First Lady Sarah Childress Polk lived to be nearly ninety.
Miss Childress of Tennessee
Sarah Childress (1803-1891) was born to a comfortable Murfreesboro, Tennessee family, not long after it had joined the Union. Her Presbyterian father was a planter and merchant, and, rare for his time, believed in educating his daughters as well as his son.
Accordingly, she attended the best available schools in Tennessee, and then to a Moravian Female Academy in North Carolina. Before completing her studies, her father died, and she returned home.
At twenty, Sarah married James Knox Polk, a Tennessee attorney and state legislator, seven years her senior. Legend has it that General Andrew Jackson advised Polk to “look no farther than Miss Sarah Childress” as possessed of all the qualities desired as a lifetime companion. Legend or bona fide, or a combination (since they were both acquainted with the General) the bottom line was that Jackson was right: they were very well-suited and happy together.
The Silver Years
According to Sarah, many years later, the two never had a cross word in the twenty-five years of their marriage. Comfortable financial circumstances (two plantations) helped. That the Polks had no children may also have contributed to their compatibility. The freedom from the serious health issues of childbirth and its ties to home left Sarah free to accompany her husband on many of his travels.
A year after he was elected to the first of his seven terms in Congress (including four years as Speaker), Sarah went to Washington with him. She was one of the few Congressional wives in the capital, happy to fully participate in all the social events. Their personal intimacy with now-President Jackson insured that those events were numerous. Those who knew her – both men and women – were abundant in praise of her charm, her stylish good looks, her discreet character, and her uncommon intelligence.
In 1839, Polk was elected Governor of Tennessee, but he lost the next two efforts at re-election, and a life of political oblivion loomed. Faced with the possibility of returning to a law practice (which was not appealing), Polk made a last-ditch political effort, hoping to secure the Vice Presidential slot on the Democratic ticket in 1844. He subtly (and later more overtly) lobbied for the second spot.
In the complicated and deadlocked 1844 Democratic convention, nobody really cared about a Vice President. The physically unimposing ex-Speaker and ex-Governor was interested, and seemed qualified. The office, merely a geopolitical accommodation by that time, was honorable, paid a handsome $5000 a year, and had few responsibilities.
When no one seemed to agree on a suitable candidate for President it began to occur that if Polk was everyone’s choice for the second spot, why not the first spot?
Thus “dark horse” James Knox Polk received the Democratic nomination, and in a surprise upset over sure-winner Whig Henry Clay, became the 11th President of the United States.
James Polk had an extremely busy Presidency, ably helped by his capable and politically savvy wife. They seldom took time to relax, believing it was their bound duty to work assiduously to complete a comprehensive agenda in a single-pledged term. He achieved his goal, but died (some say from overwork) only three months after his term ended. He was 53.
Enter Anson and Fanny Nelson
Sarah Polk was a widow at only 46. She returned to their Polk Place home in Nashville, and became a “professional widow.” Her beautiful and becoming deep jewel-toned gowns and accessories were put away forever, and she wore only black. She also eschewed most activity, other than attending regular church services.
With servants and periodic live-in family members to help, the months and years passed. Sarah arranged and sorted her husband’s papers. Then she re-arranged and re-sorted them. The Civil War came and went, with both Union and Confederate soldiers careful to keep Mrs. Polk’s home from harm. Men of prominence who visited Nashville were said to make a point of paying their respects to the former First Lady.
Meanwhile, a younger couple, Anson and Fanny Nelson, had become neighbors to the venerable Widow Polk, now well into her eighties and as alert and intelligent as ever. The Ansons were fascinated by Mrs. P’s stories of her life in the White House, and suggested that she write her memoirs for a whole new generation who knew little about James Knox Polk, let alone the former First Lady.
The elderly woman was disinclined to lift her pen, but was amenable to “collaborate.” She would be happy to tell her story to the Nelsons, and let them write it.
It was the first “biography” of a First Lady based on actual interviews with the subject herself.
Sarah recounted how she saved money by assuming most of the President’s secretarial functions; copied his papers in a firm hand; maintained his appointment book; and culled dozens of daily newspapers, carefully folding them to bring her husband’s attention to the salient points. Wearing her “FLOTUS-hat”, she saved money by serving no refreshments at their weekly receptions, since they were paid out-of-pocket.
She remembered “permitting” new-fangled gas candelabra to be installed, but kept the candles just in case. Sure enough, the gaslights failed and the candles were needed, available and appreciated.
She also made a point of discreetly allowing her “opinions” to be known only to her husband, but insisted on strict observance of the Sabbath. No visitors would be admitted to the White House on Sunday – unless they wished to accompany the Polks to church services. And, in accordance to her strict Presbyterian faith, she banned spirits, dancing and card playing in the Executive Mansion.
The Memorials of Sarah Childress Polk, was published in 1892, shortly after Sarah died at 88. It has been reprinted many times, and while it is Victorian in style, content and florid language, it accomplished exactly what the Nelsons desired: a remarkable look into the life and times of a remarkable First Lady.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza – First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power, 1789-1961, Harper Perennial, 1992
Nelson, Anson and Fanny – Memorials of Sarah Childress Polk – ADF Randolph Company (reprint of 1892 publication)