Wife to eleventh president James Polk, Sarah Childress Polk enjoyed much more freedom than her contemporaries. Without children and more educated that many other women, Mrs. Polk used her charms in furtherance of her husband's political agenda.
However, she was aware of - and believed in - the social norms of the time. This made Polk work diligently behind the scenes in support of her spouse.
“First Lady Biography: Sarah Polk.” National First Ladies’ Library. (LINK)
Greenberg, Amy S.Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk.(United States: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2019).
“Hail to the Chief.” Library of Congress. Washington, D.C. 2002. (LINK)
“Sarah Polk.” White House Historical Association. (LINK)
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey everyone, welcome back.
It’s been a few weeks, but I am officially getting back on track with my linear narrative to share the story of first lady and undercover politician, Sarah Childress Polk.
Wife to eleventh president James K Polk, Sarah Polk was not just a supportive spouse who cared for house and family while her husband etched out his political career. Instead, the Polks acted in partnership and it was often only Sarah who could fulfill the extensive demands of her workhorse husband.
Despite all of this, much of the work Sarah Polk did on behalf of her husband was lost to history for quite some time. As I will discuss in this episode, some of this was due to Polk’s actions both during and after her husband’s presidency.
So, who was Sarah Polk? What role did she play in her husband’s political life? And what legacy did she leave behind?
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
Sarah Childress was born on September 4th, 1803 to Joel and Elizabeth Childress in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. As was fairly common at the time, the Childress family made their money through a combination of land speculation and off the free labor of enslaved individuals. Joel and Elizabeth Childress may have proactively planned their family; in her treatment of the life of Sarah Polk, historian Amy Greenberg believes Elizabeth’s abrupt end at childbearing, despite still being of fertile age, could be seen as a sign of the decision on the Childress family, or of Elizabeth independently, that six children were enough.
Sarah’s father was progressive for the time period and ensured his daughters received a robust education, including paying for private tutoring for his young daughters to Samuel Black, the principal of the all boys school Sarah’s brothers attended. Thus, between tutoring, attending the Common School, and finishing school, Sarah was well rounded and primed for her future role as a political wife. Joel Childress was also ahead of his time in that he was very doting towards his children. Though very little is known about the details of Sarah’s youth, there is evidence that the family was on friendly terms with future president Andrew Jackson. Sarah likely had to mature quickly when her father passed away in 1819 at just 42 years old. Just 16, Sarah’s formal education ceased so she could return home to care for her mother. In another example of how progressive her father was, Joel Childress left equal portions of his estate to all of his children - making Sarah a wealthy young woman.
Sarah initially met her future husband while under the tutelage of Samuel Black. The young future president, then 19, was attending the same school Black ran. Given their eight year age difference, the two did become romantically linked until much later and rumor has it was mentor and political ally Andrew Jackson who suggested Polk seek Sarah’s hand in marriage. Whatever his reason, James and Sarah were wed on New Year’s Day, 1824, just as the young politician was beginning his legislative career.
The couple never had children of their own, likely due to complications from a gallstone surgery when James was a young man. This childfree existence allowed Sarah a bit more freedom than most women her age and station. Wealthy enough to avoid working in the fields and without the demands of rearing children, Sarah could travel with her husband as he moved from post to post and often served as the political charm to her husband’s often more serious temperament. While they initially lived separately, which was normal for the time, both James and Sarah found themselves unhappy and, since it was only Sarah who would be joining him, it was much easier to facilitate transport and set up a new residence.
Despite the norms of the time, Sarah was very interested in politics and was actively engaged in doing the bidding on her husband’s behalf. However, Sarah was also very aware of and believed in societal expectations and often put on an air of deference, hiding her political activities under the guise of entertaining guests. Early in their marriage, the Polks oversaw a boarding house, and historian Amy Greenberg asserts Sarah created an American version of an enlightenment salon. These salons, according to Greenberg, quote, “encouraged socializing between men and women and offered opportunities for intellectual debate,” end quote. This was a deviation from accepted practices of the period where women were meant to be seen and not heard.
When James decided to run for the governorship in Tennessee, Sarah took on the role of communications manager. As he traveled the state giving speeches and drumming up support, he fired off terse missives to his wife, demanding she locate specific speeches or letters, and respond to various inquiries made on his behalf. Despite that women by and large were expected to stay far away from politics and have no opinion on the workings of their government, Sarah’s role was well known as several men reached out to her directly. As you’ll know if you listened to the episode on Polk, his tenure in the governorship lasted only a single term and, despite his attempts at re-election, Polk failed to recapture control of the state.
