Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Sarah Childress Polk, Wife of An American President

The seat of the county in which my mother grew up contains a home that James K. Polk and his wife, Sarah Childress Polk, used to live in before he became President of the United States in 1849. I've enjoyed visiting it now and again since I was a child.
Maybe, you already know quite a bit about Mrs. Polk, who was an intelligent, charming, and steadfast helpmeet throughout her husband's long legal and political career. If you are not already acquainted with her story, I'm sure that you would enjoy reading about her -- either for your own enjoyment or with a daughter.
Here's just a few tidbits about her life to whet your interest:
1) Sarah was born in 1803 in middle Tennessee. Her father was wealthy, and her parents were refined and educated. However, Tenneessee was still emerging from it's rugged, frontier status at the time. So, her parents sent her "back east" to attend the famous Salem Academy in North Carolina. Though I'm sure she was accompanied by at least one servant, it's said that she rode horseback all the way to North Carolina. Salem Academy was a Moravian school for girls, and it was considered to be one of the finest sources of higher education for girls in the South. Thus, Sarah received an unusually well-rounded educaton for a woman of her day. She studied English grammar, Bible study, Greek and Roman literature, geography, music, drawing, and sewing. When her father died, Sarah came home before completing her full course of education. However, the educational and social foundation she received at Salem Academy served her in good stead all of her life. She put this education to use as her husband's wife. She served as his secretary for much of his law practice and political career. Whenever his duties took him away from home, he relied on her to keep him informed of local political developments. After he was elected as President, visitors to the White House were charmed by her ability to chat graciously and sensibly about matters of political interest. She was especially renowned for her great tact in all conversation. She was well-respected, and she earned the undying friendship and respect of many well known political figures of her day. Her husband, who was well-educated and intelligent, himself, found her intelligence and learning to be a great asset to him. This was particularly so, because she never sought to outshine him, but always treated him the utmost respect. She often prefaced her statements with "Mr Polk says..." In return, he respected and cherished her.
2) Mrs. Polk was very devout in her Presbyterian faith. Through her influence, White House functions took on a higher moral tone than in some previous administrations. Though she did serve wine on some occasions, she paticularly discouraged heavy drinking. Despite the fact that the Polks were viewed as bring a new sedate quality to White House entertainments, they were able to accomplish this without beomg staid or dull. Mrs. Polk's considerable social graces helped her husband maintain the network he needed in order to perform his duties as president.
3) Sarah was placed in charge of completely remodeling the State floor of the President's House, and the rooms she created were models of elegance. Wouldn't it be fun -- and challenging -- to re-decorate the White House?
4) In the house that she and her husband shared in Columbia, TN, Sarah -- like many Middle Tennesee woman -- kept large grass-cloth mats that were rolled out in the summer to protect her beautiful carpets in certain weather conditions. This was to keep the men from staining her carpets by tracking dust in on their boots.
5) Sarah's husband was the only American President EVER to keep all of his campaign promises. Wisely, he only promised the public two things!
6) Mrs. Polk was widowed and living in Nashville by the time of the Civil War. She devoted much of her life to preserving her husband's memory and legacy, and she held herself above the divisive strife. I'm not sure how she was able to do this, since Nashville was hotly Confederate at the time and intensly resentful of an early Union invastion into the city. I think her success in this aspect must be due to the respect that her husband's memory still garnered and the respect that poeple still felt for her. The city of Nashville was the scene of heavy fighting throughout the war, yet no one ever harmed her or her household.

For more information about Mrs. Polk, you can visit the following sites

These are just two of the many sites on the web that provide biographical information about Mrs. Polk. There are books that have been written about her as well.

Best yet, if you live near middle Tennessee, visit the James K. Polk home for a fascinating and educational tour.


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