1803 – 1891
By Anne Adams
A politically astute and active First Lady is not unusual today but in the mid-1800s it would have been unthinkable. Yet while operating within the limits of her era, as a unique exception Mrs. James Knox Polk politically assisted her husband as well as her country.
Sarah Childress was born Sept. 4, 1803 in Murfreesburo, Tennessee to a large prosperous family. She and her sister received special tutoring at their brothers’ private school then later in 1817 they enrolled in one of the best girls’ schools, the Moravian Female Academy in Salem, North Carolina. They studied English grammar, Bible history, classical literature as well as domestic subjects, an unusual curriculum since other girls’ schools of the same time offered only the traditionally feminine subjects.
At age 16 Sarah was described as striking in appearance with dark eyes, black hair and what one observer described as “the complex of a Spanish donna.” And “striking” was the word used most often for her – not beautiful. Because they moved in the same social circles and had mutual friends Polk and Sarah may have met casually around this time, but their first documented meeting was at a reception about the time Polk was chief clerk in the Tennessee legislature. They married on January 1, 1824. Polk continued his political rise and in 1825 was elected to the House of Representatives. When Sarah arrived in Washington she made the usual social rounds but she also took a deep interest in the politics of the time and in Polk’s work in Congress, especially as he became Speaker of the House in 1835.
During these years Sarah was developing the insight and knowledge that made her Polk’s political partner. Though the culture of her time decreed women should take no interest in politics Sarah was but only politically informed but ambitious for her husband. When Polk ran for Tennessee governor in 1839 she served as his campaign coordinator, arranging his speaking schedule, mailing out literature and conducting his correspondence. She continued with similar duties as he took office.
Polk received the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1844 when front runner Martin Van Buren did not receive enough votes on the first few ballots. Again as Polk campaigned and won, Sarah assisted behind the scenes and as it would be throughout Polk’s presidency showed that the Polks were a team.
As the new first lady Sarah was not traditional. Her predecessors had generally been hostesses, concerned mostly with operating the White House efficiently and entertaining the many visitors. Yet Sarah spent most of her time assisting Polk with his work and while she did entertain as required she was often more interested in the political discussions around the dinner table.
Sarah’s intelligence, ambition and keen political sense were the perfect compliment to a husband who didn’t easily trust others for advice or support. However, she was always careful to credit her husband by prefacing her remarks with “Mr. Polk thinks…” but in private she did express her options. Besides assisting with the presidential paperwork she read and evaluated his speeches. At the same time she still supervised the social side of the White House with at least two receptions and a state dinner a week. Later President Franklin Pierce was quoted as saying he would rather talk politics with Sarah than anyone else – even Polk.
Sarah also shared her husband’s work ethic. If they needed to entertain longer than they wanted to they would extend their work hours to make up the time. However, all the resultant work increase meant a great strain on Polk’ s health. He was so duty conscious that he took only a few days of vacation in all the four years of his term and as her husband’s chief confidante and assistant Sarah totally shared the presidential responsibilities. As Polk put it: “None but Sarah knew so intimately my private affairs.”
As a devout Presbyterian all her life Sarah was positive about her place in God’s plan. “The greater the prosperity the deeper the sense of gratitude to the Almighty…I recognize nothing in myself; I am only an atom in the hands of God.” She said. As part of her faith she strictly observed Sunday as the Sabbath and she discouraging Polk from conducting state business or holding state dinners on Sunday. Sarah did not allow social dancing in the White House because she thought it would be disrespectful and undignified to the President’s House and to the office of the President. “To dance in these rooms would be respectful neither to the house nor to the office. How indecorous it would seem for dancing to be going on in one apartment, while in another we were conversing with dignitaries of the republic or ministers of the gospel,” she said. Also, though Sarah disliked distilled liquor and banned it, the Polks did serve table wines.
Polk’s term as president came to an end in 1849 and on March 6 they set out for Polk Place, their retirement home in Tennessee. Yet despite Polk’s precarious health they began a very circuitous route through the South to receive the public adulation’s. By the time they reached Nashville and their retirement home Polk was very weak.
Even once they’d settled into their new home Polk’s condition did not improve. His physician diagnosed cholera and he succumbed on June 15, 1849 and was buried in a tomb on the grounds of Polk Place. However, Sarah, who’d hoped to have many years with her retired husband, was only 45 and still striking in appearance, very intelligent, wealthy and socially prominent.
However Sarah in her new life chose to remain largely in the past. She became a near recluse in a house that became a permanent shrine to the dead president. She left his study at Polk Place as it was at his death, with his books and papers untouched and the house a monument to his memory. She was in effect a curator of a Polk museum.
Though she rarely left her home except to go to church, Sarah graciously received visitors and it soon became the tradition for both local and national dignitaries to call at Polk Place to pay their
respects to her and visit Polk’s tomb. For example, it became traditional that the Tennessee legislature call on Sarah at regular intervals. Sarah’s experience as her husband’s secretary had impressed on her the value of preserving Polk’s papers, knowing historians would be able to use them as they created a history of his administration. When national tensions came to a climax in 1861 and Tennessee seceded from the union, Sarah expressed her desire to remain neutral to either side.
Sarah welcomed all visitors to Polk Place and gave personal tours of her shrine. The house was crowded with displays: portraits of Polk’s family, friends, political and governmental figures and cases of china and glass, craft items, souvenirs and mementos donated to President. These included such unique items as a mold of Tom Thumb’s feet, a nugget from the California gold fields, and the gavel Polk had used when he was Speaker of the House. The grounds of Polk Place and the Polk grave bloomed with extensive flowerbeds.
Sarah slipped from life in August 1891 and was buried beside her husband at Polk Place. Though later despite Polk’s wishes, the state broke his will, sold the house and several years after Sarah’s death their bodies were reburied on the grounds of the Tennessee capitol.
Sarah Polk had been a pioneer in her life and work, and in her own way proved an example to those who would follow.
Anne Adams is a writer/teacher in Houston, Texas. She has published in Christian and secular publications and her book “Brittany, Child of Joy” was issued by Broadman Press in 1986.