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Sarah Childress Polk was married to the 11th President of the United States, James Polk. She served as First Lady from 1845 to 1849.
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 respect.
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 past.
The biographies of the First Ladies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The First Ladies of the United States of America,” by Allida Black. Copyright 2009 by the White House Historical Association.
Learn more about Sarah Childress Polk’s spouse, James K. Polk.