One of the most visually striking moments of President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia was his participation in a sword dance. Chris Wallace, anchor of Fox News Sunday, asked Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about sword dancing. “We all got to see in that video of you participating in that traditional Arab sword dance. You looked pretty good ... Have you been practicing, sir?” Wallace asked.
VIDEO: Watch @realDonaldTrump take part in traditional #Saudi ardha dance https://t.co/hQGZDD0JCy #RiyadhSummit pic.twitter.com/O7r4TjR7mw— Al Arabiya English (@AlArabiya_Eng) May 21, 2017
More than 200 years ago the first Arab diplomat to visit the United States was Tunisia’s Mellimelli, who came to discuss the Barbary Pirate war with President Jefferson. While here, Mellimelli most likely presented James Madison, who was secretary of state at the time, with a Tunisian saber.Several years later during the War of 1812 against England, when Madison was president, rumors swirled through Washington that the British military planned to attack and burn the White House. President Madison’s wife, Dolley, faced the rumors with defiance.“In my eyes as I have always been an advocate for fighting when assailed, though a Quaker — I therefore keep the old Tunisian saber within my reach,” Dolley wrote to a cousin, who practiced Quakerism, a pacifist Christian denomination. Folklore from the Tunisian culture suggests that a woman who could balance a sword while dancing carried her husband’s honor. Whether or not Dolley was aware of this symbolism, we don’t know. She nonetheless tapped its meaning.A year after she wrote about the Tunisian saber, Dolley literally and symbolically carried her husband’s honor. Just hours before the British arrived to burn the White House on August 24, 1814, Dolley made sure that the iconic eight-foot painting of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart was removed from the White House. She knew that if the British captured it, they would parade it through the streets of London as a prize of war.Carrying her husband’s honor continued. After the burning of the White House, Dolley and the president were devastated. The Madisons found strength to rise again, stronger and more determined. They worked phoenix-like, behind-the-scenes to prevent Congress from relocating the nation’s capital city to Philadelphia. Only nine votes in the House of Representatives prevented the capital from leaving Washington and turning the city into a ghost town. Several months later, Dolley did something no other president’s wife had done before. She took on a platform. Mrs. Madison rallied the women of Washington to start a nonprofit charity, an orphanage. The newspaper described the importance of caring for these children. “A nobler object cannot engage the sympathy of our females—when we reflect, too, on how uncertain are all human possessions, we know not, but that we may be providing a respectable and comfortable asylum to our descendents.”In this way Dolley Madison saved Washington three times by: saving the painting of George Washington, saving the city of Washington as the nation’s capital, and saving impoverished children in Washington. Her legacy continues today because the nonprofit she founded still exists as Hillcrest Children and Family and Center. In these ways, she symbolically danced with the Tunisian saber that she wrote about and brought great honor to her husband’s presidency and her country.By taking on a cause, Mrs. Madison expanded the role of the president’s wife beyond a hostess into a humanitarian and set the pattern and model that first ladies have continued to follow. Also today, Dolley’s painting hangs in the Red Room of the White House and faces the George Washington painting in the East Room, an arrangement that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAttorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation Durham seeking indictment of lawyer with ties to Democrats: reports Paul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book MORE came up with while she was first lady. In this way, Dolley still keeps her “eye” on Washington.What happened to her Tunisian saber? We don’t know for sure, but it doesn’t appear in inventories of Madison’s Virginia estate, so it most likely perished during the burning of the White House.While this latest dance may not have been Tillerson’s first sword dance, it certainly wasn’t the first time that an Arabic sword played a role in diplomatic relationships between the United States and countries abroad. No matter the era, sabers and swords wield symbolic power. Jane Hampton Cook (@JaneHamptonCook) served as a webmaster for the White House and is the author of nine books. Her newest, The Burning of the White House: James and Dolley Madison and the War of 1812, is slated to become a movie.The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.