However, in 1844, Polk surprised many when he was nominated as a presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. Again, Sarah took on a role in the campaign. Knowing her success in managing the former Governor’s correspondence during his initial campaign, Sarah’s cousin Matilda suggested she consider fully stepping into the spotlight as her husband’s political spokesperson. Sarah, ever the astute political observer, smartly believed there was nothing to gain and everything to lose should she step center stage in her husband’s political career. Best to remain behind the scenes and so she again took on the role of managing his communications.
Upon his election in 1844, Sarah Polk enjoyed a reputation as a pious and religiously devout wife and supporter of her husband. Many thought Sarah provided a moral influence over the rowdy rough and tumble of normal male driven politics. This was a reputation Sarah embraced as she quickly prohibited liquor, dancing, and card playing from the White House. Polk was a significant departure from her immediate predecessor, the young and outgoing Julia Gardiner Tyler. Unlike Tyler, Sarah Polk did not enjoy public attention, preferring to exert her influence in a more understated manner. And despite being awarded a significant sum of money to redecorate and upgrade the deteriorating executive mansion, Polk announced she would only use half the money, focusing her efforts on the reception and dining halls frequented by guests, and would maintain the private residence as it stood. While she publicly stated her decision was simply a commitment to democratic ideals, the truth of the matter was that redecorating was a time consuming task that would further remove Sarah from the political discussions of her husband’s administration - something she did not want to miss.
Sarah met and quickly became close friends with former first lady Dolley Madison. Madison, perhaps more than any other First Lady of her generation, really set the stage for the social scene in Washington including her marathon dedication to returning social calls. Again, as someone who was far more interested in politicking than socializing, Sarah leveraged two of her nieces to take on the responsibility of returning social calls. When some in Washington questioned the First Lady’s actions, it was Dolley Madison who came to her defense, rightfully reminding people the size of the government, and therefore the number of social calls, had increased significantly in recent years.
And though there was someone serving in the communications role during Polk’s presidency, Sarah emerged as the de facto communications manager as Polk’s work ethic far exceeded what any normal person could live up to. Having successfully navigated around the normal activities expected of a First Lady, Sarah was free to be a partner and political gatekeeper for her husband. Again from historian Amy Greenberg quote, “Sarah established a grueling social schedule designed to advance James’ agenda, employed resident nieces and social authority of Dolley Madison to free herself from the tyranny of social calls, helped James negotiate the demands of office seekers, and successfully sidestepped the labor of properly redecorating the White House,” end quote.
By the first anniversary of the Polk administration, it was widely accepted, though not publicly acknowledged, that Sarah played a pivotal role in her husband’s administration. Like before, men wrote directly to Sarah to secure political positions or seek favors. Sarah often ran interference for her husband, serving as a stop gap to ensure only the most important individuals or news made it to his desk. Those who failed to recognize or otherwise acknowledge her influence did so at their peril, as John Van Buren, son of former president Martin Van Buren, learned the hard way. Van Buren had been a vocal opponent of Polk and found himself disinvited to White House social events. When Polk attempted to rise above and extend an invitation to dinner at the White House, he discovered that Sarah burned the invitation.
The most consequential moment of Polk’s administration was the war with Mexico to secure the landmass which includes the current states of Texas, California, and New Mexico, to name a few. Ever the supportive spouse, Sarah Polk worked hard to secure support for the war and often sought to protect her husband from the negative blowback his administration received given the prolonged war effort. She was also constantly fretting about his work habits, mindful of his fragile health and concerned about his tendency to work long, hard hours. In the final months of the administration, Polk seemed to work nonstop, ending his presidency a shell of the man he once was - and that is saying something considering he was never a towering figure. He was so unassuming that Sarah took to demanding the song All Hail the Chief be played every time he entered the room, instituting a ritual which has continued long past his administration.
But, as promised, the Polks bid farewell to Washington after a single term in office. And though her husband left with a less than favorable approval, the opposite was true for Sarah, who continued to be celebrated as Christian woman who had a good influence on the White House. Before retiring to their home, named Polk Place, in Tennessee, the couple embarked on a tour of the southern states. Sarah was apprehensive, considering the ongoing cholera epidemic and James’s already precarious health. But, she also desperately wanted to see her husband receive the positive attention she felt he deserved and so, against her better judgment, the couple journeyed throughout the south, meeting throngs of supporters.
