Although the staff writer for Melania Trump made a faux pas in finalizing Mrs. Trump’s 2016 Republican National Convention speech by using some precise phrases from Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech, looking to precedent is a common starting point for first ladies and would-be first ladies.
Perhaps Louisa Adams, wife of President John Quincy Adams, summed up the conundrum of precedence and the risk of committing a faux pas this way: “Culture is the law.” Louisa was correct. The responsibilities of the president’s spouse are not defined in the U.S. Constitution or prescribed in law. As a result, precedent and culture become a law of sorts.
Should Melania Trump become first lady, which first ladies and precedents would provide a good guide and starting point for her and America?
Frequently Express Love for the USA
If Melania becomes first lady she will be the first president’s spouse since Louisa Adams to have been born on foreign soil. Born in Slovenia (formerly Yugoslavia) to Slovenian parents, Melania would become the first immigrant first lady.
Although Louisa was born in London, she was not an immigrant because her father was born in Maryland. He ran the London side of an Annapolis shipping company. When Louisa became first lady, some people distrusted her loyalty to America because she was born abroad in a country that had been the United States’ enemy in two wars. Had they been able to read her diaries and letters, they would have known how pro-America she really was.
“I could almost wish I were a man in these times for I feel that sort of ardor and enthusiasm in the cause,” Louisa wrote in a private letter to her husband about wishing to become a U.S. soldier. She had just learned the devastating news that the British military had burned the White House and the U.S. Capitol in 1814.
Although she shouldn’t have needed to as first lady years later, Louisa would have benefited from frequent public expressions of patriotism to overcome the cultural distrust of her birth country. Melania has already spoken of her love for America, a message worth hammering and reflective of Louisa’s precedent.
Use Your Talents Authentically
Like Louisa, Melania speaks several languages. Louisa’s ability to speak English, German, Russian, and French, the language of diplomacy, benefited America on numerous occasions because she could speak to many diplomats in a language they understood. Louisa lived in Russia for several years when John Quincy Adams was the top U.S. diplomat there. The Emperor of Russia was so impressed with Louisa’s charm and language skills that he asked her to dance with him at a ball as a way to signal his intentions to openly trade with America.
Jackie Kennedy was also fluent in several languages, which proved an asset for her and impressed heads of state. At an event in Austria in 1961, when Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev was asked if he wanted to shake hands with President John F. Kennedy, Khrushchev instead looked at Jackie and replied “I’d like to shake her hand first.”
And he did. The Associated Press reported of Khrushchev’s conversation with Jackie: “the tough and often belligerent communist leader looked like a smitten schoolboy when the ice thaws along the Volga in springtime.” Melania’s ability to speak five languages has the potential to make a great impression on diplomats and world leaders.
Let Fashion Make Strong Statements for America
At the event where Jackie Kennedy charmed Khrushchev, she wore a shell pink silk Georgette chiffon evening gown. Made by Oleg Cassini, the gown was embroidered with sequins to make a statement to the Soviets that America was a strong country boasting power and wealth.
Dolley Madison, the wife of President James Madison, also knew how to read the law of the culture of her day and used fashion to send a message of assurance, as I bring out in my new book, “The Burning of the White House: James and Dolley Madison and the War of 1812.”
For the inaugural ball in 1809—the first for a president—Dolley set a precedent through her very American attire. Knowing how Americans at that time disdained royalty, she carefully chose a buff-colored velvet inaugural gown and pearl jewelry instead of wearing diamonds like a queen. Later she dressed more regally once she gained trust with the American people.
Michelle Obama has been praised for her fashion style. She has put it to good use by hosting young adults interested in the fashion business for a fashion workshop at the White House. She brought in fashion professionals to showcase the apparel industry, which employs about 1.8 million people in the United States.
Melania’s immigrant story is interwoven with her background as a fashion model. Should she become first lady, Melania Trump is uniquely positioned to bring art and glamor to the role of first lady, much like Nancy Reagan, a former actress, brought a touch of Hollywood to the White House. The challenge for first ladies is knowing how to read the culture and proudly serve America in ways that use their authentic talents and interests.
Although culture is often the law, first ladies also have the ability to use their unique gifts and interests to set new precedents and model America to us and the rest of the world.