Sarah Childress Polk life and biography

Sarah Childress Polk picture, image, poster

Sarah Childress Polk biography

Date of birth : 1803-09-04
Date of death : 1891-08-14
Birthplace : Murfreeboro, Tennesse, U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2010-08-10
Credited as : First lady of the United States, wife of the US President James Polk,

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Sarah Childress Polk, also known as Mrs. James Polk born September 4, 1803 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, United States - died August 14, 1891 in Nashville, Tennessee, United States was the First Lady of the United States.

One of the most influential people in Washington during James Polk's presidency was Sarah Childress Polk, First Lady. Ambitious, self-confident, and fashionable, Mrs. Polk's authority extended far beyond White House entertainments and décor to affect the critical issues of the day, such as slavery and expansionism. President Polk may have been the most popular president since George Washington, but Sarah Polk enjoyed even greater accolades from legislators and the elite social circle that revolved around her. Regarding one of the first true political partnerships, historians continue to examine Sarah Polk's effect on a nation on the threshold of destruction.

Privileged Childhood

The eldest daughter of Elizabeth and Captain Joel Childress, a wealthy plantation owner in Tennessee, was given more than most privileged young women of her day. She had dark good looks, which she flaunted with carefully prepared cascades of corkscrew curls (she was often admired as a "Spanish Madonna"). She took for granted her fine childhood clothes of silks and satins. But most unusual and precious was the fact that she was given a formal education, a rarity for females in the early nineteenth century.

Though Rutherford County at the turn of the century was still part of the American frontier, Sarah grew up in refined circumstances. One of five siblings, she was sent to the local school as a youngster, received tutoring by the teachers from a nearby boys' school, and in 1817, with her younger sister Susan, was sent to the Moravian Female Academy in Salem, North Carolina, a highly regarded educational institution for girls and one of the few of its kind. Her studies were unusually broad and included grammar, geography, Greek and Roman literature, Bible study, music, and art. Her education proved an asset not only to her but to her future husband.

Sarah Childress may have met James Polk through her brother Anderson, who, like Polk, was a student at the University of North Carolina. Polk recognized immediately, while courting the Miss Sarah Childress, what an enormous advantage she would give his political career. She flourished in the company of others, whereas he was shy and retiring; she had more formal education than he had; and she possessed a sharp mind. By the time the couple married, on New Year's Day, 1824, Polk had passed the bar and become a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives, where he served until becoming a member of Congress in 1825. While he served as a Tennessee legislator, Mrs. Polk was her husband's secretary, apprising him of political news that may have occurred during his frequent travels. She accompanied him on his visits to Washington, however, in part to look after his fragile health and in part because of her own interest in political life.

Ten years later, Polk, a protégé of President Andrew Jackson, became Speaker of the House. In 1939 he was elected governor of Tennessee, and in 1845, he won the presidency. The Polk marital partnership had become fine-tuned, and Sarah Polk helped with speechwriting, correspondence, reading documents and newspapers, and offering advice. During her husband's four years as Speaker of the House, she had lived in Washington with Polk, nurturing relationships with dozens of the nation's most important politicians, few of whom equaled her breadth of knowledge, self-confidence, or ability as a conversationalist.

The "Presidentress"

The Polks never had children, a significant factor in evaluating Sarah Polk's intense political partnership with her husband. It was an era in which motherhood was the single most respected role for women; a woman who, like Mrs. Polk, possessed a keen and hungry mind, could not declare having political ambitions of her own. The only path available to her was to fuse her unspoken ambitions with those of her husband's, which she did, to his great advantage.

In Washington circles, an evening, even a conversation with the lively, intelligent Mrs. Polk was highly sought after. Entertaining though she was, an evening with Mrs. Polk was also bound to be educational, informative, and stimulating. She was a regular audience member in Congress, where she listened carefully to legislative debate in order to report and discuss it with the president. And it was widely and openly acknowledged among the president's advisors, cabinet members, and aides that Mrs. Polk's counsel was given more weight than their own. Indeed, she was often referred to as the "Presidentress."

Polk's presidency had a profound impact on the course of the nation's history. He followed through on all of his campaign promises, making his presidential tenure one of the most successful of all. His legacy includes the acquisition of Oregon, New Mexico, and California; victory in the border dispute with Mexico that acquired Texas; reduced tariff rates for Western farmers; and the establishment of an independent treasury. The country saw a rise in prosperity during Polk's presidency, aided by numerous inventions such as the telegraph and sewing machine, and the huge expansionist policies of his administration from which the country gained 800,000 square miles of territory. Critics fault him, however, for ignoring an opportunity to address the searing moral issues of the day, especially slavery.

God's Divine Plan

Mrs. Polk was above all a Southerner a wealthy, white, female Southerner and one thing she knew how to do was entertain. In fact, it was she who oversaw the first annual White House Thanksgiving dinner. Gaslight was installed in the White House while she was mistress, which took the place of candles and oil lamps. Them, too, she did not stint on fancy velvet dresses or ostentatious plumed hats. Yet shortly after moving into the White House she had a number of salaried servants dismissed, replacing them with recently purchased slaves, who were housed not in servants quarters but in the basement in extremely crowded conditions.

She was also a devout, some said zealous, Presbyterian. As such, she banned hard liquor, card playing, and dancing in the White House and refused to attend the theatre or concerts (though she did make an appearance at her husband's inaugural ball). Sarah Polk's religious devotion informed her political and social opinions. Believing in the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, of humans having no free will, she had no use for the Declaration of Independence's statement that all men are created equal; clearly she believed in the institution of slavery. It was particularly vexing to her when the South lost the Civil War, as she could not explain why God would have chosen such an outcome.

Though James Polk died less than three months after retiring from the presidency, having contracted cholera during a tour of the Southern states, his wife lived on for nearly five more decades. Though childless, Mrs. Polk was not lonely. Having retired from the White House to the Polk estate in Nashville, she soon was made guardian of her late husband's great niece, Sally Polk Jetton, who kept Mrs. Polk company until the First Lady's death in 1891. In the 1870s, Mrs. Polk received a presidential visit from Rutherford B. Hayes and his wife. And the following decade she was sent a piece of Grover Cleveland's wedding cake. She maintained contact with her many acquaintances, a task made easier when her household became the first in Nashville to receive a telephone. One of President Polk's last wishes was that his wife free their slaves upon her death. In 1865, twenty-six years before her passing, however, the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery.

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