Weakened from his grueling work schedule as president, Polk did fall ill during their southern tour, but managed to make enough of a recovery to complete his tour, which they did just a few weeks later. Once they landed in Tennessee, the couple made their way to Polk Place, located in Nashville and began to make the arrangements to enjoy retirement. Unfortunately, the former president’s constitution did not hold up and as Sarah prepared to leave for church one Sunday, James announced his sickness. While she was initially determined to go without him, he apparently appeared ill enough for her to cancel her attendance. Within just a few weeks, the president was dead at 53.
The loss of her husband of twenty five years proved a devastating loss for the former first lady. She dressed in black for the remainder of her life and never remarried, which while not entirely abnormal, was a bit of a departure considering her relatively young age of 45. During their marriage, James bought a plantation in Mississippi and made it so it came under her charge in the event of his death. Consisting of over 900 acres with 56 enslaved men and women used to work the crop, Sarah Polk managed to avoid financial instability a - fate many widows found themselves in, including the ever popular Dolley Madison. Leaving the day to operations to an overseer, Polk saw on average a 10% rate of return each year. She was a cautious plantation owner - refusing to rely on credit and continuing to ship her product through New Orleans, despite rumored profits of other locations.
Polk managed to keep a tenuous grasp on the plantation even through the Civil War, using her political connections to secure safe passage of her cotton along union lines from both President Lincoln and future president Andrew Johnson. She also leveraged her political relationships to help her friends and family, despite their confederate sympathies. Given her roots and the way she quote unquote earned her living, it is likely that Sarah Polk was more confederate than unionist, however she publicly maintained a stance of neutrality, hosting both union and confederate soldiers in her home. So respected was the former first lady that not only was able to remain in her home in Nashville throughout the war, but both Polk Place and her husband’s tomb remained unscathed for the duration of the conflict.
As described by historian Amy Greenberg quote, “Sarah’s successful appeals on behalf of her brother and confederate soldiers, the consideration she received from the army regarding her mother’s property and death, and the implicit understanding occasioned by the continuing visits of union officers to Polk Place, emboldened her to pursue her own affairs,” end quote. Though Sarah very much believed in the idea of women being in deference to men, she nevertheless became more vocal as the years went by - almost always in defense of her husband. She strived to secure an author to write a biography of the former president, but was unfortunately unsuccessful.
But the 1880s, there was a significant shift and tacit acceptance of female political actors. So much so that when interviewed in her twilight years, the journalist covering Polk referred to her as her husband’s help-meet during his administration and his quote, “prime minister in everything in counsel,” end quote. In her analysis of the shift of acceptance of women in politics, Amy Greenberg writes quote, “one marker of how far attitudes toward political women had evolved between 1844 and 1884 was that the reporter took Sarah’s political perspective seriously,” end quote.
Sarah spent her remaining years keeping vigil at Polk Place, entertaining anyone who crossed her threshold. One of her nieces, Sarah Polk Fall, moved in along with her husband to care for Sarah in her advanced age. Sarah was invited to become a member of the board for the Daughters of the Revolution and as an honorary member to the Tennessee Historical Society, both of which she accepted. Sarah lived out in her remaining time in relative quiet before finally passing away on August 14th, 1891 at the age of 87.
Sarah Polk, like so many historical figures, was a nuanced and complicated woman. Fiercely protective of her husband, interested in politics, but committed to the ideals of womanhood of the time, Polk managed to carve a space for herself in an evolving political scene. While it may have seemed unladylike given the norms, Sarah’s active role in her husband’s administration foreshadowed the first ladies to come and, according to the historian and her biographer Amy Greenberg, helped establish the idea of an official role for first ladies in the future. And that is quite the legacy.
Before I sign off today, I want to give a big thanks to Leslie, aka twitter user HistoryNerd55 and Chance over at the Strive, Seek, Find Podcast for their recent donations to the podcast through buy me a coffee. Their donations, and ones like it, help fund this here podcast and go towards expenses like hosting fees and research material. If you are feeling generous, you can head over to my website and support the show through a donation. The website is where you can also find things like transcripts, source material, and request a topic for me to cover in a future episode.
Thanks, peeps. I’ll see you next week.
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