Founding Father’s desk, papers on display to mark Constitution anniversary

The U.S. Constitution was drafted, in part, on this desk.

The massive, 10-foot-high breakfront desk belonged to James Wilson, a Founding Father and signer of the Declaration of Independence. He helped frame the document that became the basis for the U.S. government.

The desk resides in Biddle Library at the law school of the University of Pennsylvania. Wilson, the first law professor at the university, trained President George Washington’s Cabinet members in the finer points of law. Wilson was among the first first Supreme Court justices, and likely wrote the court’s legal opinions on that desk.

It could be one of the most important desks in American history — and the levers and locking mechanism of the fold-down desktop still work.

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“When we moved the desk into the library, it came in multiple pieces because it has to break down. It’s so big,” said Paul George, the associate dean and director of the library. “I jokingly said, ‘I bet there’s something special shoved in the back.’ And I reached into the back and pulled out a small piece of paper money from 1783. Which was a little bit ironic because James Wilson died bankrupt.”

Biddle Library, and the desk it contains, is normally closed to the public. But for the 225th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, the public is invited to see the desk and some of Biddle’s private documents on Monday.

Among the papers pulled out of Biddle’s historic archive is the document appointing Wilson to the Supreme Court in 1789, signed by George Washington, and his appointment to oversee the King of France’s legal matters in America, signed by Louis XVI.

“It really shows the scope of his position,” said archivist Leslie O’Neill, who says the documents have not been displayed in more than 10 years.

The documents will be displayed for one day only in Biddle Library, where Penn Law professor William Ewald will deliver a lecture about the finer points of Wilson’s contributions to the birth of the nation.

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