Sarah Childress Polk
[James K. Polk]
Biography: Silks and satins little Sarah took for granted, growing
up on a plantation near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Elder daughter of Captain Joel
and Elizabeth Childress, she gained something rarer from her father's
wealth. He sent her and her sister away to school, first to Nashville,
then to the Moravians' "female academy" at Salem, North Carolina, one of
the very few institutions of higher learning available to women in the
early 19th century. So she acquired an education that made her
especially fitted to assist a man with a political career.
James K. Polk was laying the foundation for that career when he met her.
He had begun his first year's service in the Tennessee legislature when
they were married on New Year's Day, 1824; he was 28, she 20. The story
goes that Andrew Jackson had encouraged their romance; he certainly made
Polk a political protege, and as such Polk represented a district in
Congress for 14 sessions.
In an age when motherhood gave a woman her only acknowledged career,
Sarah Polk had to resign herself to childlessness. Moreover, no lady
would admit to a political role of her own, but Mrs. Polk found scope for
her astute mind as well as her social skills. She accompanied her
husband to Washington whenever she could, and they soon won a place in
its most select social circles. Constantly--but privately--Sarah was
helping him with his speeches, copying his correspondence, giving him
advice. Much as she enjoyed politics, she would warn him against
overwork. He would hand her a newspaper--"Sarah, here is something I
wish you to read..."--and she would set to work as well.
A devout Presbyterian, she refused to attend horse races or the theater;
but she always maintained social contacts of value to James. When he
returned to Washington as President in 1845, she stepped to her high
position with ease and evident pleasure. She appeared at the inaugural
ball, but did not dance.
Contrasted with Julia Tyler's waltzes, her entertainments have become
famous for sedateness and sobriety. Some later accounts say that the
Polks never served wine, but in December 1845 a Congressman's wife
recorded in her diary details of a four-hour dinner for forty at the
White House--glasses for six different wines, from pink champagne to ruby
port and sauterne, "formed a rainbow around each plate." Skilled in
tactful conversation, Mrs. Polk enjoyed wide popularity as well as deep
Only three months after retirement to their fine new home "Polk Place" in
Nashville, he died, worn out by years of public service. Clad always in
black, Sarah Polk lived on in that home 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.
During the Civil War, Mrs. Polk held herself above sectional strife and
received with dignity leaders of both Confederate and Union armies; all
respected Polk Place as neutral ground. She presided over her house
until her death in her 88th year. Buried beside her husband, she was
mourned by a nation that had come to regard her as a precious link to the