12th First Lady of the United States
Sarah Childress Polk (1803–1891) was the wife of the 11th President of the United States James Polk, and the 12th woman to serve as First Lady. Childless at a time when motherhood was considered a woman’s greatest role, she devoted her life to her husband’s career. In the White House she appeared to be the epitome of the proper lady, while exerting a powerful influence behind the scenes.
Image: First Lady Sarah Polk and President James Polk
Childhood and Early Years Sarah Childress was born on September 14, 1803 to prominent planter and merchant Joel Childress and Elizabeth Whitsitt Childress. The third of six children, Sarah Childress grew up on a plantation two miles outside of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, southeast of Nashville. Although raised in the rugged Western Frontier, Sarah grew up amidst wealth and refinement.
Believing in equal education, Joel and Elizabeth Childress sent both their daughters to the local Daniel Elam School. They then hired a tutor, Samuel P. Black, the principal of the Bradley Academy, who tutored the girls after the boys had left for the day. When Sarah reached her early teens, she and her sister attended the Abercrombie School in Nashville for two years to acquire all the ladylike refinements.
Beginning in 1817, Sarah and her sister attended the Moravian Female Academy in Salem, North Carolina, one of the very few institutions of higher learning available to women and one of the best in the South. The unusually strong curriculum included English, grammar, Bible study, Greek and Roman literature, geography, history, music, drawing and sewing. The school had a very strict moral code that became a permanent part of Sarah’s nature and personality.
Sarah’s education was cut short, however, by the death of her father in 1819, after which she and her sister returned home to help her mother. In the ensuing years, Sarah and her family suffered a number of financial reverses due to her brother’s mismanagement of the estate. This diminished their income, but did not alter their lifestyle.
The town was teeming with political activity when the girls returned to Murfreesboro, which was Tennessee’s capital from September 1819 to October 1825. The state’s leading politicians, including Andrew Jackson, frequented the Childress home when the legislature was in session; thus Sarah became acquainted with politics and political issues at a young age.
Sarah was a fairly tall young lady, with brown eyes and black hair that was parted in the middle and worn in ringlets. She had prominent teeth which caused her to tighten her lips, giving her a disapproving look, though she was admired as a handsome beauty. She tended to dress in vibrant blues, reds and maroons.
James Knox Polk was elected clerk of the Senate in 1819. Polk was an ambitious, earnest, rather silent young man who was already laying the foundation for his political career. During his first year in the Tennessee General Assembly, Polk was introduced to Sarah Childress by Andrew Jackson, and a courtship ensued.
On January 1, 1824, Sarah married James Polk at her mother’s home; she was 20, he 28. The couple then moved to a cottage in Columbia, Tennessee, where they had built a home near his parents. There Polk concentrated on his law practice and political career. The Polks had no children of their own, but raised a nephew, Marshall Tate Polk, as their personal ward.
Political Years (1824-1845) James Polk continued to advance politically, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1825 to 1839. In Washington, DC as a congressman’s wife during the administrations of John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, Sarah Polk was a part of her husband’s career to an unusual degree.
Sarah was serious, religious, a proper lady in every way except for her love of politics. She hosted parties in Washington to cement political bonds, and developed a reputation for graciousness. The Polks made it their policy never to speak ill of even their bitterest political enemies in public. Consequently, Sarah moved easily among Whig and Democratic men and women.
However, rather than retire to the parlor with the ladies, Sarah was known to remain behind to talk with the men. Because of her ability to intelligently converse about politics, she was respected and befriended by some of the great politicians of the day – men as diverse as Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson and Franklin Pierce, who said he would rather discuss politics with Sarah than with James. After Polk’s election as Speaker of the House (1835-1839), the couple had even more exposure to the social life in Washington. It is strange to note that Sarah received no criticism for her political activities from the women of her day. For all her love of politics, she never forgot her place or the place of women in 19th century society.
Sarah Polk was admired for her looks, her wit and her social skills – all of which aided her husband’s career. This did not mean that she did not have her own ideas: she disagreed with Polk’s stance against the use of paper money, pointing out how difficult it would be for a woman to carry gold or silver on her person.
In 1838 the couple returned to Tennessee where James Polk campaigned for Governor of Tennessee. During his extensive absences from home, Sarah acted in conjunction with Polk’s closest political advisors to assure his election. She kept him apprised of newspaper articles, helped him with his speeches and gave him advice on policy matters.
From 1839-1841 Sarah served as First Lady of Tennessee. Though he was a good governor, Polk was defeated in 1841 and in 1843, and then returned to his law practice. Sarah became despondent over her husband’s losses and worried about his health throughout his strenuous campaigns. He had never been a robust man, and surgery early in his life had weakened his system.
In 1844, James Polk was nominated for president by the Democrats. Again, Sarah handled the campaign from their home in Columbia and even worked on the press releases. (It was considered improper for her to travel with her husband during his campaigns.) Except for these forced separations, she remained at her husband’s side – as his nurse, his secretary, his confidante and his emotional partner. There was nothing they did not share.
First Lady of the United States (1845-1849) Wearing a red and gray striped silk dress, a beige cape and a red velvet bonnet, Sarah watched as her husband took the oath of office on March 4, 1845. Later that evening, though they did not dance (and would soon ban dancing), the Polks appeared at the Inaugural Ball. Sarah wore a powder blue silk dress, and carried a gift from her husband: a fan bearing the portraits of the first eleven presidents.
