Located in Orange, Virginia, the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution at James and Dolley Madison’s Montpelier offers world-class on-site and web-enabled education programming. This center’s goal is to inspire participation in civic dialogue, improve the public’s understanding of the founding principles of the United States, and enable citizens to deepen their understanding and participation in our democracy—all amazing, noble efforts.
Grateful American™ Foundation creator and president David Bruce Smith—and Be Inkandescent magazine publisher Hope Katz Gibbs, who is also the executive director of the Foundation—recently sat down with the team that heads up the Center for the Constitution, including:
- Dr. Sean T. O’Brien, the executive vice president and chief operating officer,
- Dr. Lynn Uzzell, scholar in residence, and
- Jennifer Howell, director of digital publishing at Montpelier
We the People: Understanding the Constitution
Hope Katz Gibbs: The Center for the Constitution was established in 2002 with the goal of becoming the nation’s leading resource in high-quality constitutional education. How are you accomplishing that mission?
Dr. Sean O’Brien: Since the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to teaching teachers, law enforcement officials, and others, our focus is solely on sharing the founding principles of the United States so that everyone who comes through the Center can gather as much knowledge as possible and then share it with the people they influence.
David Bruce Smith: I know my father had a great vision for this Center. Tell us about the feedback you get from the scholars, international diplomats, and business leaders who study here—and share how you measure the impact.
Dr. Sean O’Brien: Through our programs in the last 12 years, we’ve worked with thousands of teachers from all across the country and people from many countries. When we talk about the founding principles, we routinely say to teachers: “It’s been a year since you were here at Montpelier. Has that experience had any influence on your teaching? How is it helping your students?”
They report to us that what they learned at Montpelier has significantly contributed to the way that they talk about the American story and the origins of the United States. We want to help them take that knowledge to the next generation and develop their passion for the Constitution. When I’m an old man, I want to have educated and thoughtful leaders running the country, and we build the foundation for that in our programs.
Be Inkandescent: What are some of the things that you do to keep your different audiences interested in what you’re teaching?
Dr. Lynn Uzzell: We try to approach the subject in the much the same way that James Madison himself would approach it, which is to say that we take whatever constitutional aspect we’re studying—federalism, or the legislative power, or the executive power—and we look at it the way it had been understood prior to the Constitution, whether in the state or the European constitutions or in the six ancient and modern confederacies that Madison had looked at. Then we look at the way it was developed within the US Constitution. Once we have that grounding, we can analyze and appraise the way that these powers have been developed in American history. And then begins the lively discussion as to whether or not it has been developed in a way that the framers would approve of, or if we have deviated in any way.
Be Inkandescent: Tell us about some of the seminars you offer.
Dr. Lynn Uzzell: The seminars are often geared to a particular demographic, such as schoolteachers from elementary, middle, and high schools; state judges; and law enforcement agencies. We also keep a few slots open for the general public. Naturally, everyone has diverse backgrounds and a diverse level of understanding of the material before they get here, but one thing they have in common is a desire and an interest to learn more. We provide the setting in which they can immerse themselves in the subject, and we give them the grounding from which to discuss it from morning to evening during the few days they’re with us.
Dr. Sean T. O’Brien: One of the great things about coming to Montpelier to study the Constitution is that you’re doing it at the place where James Madison studied it while preparing for the Constitutional Convention. If you come here as part of a seminar, you stay on Montpelier property, participate in seminars here in Louis Hall, and at the end of the day when the tourists have gone home, the property belongs to the people in the seminar. They have the opportunity to walk around the grounds in quiet contemplation of the Constitution, or not so quiet, depending on the debates that people get involved in.
Jennifer Howell: The conversations about these important issues don’t end with the final class—and that’s our intent. Whether or not they find an answer right away isn’t the point. It’s the careful deliberation and the reasoned debate that they have with each other after reading these documents and after reading about James Madison’s contributions that really matter.
Be Inkandescent: Can each of you give an example about some of the discussions you’ve heard that have resonated with you personally?
Dr. Lynn Uzzell: On the question of federalism, as I said, we like to start the debate with what federalism meant to the framers themselves when they met to consider the Articles of Confederation. We try to emphasize that even though we are using the same language as the framers, the words we use often mean different things now. The meaning of federalism changed over the course of the debates at the Constitutional Convention, and it has continued to evolve since then.
This gives us a framework from which to determine whether or not federalism has developed in a way that people approve of. Many people insist that the rights designated for the states to retain have evolved too far, and others think that the powers concentrated within the central government were absolutely necessary and in some cases a part of what James Madison’s plan was from the beginning. This debate gives them a perspective from which to determine future policies.
Dr. Sean T. O’Brien: One of the things I find most fascinating is working with law enforcement officials. They learn how to fire a weapon; they learn how to drive a car; they learn how to put handcuffs on, so they learn the how of the job, but they haven’t often had the opportunity to learn the why behind the how. So talking with police officers about the First Amendment is amazing.
There was a case recently where police officers were filmed arresting somebody, and the person filming it was being harassed by the police and said, “I’m just exercising my First Amendment right,” and the arresting officer said, “You don’t have any rights.” Well that’s not true of course, and it’s a great example of how all law enforcement officials can benefit from taking that event into the classroom and discussing what the First Amendment means today.When it was written, the idea of free speech was very different than it is today.
