James Knox Polk and his wife, Sarah Childress, had a match made by none other than General Andrew Jackson himself.
James K. Polk: Young Attorney
James Knox Polk (1795-1849) was North Carolina born, but Tennessee raised and matured. An unimposing man by stature, he was perhaps 5’6″ and slight of build. Perhaps 135 pounds. His lack of physical presence was compounded by his rather dour and bland personality. Bottom line: forgettable.
But he was diligent and tenacious, and became an attorney in Nashville. His success was modest, and he even became a court clerk for a while to augment his income – and presence. Whether he enjoyed the practice of law is subject to conjecture, however what he did enjoy was politics. It was said that despite his unimposing stature, he was a good orator, but even with that advantage, his rise was slow.
Jackson the Matchmaker
The one with the imposing stature, both physically and in persona, was Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), 6’1″ and at the height of his glory when Polk began to practice law. Jackson had come to Nashville, Tennessee when he was twenty-one and just starting his varied career: law plus business plus land speculation plus horse racing plus plantation owning plus politics, dueling and other mayhem. He was a superstar from the get-go, and was elected Tennessee’s first Congressman.
When he became “General” of the Tennessee militia (more a political than military appointment), Jackson found his true calling and never practiced law again.
James Knox Polk was fortunate to meet Tennessee’s favorite son at the outset of his career, and the great General was happy to befriend the younger man, as he usually did with devoted “followers.”
Miss Sarah Childress
Sarah Childress (1803-1891) was born to Murfreesboro, Tennessee’s middle class, but middle class “educated”. Current events, newspapers and politics were part of the dinner table discussions. Visiting dignitaries passing through town were often invited to the Childress home.
In keeping with the family’s focus on education (which included female children), Sarah was sent to a Moravian Female Academy in North Carolina when she was in her early teens. It was considered one of the finest finishing schools for young ladies in the South. Sarah learned the usual “womanly subjects,” plus a generous helping of literature, science, geography, philosophy, and mathematics. She was far more inclined toward the “other” subjects than the domestic curriculum. She never seemed to be fond of housewifery.
The Bachelor, The Matchmaker and The Bride
Possibly because of Polk’s lack of physical attributes, his unexciting personality or both, his success with the fair sex was as lackluster as his law practice. By his mid-twenties, he felt in need of the benefits of matrimony on all levels, but was at a loss on how to begin a courtship – or who to court.
Legend has it that Polk turned to his mentor for advice. General Jackson was known to be a devoted husband, who by that time, had been happily married for nearly thirty years.
“Look no further than Miss Sarah Childress,” Jackson is said to have counseled, adding that the young lady possessed all the qualities that young Polk would require for a happy union, commenting that she was “wealthy, pretty, ambitious and intelligent.”
The twenty-five year old man duly called upon the nineteen year old young lady, and within six months, married her. His career began to blossom as well.
A Match Made in Nashville Heaven
James and Sarah Polk would be married for a quarter of a century, until his untimely death at only fifty-two. Sarah would later write that in all those years, they never had a cross word.
Her attributes were indeed what Polk needed in his life: an intelligence that would provide him with companionship, much like the happy balance between John and Abigail Adams.
Perhaps the singlemost (albeit conjectured) reason for their contentment was the fact that they were childless. Childless couples tend to become particularly close. The Polks no doubt would have welcomed parenthood, but it was not to be. This fact, in turn, spared Sarah from the many female ills and ailments common with childbirth in the early nineteenth century. She enjoyed a long life (nearly ninety years), of remarkably good health. In addition, with no obligations and responsibilities “at home,” Sarah was free to accompany her husband when and wherever he traveled. He enjoyed having her along.
She would be among the select few Congressional wives who joined their husbands in Washington DC where Polk served for six terms, including a stint as Speaker of the House, during the Jackson Administration.
Despite Sarah’s well-remarked disdain for housekeeping chores like churning butter (“I can buy butter,”) her obvious intelligence and political acumen, plus her sultry good looks and glamorous-for-the-time fashion sense, she was well liked by both men and women. She could keep her mouth shut. Her opinions on political matters were reserved only for her husband’s ears. And that included during her four years as First Lady.
Sarah Polk had discretion, perhaps the most important attribute she could offer to her husband. Perhaps Andrew Jackson sensed that part, too.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power, 1789-1961, Harper Perennial, 1992
Boller, Paul – Presidential Wives – 1988 Oxford University Press