Presidential term took hard toll on James K. Polk

February 29, 2010, Mike West, The Murfreesboro Post

During her husband’s years in Congress, Sarah Childress Polk sharpened her knowledge of political life.

During her husbands years in Congress, Sarah Childress Polk sharpened her knowledge of political life. Besides being well informed, she was ambitious for her husband. When James K. Polk ran for governor of Tennessee in 1839 she served as his campaign coordinator, arranging his speaking schedule, mailing out literature and conducting his correspondence. She continued with similar duties as he took office in Nashville.

A few years later, Polk received the Democratic Party’s nomination for President when in 1844 front-runner Martin Van Buren failed to receive sufficient votes. Working again behind the scenes, Mrs. Polk helped her husband win.

Sarah Polk reinvented the unofficial post of First Lady. Her predecessors had generally been hostesses, concerned with operating the White House and entertaining the many visitors. But Sarah spent most of her time assisting Polk with his work, all while entertaining as required.

In public, Sarah would credit her husband by preceding any remarks with Mr. Polk thinks… In private, she spoke clearly to him on the issues while helping with presidential paperwork. She read his speeches and made suggestions. On the social scene, she supervised White House activities and served as hostess at least two receptions and a state dinner per week. Many visitors enjoyed Mrs. Polk’s political views. Soon to be President Franklin Pierce said he would rather talk politics with Sarah than anyone else even Polk.

Both Polk’s worked hard during James one term in office, putting a great strain on the Presidents health. He only took a few days vacation during his term all while Sarah worked as his chief confidant. None but Sarah knew so intimately my private affairs, Polk said. In her administration of White House gatherings, Sarah differed from most of her predecessors in particular Julia Tyler, the second wife of President John Tyler. A devout Presbyterian, Sarah strictly observed Sunday as the Sabbath and discouraged the President from conducting business or holding state dinners on that day. She also banned social dancing in the White House. To dance in these rooms would be respectful neither to the house nor to the office. How indecorous it would seem for dancing to be going on in one apartment, while in another we were conversing with dignitaries of the republic or ministers of the gospel, she said.

Sarah disliked distilled liquor and banned it from the White House, however the Polk’s did serve table wines at state dinners. Polk was exhausted when his term as President ended 1849. Despite his weakened condition they set out on a long trip through the South during which the honors and praise of office were poured on the former President. He was in weakened condition when they finally arrived at their retirement home in Nashville, called Polk’s Place. Four months later, Polk died of what was described as cholera. Sarah was only 45. She became, in effect, the curator of Polk Place, which became a shrine to the dead President. Even though she rarely left Polk Place except to go to church, Sarah graciously received visitors and it soon became the tradition for both local and national dignitaries to call at Polk Place to pay their respects to her and visit Polk’s tomb.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Sarah remained impartial and did not align herself with the Confederacy despite the fact that she and her husbands had owned slaves. She entertained generals from both sides of the conflict at her home. And after the war, she continued to maintain Polk Place as a museum to her husband. It was packed with portraits of Polk and his family, cases of china and glass, and souvenirs donated to the President. Among the unique items was a mold of Tom Thumbs feet, a nugget from the California gold fields and the gavel Polk had used when he was speaker of the House. She adopted a great niece, Sarah Polk Jetton, and entertained visiting dignitaries including two Presidents, Rutherford Hayes and Grover Cleveland and their spouses.

She died at age 87 at Polk Place on Aug. 14, 1891, 42 years after her husbands death in 1849. His last words were, “I love you, Sarah, for all eternity, I love you.”

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