February 21, 2010, Mike West, The Murfreesboro Post
A strong case can be made for a former First Lady.
A strong case can be made for Sarah Childress, who went on to be the wife of James K. Polk, Americas 11th president. Sarah was born in 1803 to Joel Childress, a prominent planter, merchant and land speculator, and Elizabeth Whitsitt Childress the third of their six children. Childress made an unusual decision for the time. He decided to give his daughters a formal education. She first took private tutoring from Samuel P. Black in Murfreesboro. Black administered Bradley Academy at the time. It is believed Sarah first met James Polk during this period. She was 12 and he was 19. Several years later, Polk began courting her.
They were engaged in 1823 and married Jan. 1, 1824. Their wedding, it is said, was encouraged by Andrew Jackson, who considered the Childress family and Polk among his most powerful or capable supporters.
By 1828, Jackson was president. But before their marriage, Sarah continued her education first in Nashville and later at the Moravian Female Academy at Salem, N.C. The school still exists as Salem College. Sarah and her sister traveled to the Moravian Academy when Sarah was 14. Located nearly 500 miles away, the school was one of the few for girls available in the nation.
Their trip to the school took a month on horseback. The school was unusual in that it offered curriculum similar to what was taught to males at the time, including English grammar, Bible history, classical literature as well as traditionally feminine subjects. These studies would prove to be valuable in assisting her husbands career, and in fact she devoted herself to his success. She helped organize his campaigns, often wrote his speeches, while handling his correspondence. Most importantly, she helped him through the prominence of her family to develop a network of political friendships. Naturally, given the times, all of this work was done privately.
After their marriage, Polk continued his political rise and in the following year (1825) was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. When Sarah arrived in Washington, she made the usual social rounds but she also took a deep interest in the politics of the time and in Polk’s work in Congress, especially as he became Speaker of the House in 1835.
In Washington as congressman’s wife during the administrations of John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, Mrs. Polk enjoyed her social duties. She did risk a breech with Jackson, her husband’s mentor, by taking part in the social ostracism of Margaret Peggy Eaton, the controversial wife of Secretary of War John Eaton. To be continued next week …