influence didn't end with the debates. A founder of Illinois's Republican Party, he was the first to suggest that Lincoln should run for president in 1860, and secured him the support of the local party.

The letter, valued at $500,000 to $700,000, is up for sale as part of a books and manuscripts auction that Christie’s will hold on December 5.

[h/t Associated Press]

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