As Americans celebrate Constitution Day today, they’ll no doubt want to pay tribute to the document’s chief architect, James Madison. But they should also consider the important role that his wife, Dolley Madison, played in the early success of America’s grand experiment in self-government.
Dolley Madison somehow has managed to become one of the most highly celebrated yet still underappreciated women in American history.
The reasons for Dolley Madison’s celebrated status are well known: With her magnetic personality and social aplomb, Dolley Madison largely defined the ceremonial role of first lady and became the first American woman ever given that title. She rescued Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington just before the British sacked our capital during the War of 1812. And she continued to play an active role in public life after leaving the White House, dictating the first personal message ever sent by telegram and becoming the only woman ever given a ceremonial seat in the U.S. House chamber.
Still, to 21st-century ceiling-breakers, Dolley Madison’s traditional role as America’s “hostess with the mostest” seems a lot like her famous cakes: full of fluff and frivolous froufrou. As a result, Dolley Madison is often depicted as an exemplary relic from a bygone era: a woman with little to teach us in our more enlightened age.
I largely held this view of Dolley Madison until I witnessed the remarkable work of a Florida woman named Liz Joyner, who is perhaps the most important civic leader in America today.
A dozen or so years ago, Joyner set out to address a problem in Florida’s state capital in Tallahassee that is now engulfing the entire country: the decline in civil discourse and respect for those with whom one disagrees. Initially, Joyner approached this challenge by organizing highly rational, fact-checked discussions on controversial public issues. She instituted sensible rules to keep the discussions from going off the rails. And she watched in horror as her earnest efforts to promote civil discourse succeeded mostly in boring people to death.
So Joyner set aside her inner schoolmarm and decided to take the programs of her Village Square organization in a different direction. Reminding citizens of the highly popular “squeezes” Dolley Madison held weekly in the White House, Joyner set about turning her events into convivial dinner parties ostensibly for the purpose of discussing public issues (but largely for the purpose of building friendships and goodwill among people with different worldviews).
It was a stroke of genius that fit well with Joyner’s clever wit and lighthearted sense of humor. And it soon garnered the attention of New York University professor Jon Haidt, one of America’s foremost moral psychologists. Haidt’s best-selling book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, provides reams of scholarly research that support Joyner’s intuitive hunch — that individuals are rarely moved by fact and logic unless and until they first forge personal relationships with people of goodwill who see the world differently. Haidt and Joyner have since collaborated on a number of projects, with the Village Square serving as a community-based “laboratory” for testing many of Haidt’s ideas.
Now, lest there be any confusion, the Village Square is not designed to produce grand policy agreements or political compromises. It’s merely designed to promote goodwill and understanding among people from across the political spectrum — not just the mushy moderates often drawn to civility projects. Still, much like Dolley Madison’s White House parties, the relationships forged at Village Square events often lead to constructive actions that help to strengthen unlikely bonds.
For example, several years ago, a Tallahassee rabbi moderating a Village Square forum mentioned that members of his congregation had experienced great difficulty getting the local school system to accommodate students interested in commemorating the High Holy Days. After he had finished, a crotchety old Southern Baptist gentleman (whom the rabbi had befriended at previous Village Square events) stood and pledged to organize a letter-writing campaign to get the local school policies changed. Not surprisingly, the school system administrators soon reversed course.
Joyner believes that goodwill of this kind is easier to foster at a community level than at the national level because geographic neighbors are more likely to build friendships than distant strangers. And she believes that community-based civic enterprises like the Village Square can do much to restore civility and cross-partisan respect in America — so long as they give as much attention to the relationship-building that Dolley Madison fostered as they do to the idea-sharing that Dolley Madison’s bookish husband loved.
So, in this, the 250th anniversary year of Dolley Madison’s birth, we would do well to remember the important role that America’s “hostess with the mostest” played in building civic accord. For just as James Madison symbolically represents the letter of the U.S. Constitution, Dolley Madison most certainly personifies its unifying spirit.
William Mattox is the education policy director at the James Madison Institute and a member of the Village Square’s board of directors.