Is antique desk a part of Andrew Jackson’s Salisbury history?
The Post is reprinting this Oct. 7, 1984, article by former Post editor George Raynor in conjunction with a program on President Andrew Jackson being presented by the Historic Salisbury Foundation at its annual meeting on April 12. The speaker will be Judge Andrew Jackson VI, the great-great-great-grandson of Jackson, who lived for a time in Salisbury and studied law here. This year is the 250th anniversary of Jackson’s birth.
By George Raynor
The Salisbury Post
An old walnut, slant-top desk was returned to Salisbury last week bearing the identification as “Andrew Jackson’s desk.”
If it can be proved it was used by young Jackson when he studied law in Salisbury 200 years ago, the desk will constitute one of the finest historical relics in Salisbury’s overflowing cornucopia. But the “if” is giant-sized; at present the evidence that Jackson read Blackstone’s commentaries at this desk in Judge Spruce Macay’s little law office is soft.
Gift from Fayetteville
The desk is a gift of Henry A. Rankin Jr. of Fayetteville to the Historic Salisbury Foundation. Rankin received the desk from his father who, in turn, had received it many years ago as a gift from a cousin, Lizzie Wharton. The Whartons and the Rankins are interrelated Guilford County families, but Lizzie Wharton lived here on the corner of West Innes and North Jackson streets for many year before her death in 1931.
Miss Wharton, Henry Rankin Jr. said, told his father that the desk came out of Judge Macay’s law office and that it had been used by Jackson. “Take good care of it,” he said his father told him. “It’s important.”
“Unfortunately,” Rankin added last week, “I was pretty young then and didn’t pay too much attention to what he told me about its history.”
But he was emphatic that his father said it was “Andrew Jackson’s desk.” If so, no doubt the desk remained behind when young Andy left Salisbury on a path that led westward and ultimately eastward to the White House in Washington, D.C.
Furthermore, Rankin said, his aunt gave his father a letter attesting to the origin of the piece. While the letter has been misplaced or lost, Rankin remembers that it described the desk as Andrew Jackson’s. Probably by this was meant that he studied at it, not that he owned it. Andrew Jackson was just one of the many young men who read law and did legal errands for Macay, a noted lawyer and judge.
Rowan County origin
Location, ownership and family tradition strongly suggest the desk had a Rowan County origin. Furthermore, the woods (walnut and southern yellow pine) and the desk-on-frame style are right for early 19th century furniture.
While the desk, quite large and heavy, is well constructed and shows good dovetailing, it does not have the sophistication of fine imported or domestic furniture. Bob Bailey of Woodleaf, a skilled furniture-maker who had a key role in the return of the desk, describes it was good cabinetry but not high style.
Bailey also noticed that there had been quite a bit of repair work to the frame and possibly some alterations to the interior. Rankin said his father had made repairs to the legs which had been damaged by powder post beetles. Bailey noted that drawers on the interior were probably not original, and probably had been installed in the place of pigeon holes or slotted space.
The sloped top-hinged top probably served as the work surface, and there is some evidence that a ledge was at the bottom of the top to provide a stop for books and papers. Rankin described it as a “storage desk” since the interior did not provide a flat writing surface. His father, he said, rigged up a hinged walnut surface that could be placed in the well to permit use that way. The desk can be easily separated into its case and frame units for more versatility and easier moving.
Rankin said he had been planning to offer the desk to some Salisbury history group for some time, feeling it to be historically important here.
He was attending a craft show at the Fayetteville Museum of Arts recently, where his daughter, a potter, was exhibiting. He fell into conversation with Bailey, who was exhibiting his furniture there. When he found out that Bailey was from the Salisbury area, he told him about his desire to return the desk. One thing led to another, and Bailey picked up the desk last week.
Proof of the authenticity of the claim that it is “Andrew Jackson’s desk” leaves much to be desired.
The proof that it is what historians may hope it is rests largely on the uncertain foundation of tradition. Tradition says the desk came out of the historic law office of Macay, wealthy 18th century lawyer and judge who died in 1808. It was in this office located near the old well at the Church Street exit to the Rowan Public Library parking lot that Andrew Jackson prepared himself for law. Macay had earlier bought the office and a house on lots 19 and 27 in the West Square from Adlai Osborne, longtime court clerk.
There is not a scintilla of evidence that the desk was in the office at the time (1784-86) Jackson was in Salisbury, or, for that matter, later. Just tradition, and most historians won’t accept that as conclusive. But on the other hand, the desk is right for the period, lawyers needed desks, and tradition says this was the one …
The desk is now at the Hall House where it will be, at least temporarily, on exhibit in an upstairs bedroom. How it will be used in the future has not been determined.