Polk, Sarah Childress, 1803-1891

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Sarah Childress Polk was married to the 11th President of the United States, James Polk. She served as First Lady from 1845 to 1849.

Elder daughter of Captain Joel and Elizabeth Childress, Sarah Childress gained something rarer from her father’s wealth. He sent her and her sister away to school, 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. So she acquired an education that made her especially fitted to assist a man with a political career.

James K. Polk was laying the foundation for that career when he met her. He 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.

In an age when motherhood gave a woman her only acknowledged career, Sarah Polk had to resign herself to childlessness. Moreover, no lady would admit to a political role of her own, but Mrs. Polk found scope for her astute mind as well as her social skills. 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.

A devout Presbyterian, she refused to attend horse races or the theater; but she always maintained social contacts of value to James. When he returned to Washington as President in 1845, she stepped to her high position with ease and evident pleasure. 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. Skilled in tactful conversation, Mrs. Polk enjoyed wide popularity as well as deep respect.

Only three months after retirement to their fine new home “Polk Place” in Nashville, he died, worn out by years of public service. Clad always in black, Sarah Polk lived on in that home for 42 years, guarding the memory of her husband and accepting honors paid to her as honors due to him.

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 in her 88th year. Buried beside her husband, she was mourned by a nation that had come to regard her as a precious link to the past.

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Polk, Sarah Childress. ALS, [n.d.] : [s.l.], to Annie Payne. Copley Press, J S Copley Library
referencedIn James K. Polk Papers, 1775-1891, (bulk 1830-1849) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
referencedIn Ticknor, Benajah, 1788-1858. Benajah Ticknor papers, 1818-1852. University of Michigan, Bentley Historical Library
referencedIn Rose, Norvell. Collection, 1864-1885. Tennessee State Library & Archives, TSLA
creatorOf McGill, A. R. (Andrew Ryan), 1840-1905. A.R. McGill and family papers, 1794-1931 (bulk 1870-1900). Minnesota Historical Society Library
referencedIn Miller, John Franklin, 1831-1886. John Franklin Miller papers, 1848-1886. Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
referencedIn Wallace, William Manson, 1779-1854. Papers, 1824-1852 and n.d. Duke University Libraries, Duke University Library; Perkins Library
referencedIn Fenley, William Carr, 1839-1915. Fenley, William Carr, 1839-1915 1856 November 17 Letter. The Filson Historical Society
referencedIn Records of the Office of Speechwriting (Clinton Administration), 1993 - 2001. Carter Wilkie's Files, 1993 - 1994 William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum
referencedIn Richardson, Cornelia H., d. 1864. Letter, Dec. 17, 1847. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library
referencedIn Benajah Ticknor papers, 1818-1852 Bentley Historical Library , University of Michigan
referencedIn Brown-Ewell family papers, 1781-1984. The Filson Historical Society
referencedIn Walker family. Papers, 1838-1901. Tennessee State Library & Archives, TSLA
creatorOf Polk, James K. (James Knox), 1795-1849. Papers of James K. Polk, 1775-1891 (bulk 1830-1849). Library of Congress
referencedIn Ticknor, Benajah, 1788-1858. Benajah Ticknor papers, 1818-1852 (inclusive). Yale University Library
referencedIn Benajah Ticknor papers, 1818-1852 Yale University. Department of Manuscripts and Archives
referencedIn Records of the First Lady's Office (Clinton Administration), 1993 - 2001. Eric Woodard's Files, 1998 - 2000 William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum
referencedIn James M. Bowler and Family Papers, 1827-1976. Minnesota Historical Society
referencedIn Polk, James K. (James Knox), 1795-1849. Papers : addition, 1847-1882. Tennessee State Library & Archives, TSLA
referencedIn Rucker, Joanna Lucinda. Letter folio, 1845-1846. Tennessee State Library & Archives, TSLA
referencedIn Polk, James K. (James Knox), 1795-1849. Papers of James K. Polk, 1790-1889 (bulk 1845-1849 and 1883-1889). Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens
referencedIn Records of District Courts of the United States. 1685 - 2009. Civil Case Files. 1858 - 1911. John Doe, ex. Demise of Sarah Polk v. William Best
referencedIn Ticknor, Benajah, 1788-1858. Benajah Ticknor papers, 1818-1852 (inclusive). Yale University Library
referencedIn Bowler, James Madison, 1838?-1916. James M. Bowler and family papers, 1827-1976. Minnesota Historical Society Library
referencedIn Gillet, Ransom H., Mrs. Letter and photograph, 1871. Tennessee State Library & Archives, TSLA
referencedIn Thornton, Edward B., fl. 1848. Letter to Albert G. Thornton, [manuscript] 1848 Jan. 17. University of Virginia. Library
referencedIn Markham, N. G. Papers. 1854-1905. The Filson Historical Society
referencedIn A. R. McGill and family papers., 1794-1931 (bulk 1870-1900). Minnesota Historical Society
referencedIn Lucretia Rudolph Garfield Papers, 1807-1958, (bulk 1844-1918) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
referencedIn Caldwell, Mary Emily French, 1896-1982. Collection, ca. 1930-1940. Tennessee State Library & Archives, TSLA
referencedIn Fall, Sarah Jetton, b. 1847. Letter : Murfreesboro, Tenn., to Maj. [John C.] Smith, 1863 Sept. 1. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library
creatorOf Polk, Sarah Childress, 1803-1891. Note of Sarah Childress Polk, undated. Library of Congress
referencedIn Parkhurst, John G. (John Gibson), 1824-1906. Papers, 1864-1896. Duke University Libraries, Duke University Library; Perkins Library
referencedIn Records of District Courts of the United States. 1685 - 2009. Civil Case Files. 1858 - 1911. John Doe, ex. Demise of Sarah Polk v. William Best. 1858 - 1911. Last Will and Testament of President James K. Polk
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Bowler, James Madison, 1838?-1916. person
associatedWith Caldwell, Mary Emily French, 1896-1982. person
relativeOf Fall, Sarah Jetton, b. 1847. person
associatedWith Fall, Sarah Jetton, b. 1847. person
associatedWith Fenley, William Carr, 1839-1915. person
correspondedWith Garfield, Lucretia Rudolph, 1832-1918 person
associatedWith Gillet, Ransom H., Mrs. person
associatedWith Markham, N. G. person
associatedWith McGill, A. R. (Andrew Ryan), 1840-1905. person
associatedWith Miller, John Franklin, 1831-1886. person
associatedWith Parkhurst, John G. (John Gibson), 1824-1906. person
associatedWith Payne, Annie. person
spouseOf Polk, James K. (James Knox), 1795-1849. person
relativeOf Polk, Marshall Tate, 1831-1884. person
associatedWith Richardson, Cornelia H., d. 1864. person
associatedWith Rose, Norvell. person
associatedWith Rucker, Joanna Lucinda. person
associatedWith Thornton, Edward B., fl. 1848. person
associatedWith Ticknor, Benajah, 1788-1858. person
associatedWith Walker family. family
associatedWith Wallace, William Manson, 1779-1854. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Nashville TN US
District of Columbia DC US
Winston-Salem NC US
Murfreesboro TN US
Subject
President's spouses
Occupation
Presidents' spouses--United States
Function

Person

Birth 1803-09-04

Death 1891-08-14

Female

Americans

English

Information

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