Sarah Childress Polk

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Sarah Childress Polk
Polk sarah.jpg
Copy of Polk's Official Portrait, done by George Dury (1878)
11th First Lady of the United States
In role
March 4, 1845 – March 4, 1849
President James Polk
Preceded by Julia Tyler
Succeeded by Margaret Taylor
Personal details
Born Sarah Childress
(1803-09-04)September 4, 1803
Murfreesboro, Tennessee, U.S.
Died August 14, 1891(1891-08-14) (aged 87)
Nashville, Tennessee, U.S.
Nationality American
Spouse(s) James Polk (m. 1824; d. 1849)

Sarah Childress Polk (September 4, 1803 – August 14, 1891) was the wife of the 11th President of the United States, James Polk, serving as First Lady of the United States from 1845 to 1849.

Early life and education[edit]

Sarah Childress was born in 1803 to Joel Childress, a prominent planter, merchant, and land speculator, and Elizabeth Whitsitt Childress—the third of their six children. Sarah was well educated for a woman of her time and place, attending the exclusive Moravians' Salem Academy in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1817, one of the few institutions of higher learning available to women in the early 19th century.

Sarah met James K. Polk while both were receiving instruction from Samuel P. Black in Murfreesboro, Tennessee; he was 19, she was 12. Several years later James began courting her. Legend says Andrew Jackson called her “wealthy, pretty, ambitious, and intelligent,” and urged Polk to marry her;[1] in 1823 the two became engaged, and on January 1, 1824, Sarah Childress, aged 20, married James Polk, aged 28, at the plantation home of the bride's parents near Murfreesboro. The Polks had no children of their own, but raised a nephew, Marshall Tate Polk (1831–1884) as their personal ward, after her husband's death, Mrs. Polk assumed guardianship of an orphaned niece, Sarah Polk Jetton (1847–1924), and raised the girl as her own.

In physical appearance, Sarah was fairly tall, with black hair that was parted in the middle and worn in ringlets, dark brown eyes, and olive complexion, she had prominent teeth that caused her to tighten her lips, giving her a disapproving look, though she was admired as a "noble" beauty. She usually dressed in vibrant blues, reds and maroons, that suited her dark coloring.

Years of political life (1825-1849)[edit]

Sarah and James

During Polk's political career, Sarah assisted her husband with his speeches, gave him advice on policy matters and played an active role in his campaigns; in Washington as a congressman's wife during the administrations of John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and Martin Van Buren, Mrs. Polk very much enjoyed her social duties; in 1830 she risked a breach with Jackson, her husband's mentor, by taking part in the social ostracism of Peggy Eaton, during the Petticoat affair, although she continued to greet Eaton, unlike Vice President John C. Calhoun's wife, Floride Calhoun, and most of the cabinet members' wives.[2]

In 1845, Sarah Polk became the 11th First Lady of the United States. She was lively, charming, intelligent, and a good conversationalist. President Polk at times discussed policy matters with her. While she enjoyed politics, she also cautioned her husband, whose health was never robust, against overwork.[3] A devout Presbyterian, as First Lady she banned dancing, card games, and hard liquor at official receptions[4] and refused to attend horse races or the theatre. When she attended the Inaugural Ball, she did not dance, she hosted the first annual Thanksgiving dinner at the White House.

Unlike Julia Tyler's waltzes, the Polk entertainments were sedate and sober affairs which earned the First Lady the nickname "Sahara Sarah",[5] although some accounts stated that the Polks never served wine, a Congressman's wife "recorded in her diary details of a four-hour dinner for forty at the White House—glasses for six different wines, from pink champagne to ruby port and sauterne, 'formed a rainbow around each plate.'"[6]

Later life[edit]

Polk in her later years

After attending the inauguration of James Polk's successor, Zachary Taylor, on March 5, 1849, he and Sarah left by horse and carriage to their new home "Polk Place" in Nashville, Tennessee. Three months later, James Polk died, having had the shortest retirement of any former U.S. President,[7] the United States government granted her a yearly pension of $5,000.[8]

During the American Civil War, she was officially neutral, but indicated sentiments in favor of preserving the Union during periodic visits to her home by several Union Army commanders, including Don Carlos Buell, George Henry Thomas, Ulysses S. Grant, and William Tecumseh Sherman.[9] Sarah Polk lived at Polk Place for 42 years, the longest retirement and widowhood of any former US First Lady, and always wore black, she died on August 14, 1891, at age 87, and was buried next to the president at their home in Nashville and was later reinterred with him at the Tennessee State Capitol.

Only 41 when her husband became president, she outlived several of her successors including Margaret Taylor, Abigail Fillmore, Jane Pierce, Mary Todd Lincoln, Eliza Johnson and Lucy Hayes. Only a handful of first ladies have lived longer -- Anna Harrison, Barbara Bush, Edith Wilson, Betty Ford, Lady Bird Johnson, Nancy Reagan, Bess Truman, and Rosalynn Carter.


  1. ^ Sarah Childress Polk. The White House. Retrieved on October 14, 2007.
  2. ^ Schneider, D., & Schneider, C. J. (2010). First ladies: A biographical dictionary. New York: Facts On File. p. 72. ISBN 1438127502
  3. ^ Schneider, D., & Schneider, C. J. (2010). First ladies: A biographical dictionary. New York: Facts On File. p. 73. ISBN 1438127502
  4. ^ Schneider, D., & Schneider, C. J. (2010). First ladies: A biographical dictionary. New York: Facts On File. pp. 75–76. ISBN 1438127502
  5. ^ Schneider, D., & Schneider, C. J. (2010). First ladies: A biographical dictionary. New York: Facts On File. p. 76. ISBN 1438127502
  6. ^ "Sarah Childress Polk – The White House". The White House. Contrasted with Julia Tyler's waltzes, her entertainments have become famous for sedateness and sobriety. Some later accounts say that the Polks never served wine, but in December 1845 a Congressman's wife recorded in her diary details of a four-hour dinner for forty at the White House--glasses for six different wines, from pink champagne to ruby port and sauterne, "formed a rainbow around each plate."  
  7. ^ Portrait and biographical record of Stark county, Ohio: containing biographical sketches of prominent and representative citizens, together with biographies and portrait of all the presidents of the United States. 1892. p.60.
  8. ^ The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans. 1904. p.
  9. ^ Anson Nelson, Memorials of Sarah Childress Polk: Wife of the Eleventh President of the United States, 1892, pages 171-173

Further reading[edit]

  • Bumgarner, John R. (1997). Sarah Childress Polk : a biography of the remarkable first lady. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland. ISBN 9780786403660. [1]
  • Claxton, Jimmie Lou Sparkman (1972). 88 years with Sarah Polk. New York, N.Y.: Vantage Press. ISBN 9780533002221. [2]
  • Peterson, Barbara Bennett (2002). Sarah Childress Polk, first lady of Tennessee and Washington. Huntington, N.Y.: Nova History Publications. ISBN 9781590331453. [3]

External links[edit]

Honorary titles
Preceded by
Julia Tyler
First Lady of the United States
Succeeded by
Margaret Taylor