Jennifer Howell: We work with quite a few international visitors, which gives us a wonderful opportunity to have a global impact in what we’re doing. A couple of years ago, we had a group of Zimbabwean lawyers who stayed with us for a week, and learned about Madison’s role in creating the US Constitution, and how he navigated very disparate viewpoints within the colonies. They took what they learned here, went back to Zimbabwe, and drafted a model constitution for their country. They’re still working on that constitution, using Madison’s example as a model moving forward, and that’s really exciting for us.
Dr. Sean T. O’Brien: If we can help one country make even just one line of their constitution more rights-based or have a better understanding of rule of law, we can affect millions of peoples’ lives for generations, and that is the kind of impact that the Robert H. Smith Center is trying to have.
Be Inkandescent: What’s it like to actually walk around these grounds? Does it feel like hallowed ground?
Dr. Lynn Uzzell: It really does. One of the most gratifying experiences for me after teaching a group of people about James Madison’s role in the development of the Constitution is that people at the end of the experience will say, “I had no idea how important he was to our country.” Madison is one of the forgotten founders, yet he is so important to the principle of the constitutional structure that we have.
Dr. Sean T. O’Brien: We’ve spent a lot of time and money over the past five years restoring Montpelier to the house that James and Dolley Madison knew physically. Having the mansion and the Center for the Constitution next to each other makes the mansion so much more resonant and important as a place for people to support and to want to see be successful.
Be Inkandescent: Jen, how has digital technology changed your reach and what you do here?
Jennifer Howell: We quickly realized that even with the wonderful facilities we have here, we can only reach a finite number of people. Our first online course, Constitutional Foundations in 2011, was our attempt to bring the power of place to people who wouldn’t normally be able to get here. It can also be a nice complement to the onsite experience, by enabling participants who will be coming here for our program to be familiar with the issues before they get here.
Right now, we have two free online courses available to anyone, which about 11,000 people have taken, and we have 12 more in production that we’ll be launching over the next three years.
Be Inkandescent: Lynn, tell us a little bit about the ConText Program.
Dr. Lynn Uzzell: We launched ConText by putting online the debates of the Constitutional Convention—which our ConText partners at Brookings Institution call “the greatest document never read.”
As the convention’s unofficial scribe, Madison took notes of the debate that framed the Constitution. He preserved these notes so that people could understand, in his words, “the objects, the opinions, the reasoning” from which our own structure of government was made.
Since this body of work had not received the recognition it deserves, we decided to make these notes more widely available by publishing them online and second, by giving users the opportunity to comment on these notes in “panes” that appear alongside the notes. Whether historical, philosophical, or relevant to current events, the commentary creates an ongoing conversation about our Constitution. We have since been uploading other documents as well.
Jennifer Howell: We’ve made Madison’s notes on the debates of the Constitutional Convention serve as a sort of constitutional Talmud, where we can crowdsource all of the annotations. And in doing so, we realized that we had developed a tool that would be instrumental in interpreting other historical documents. That’s really our focus now: “What other documents are going to help us move the needle in these primary source documents?”
Be Inkandescent: This question is for each of you: What is your favorite fun fact about James and Dolley Madison?
Dr. Lynn Uzzell: Although James Madison is often viewed as being very shy and reserved, he knew how to act when necessary. His machinations at the Constitutional Convention show that he was not just an intellectual scholar, but also a very savvy politician. One amusing story that emphasizes how proactive James Madison could be was in his courtship of Dolley. He not only maneuvered an introduction with her through Aaron Burr, but then proposed to her within a couple of months, and they were married within only a few months of meeting.
Dr. Sean T. O’Brien: James Madison is always thought of as being quiet and reserved. But we hear stories about how when the weather was bad, James and Dolley would chase each other around on the front porch for exercise, and I just the love that image. Another thing I find fascinating is Dolley Madison’s son (James Madison’s stepson), John Payne Todd. He drank, gambled, and made a lot of bad business investments. Though we was challenging, they loved him unequivocally to the end, which I think is wonderful because it’s easy to forget that the founders had families with foibles.
Jennifer Howell: My favorite James Madison stories surround him holding dinner conversations with his guests. Guests at Montpelier would sometimes stay a week, sometimes months, and they would all dine in the Madison dining room. Instead of Madison seating himself at the head of the table as was customary, Madison would seat himself in the middle of the table so that he could hear all of the conversations taking place and have a part in everyone’s discussion at the table. Dolley would sit at the head of the table, which I think is another statement.
Inkandescent: What do you most hope the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution can accomplish?
Dr. Lynn Uzzell: While we here at the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution happen to think that James Madison is one of the wisest of the American founders, our object is not to teach his opinions in such a way that people merely adopt his views about politics. Rather, we hope to inspire others to embrace the way that Madison approached politics, which is based on his belief that understanding the decisions and the choices in history informs wise choices for the future.
For more information, go to www.montpelier.org/center,, but even better, come to Montpelier in person to study, or just for a visit.