Sarah Polk quickly endeared herself to the country. A devout Presbyterian, she banned dancing, card games and hard liquor at official White House functions (wine was sometimes served). It was soon clear that her tenure as First Lady would be very different from that of the regal, fun-loving and youthful Julia Tyler. Rather than spend lavishly, Sarah would save half the money given to her to refurbish the White House, though she did install gas lighting in 1846.
Most biographers agree that James Polk trusted neither adversaries nor allies, but he had a profound trust in his wife, who clearly preferred the company of men, and in fact had few women friends. While Polk was President, she helped him write his speeches, attended cabinet meetings, advised him on crucial nominations, and gave him knowledgeable counsel on political issues. Her influence was extensive and acknowledged by the President: “None but Sarah knew so intimately my private affairs.”
Throughout Polk’s four years as president, Sarah Polk was praised by the public and the press for her deportment as first lady, and proved to be immensely popular. Twice weekly the White House was open to visitors and Sarah greeted her guests with dignity and charm, becoming the eyes and ears of her husband, who often declined to attend due to pressing political matters.
As president, Polk earned a reputation for being a workaholic and is remembered for his conviction that it was America’s manifest destiny to expand and spread democracy across the continent. He entered the presidency with five goals, all of which he carried out successfully. He reduced the tariff, established an independent treasury, settled the Oregon boundary, annexed Texas and acquired the California Territory – acquiring more than 50,000 square miles of western land in all.
To save her husband time and energy, Sarah read the daily newspapers, clipping those articles she deemed of interest to the President. She acted as Polk’s proxy at certain functions and copied his correspondence. Although she willingly performed her social duties, she freely admitted that she would “neither keep house, nor make butter” but would “always take a deep interest in State and national affairs.”
Sarah Polk was the first First Lady to be photographed on the White House grounds and the first to be photographed with her husband. She also restored the playing of Hail to the Chief because her rather short husband tended to be overlooked, and the tune helped people to identify him. At her last White House reception in February 1849, Sarah followed former First Lady Dolley Madison who walked at the side of the President.
After the White House After attending the inauguration of his successor, Zachary Taylor, on March 5, 1849, James and Sarah Polk embarked on an extensive tour of the southern states – from the Atlantic seaboard, west along the Gulf states, and up the Mississippi River to Tennessee. Everywhere they traveled, they were overjoyed by the greetings they received from large crowds of well-wishers.
James was ill with fatigue and bouts of diarrhea during the last days of their journey, possibly from an outbreak of cholera while they were in New Orleans. A debilitated James Polk spoke before a gathering in his honor at Nashville on April 1, 1849. The couple then moved into their recently purchased estate in Nashville – Polk Place – where they planned to spend a long retirement. James Polk spent the ensuing months remodeling his grand estate and sorting through his presidential papers. Although his health improved initially, bouts of illness continued to plague him. At first he thought it was more of the same symptoms that had plagued him throughout his life, but his weakness grew progressively worse.
James Polk died on June 15, 1849 and was buried on the grounds of Polk Place. His last words were, “I love you, Sarah, for all eternity, I love you.” As a measure of his abiding love, Polk praised her in his will for standing by him throughout his public and private life. The youngest president in American history was dead at the age of 53, having had the shortest retirement of any former U.S. President.
Without a family to take her attention, Sarah Polk had devoted her whole life to her husband’s career. When he was gone, she was left without any goals or ambitions. A widow at age 45, she wore mourning clothes for the rest of her life. She never remarried, and spent the rest of her life at Polk Place. The United States government granted her a pension of $5,000 per year.
Three years after her James Polk’s death, Sarah adopted Sally Polk Jetton, an orphaned great niece who helped her aunt turn her imposing mansion into a veritable shrine to her beloved James. Jetton married George William Fall at Polk Place on December 27, 1865, but still remained with the former first lady until her death.
During the Civil War, Polk Place was considered neutral ground by both the Confederate and Union armies. Having been first lady while the country was whole, expanding and prospering, Sarah Polk did her best to remain above the conflict. She believed that secession was brought on by a body politic that used sectional issues for selfish gain rather than the good of the country.
Both sides respected Polk’s neutrality, and she entertained officers from both armies. Although she had nephews fighting on the Confederate side, Union Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Don Carlos Buell frequently paid their respects to the former first lady.
However, as a native Tennessean whose belief system was tied to antebellum southern life, her private predilections were with the Confederate cause. She was a founding member of the Ladies’ Soldiers’ Friend Society. On more than one occasion she successfully pleaded with Union authorities for the release of captured Confederate family members and friends.
Polk Place became the repository for the Tennessee Historical Society’s collection when looting was feared during the Union occupation. In answer to her neighbors’ fears of violence, Sarah replied that she had nothing to fear from armed men, and she came through the war relatively unscathed. Her property and privacy had been respected, and she thereafter took her place as a grande dame of Nashville society.
Later Years Clad always in black, Sarah Polk lived on as a widow for 42 years, guarding the memory of her husband and accepting honors paid to her as honors due to him. The house became a place of pilgrimage. She rarely left except to attend church services. She endured the longest widowhood of any first lady, and her austere view of life made her last years somewhat barren.
After a short illness, Sarah Polk died on August 14, 1891, at age 87, and was buried next to husband on the grounds of Polk Place. She had allowed the residence and grounds to become a rundown eyesore. Two years after her death the mansion was demolished and the remains of James and Sarah Polk were moved to the grounds of the State Capitol in Nashville.
Only 41 when her husband became president, Sarah Polk outlived several of her successors including Margaret Taylor, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abigail Fillmore, Eliza Johnson, Jane Pierce and Lucy Webb Hayes.