Sarah Childress Polk

From Academic Kids

Sarah Childress Polk (September 4, 1803August 14, 1891), wife of James K. Polk, was First Lady of the United States from March 4, 1845 to March 3, 1849.

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The elder daughter of Captain Joel and Elizabeth Childress, Sarah grew up on a plantation near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. She was schooled 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.

James K. Polk 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.

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. When he returned to Washington as President in 1845, she stepped to her high position. 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 new home "Polk Place" in Nashville, he died (the shortest retirement of any former US President). Clad always in black, Sarah Polk lived on in that home for 42 years (the longest retirement and widowhood of any former US First Lady). 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, which occurred three weeks short of her 88th birthday, making Sarah one of the longest living First Ladies in American history, which Anna Harrison, Edith Bolling Wilson, Lady Bird Johnson and Bess Truman have lived longer. She was buried beside her husband, at the Tennessee State Capitol grounds in Nashville, Tennessee.

Sarah Polk, as the First Lady of the United States, even outlived several of her successors: Margaret Taylor, Abigail Fillmore, Jane Pierce, Mary Todd Lincoln, Eliza Johnson and Lucy Webb Hayes. In contrast to several other presidential wives, Sarah Polk's overall health was at a better stance; probably because of her childlessness and she was one of the youngest First Ladies of the United States at that time, at just the age of 41 upon entering the White House, at the same age as Dolley Madison, when she entered the White House in 1809.



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