Sarah Childress Polk
|First Lady of the United States|
March 4, 1845 - March 4, 1849
|President||James K. Polk|
|First Lady of Tennessee|
October 14, 1839 - October 15, 1841
|Governor||James K. Polk|
September 4, 1803
|Died||August 14, 1891 (aged 87)|
Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.
|Resting place||Tennessee State Capitol|
(m. 1824; died 1849)
|Children||Sarah Polk Fall,|
|Parents||Joel Childress |
Sarah Childress was born in 1803 to Elizabeth Whitsitt and Joel Childress, a prominent planter, merchant, and land speculator -- the third of their six children. She was well educated for a woman of her time and place, attending the exclusive Moravians' Salem Academy in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1817, one of the few institutions of higher learning available to women in the early 19th century.
Sarah Childress met James K. Polk while both were receiving instruction from Samuel P. Black at his house in Murfreesboro, Tennessee; he was 19, she was 12. They would be formally introduced in the early 1820s with Polk's involvement with the State Legislature. Shortly after he began courting her. Legend says Andrew Jackson called her "wealthy, pretty, ambitious, and intelligent," and urged Polk to marry her. In 1823 the two became engaged, and on January 1, 1824, Sarah Childress, aged 20, married James Polk, aged 28, at the plantation home of the bride's parents near Murfreesboro.
Of their 25 years of marriage they would never have children, often attributed to the bladder stone surgery Polk had as a young man making him sterile. They were the only presidential couple to never have children while together, biologically, adopted or from previous marriage. They raised a nephew, Marshall Tate Polk (1831-1884), as their ward for a few years before James sent him to a school in Washington, D.C. and later Georgetown University. After her husband's death, Sarah would foster her great niece, Sarah Polk Fall (1847-1924).
During his political career, Polk assisted her husband with his speeches, gave him advice on policy matters and played an active role in his campaigns. In Washington as a congressman's wife during the administrations of John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and Martin Van Buren, Polk very much enjoyed her social duties. In 1830 she risked a breach with Jackson, her husband's mentor, by taking part in the social ostracism of Peggy Eaton, during the Petticoat affair, although she continued to greet Eaton, unlike Vice President John C. Calhoun's wife, Floride Calhoun, and most of the cabinet members' wives.
In 1845, Sarah Polk became the 11th First Lady of the United States. She was lively, charming, intelligent, and a good conversationalist. President Polk at times discussed policy matters with her. While she enjoyed politics, she also cautioned her husband, whose health was never robust, against overwork. A devout Presbyterian, as First Lady she banned dancing, card games, and hard liquor at official receptions. Unlike Julia Tyler's waltzes, the Polk entertainments were sedate and sober affairs which earned the First Lady the nickname "Sahara Sarah". Although some accounts stated that the Polks never served wine, 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.'"
After attending the inauguration of Zachary Taylor on March 5, 1849, Polk and her husband left by horse and carriage to their new home, Polk Place, in Nashville, Tennessee. Upon arriving in Tennessee, to Polk's disappointment, Polk Place was not yet fully finished or completed. They then went from Nashville to Columbia to spend two weeks with her mother-in-law before going to spend a few days in Murfreesboro with her family before returning to Nashville. Three months later, James Polk died of cholera, having had the shortest retirement of any U.S. president. Polk remained in Polk Place throughout these later years of her widowhood rarely leaving, becoming a bit of a recluse. She did not start hosting guests until a few years after her husband's death. She hosted distinguished and popular guests throughout her widowhood, such as Abram Hewitt, Edward Cooper, John C. Calhoun II, John Catron, George Bancroft, among numerous others, including Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and Grover Cleveland.
Once widowed, Polk unofficially adopted a great-niece, Sarah Polk Jetton, nicknamed "Sallie" (1847-1924), and saw her as her own daughter. After Polk's niece died, she was brought to live with Polk. They lived together in Nashville until Polk's death in 1891.
Polk faced small financial difficulties throughout her widowhood. Her primary form of income was coming in through a plantation she inherited from her husband. She was forced to sell the plantation before the Civil War in 1861. Later she received money through her younger brother John Childress. Starting in 1884 the United States government granted Sarah a pension of $5,000 a year until her death.
During the American Civil War, Polk was officially neutral, but she indicated sentiments in favor of preserving the Union during periodic visits to her home by several Union Army commanders, including Don Carlos Buell, George Henry Thomas, Ulysses S. Grant, and William Tecumseh Sherman. However, as a traditional Southern woman she also gave mention to Confederate sympathies during visits from Confederate generals in Nashville where Sarah would spend over 42 years of her widowhood. Sarah Polk lived at Polk Place for 42 years, the longest retirement and widowhood of any former US first lady, and always wore black as a true Victorian widow. She visited her brother at his Childress-Ray House in Murfreesboro, whose daughter was married to Tennessee Governor John C. Brown. She also frequently visited her close friend Adelicia Acklen at Belmont.
Polk died on August 14, 1891, at age 87, less than a month before her 88th birthday. She was buried next to her husband originally at their home in Nashville and was later reinterred with him at the Tennessee State Capitol when Polk Place was demolished in 1901. Polk left the contents of Polk Place to her great-niece, Sarah Polk Fall.
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."