President’s Grandpa Spoke his Peace

Greg Tucker, Rutherford County Historian, Froe Chips, January/February, 2021

Sara Childress Polk and President James K. Polk

James K. Polk had some close ties to Rutherford County. He attended school in Murfreesboro in 1814, and in 1824 married Sara Childress, daughter of a prominent Murfreesboro family.

Shortly before his marriage, Polk was elected to the Tennessee General Assembly. He served as a member of the U. S. Congress from 1825 to 1839 when he was elected Tennessee Governor. Five years later he was elected President of the United States.

An interesting Polk family sidelight is the controversial Col. Ezekiel Polk (1747-1824), an early Tennessee settler, grandfather of the President, and an outspoken critic of organized religion. Three years before his death, the Colonel composed his poetic epitaph and specified that his engraved headstone and tomb be made of wood.

His rhymed epitaph read as follows:

Here lies the dust of old E. P.
One instance of mortality,
Pennsylvania born, Car’lina bred;
In Tennessee died upon his bed.
His youthful years he spent in pleasure,
His later years in gathering treasure.
From superstition liv’d quite free,
And practiced strict morality.
To holy cheats was never willing,
To give one solitary shilling;
He can foresee and for-seeing,
He equals most in being.
That church and state will join their pow’r,
And misery on this country show’r,
And Methodists with their camp bawling
Will be the cause of this down falling;
An era not destined to see,
It waits for poor posterity;
First fruits and tenths are odious things,
So are bishops, priests and kings.

According to Polk family lore, the epitaph was removed while Polk was running for office. The Methodist reference is said to have been used by Polk’s opponents in the presidential campaign. Despite a number of notable achievements as President, Polk declined to run for a second term.

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