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Sarah Polk (Childress)

Also Known As: "First Lady to the 11th US President"
Birthplace: Rutherford, Tennessee, United States
Death: August 14, 1891 (87)
Nashville, Davidson County, Tennessee, United States
Place of Burial: Tennessee State Capitol Building and Grounds Nashville Davidson County Tennessee
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Joel W Childress and Elizabeth Childress
Wife of James K. Polk, 11th President of the USA
Sister of Anderson Childress; Susan Rucker; Maj. John W. Childress; Mathilda "Mary" Fountain Catron; Benjamin Childress and 1 other

Occupation: First Lady to the 11th US President
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Sarah Polk

Sarah Childress Polk, wife of the eleventh president of the United States, privately strengthened the role of first lady, acting as her husband’s closest political ally while publicly dignifying her position in a manner her contemporaries held in highest esteem. The third of four surviving children, she was born to Joel and Elizabeth Whitsitt Childress near Murfreesboro in Rutherford County on September 4, 1803.

Sarah grew up in surroundings fitting for the daughter of a successful merchant, tavern keeper, and land speculator. The family resided in an ample frame house two miles outside of Murfreesboro, Tennessee’s capital, from September 1819 to October 1825. The state’s leading politicians, including Andrew Jackson and Felix Grundy, frequented the Childress home when the legislature was in session; thus Sarah became acquainted with politics and political issues at a tender age.

Acting on their desire to educate and train their daughters for the expected role of upper-class white women, Joel and Elizabeth Childress sent both girls to the Daniel Elam School locally and then engaged a tutor, Samuel P. Black, the principal of the Bradley Academy, to teach the girls at the school after the boys had departed for the day. Their primary education, then, exceeded that of most girls and equaled that of most boys in their community. When Sarah reached twelve or thirteen, she and her sister attended the Abercrombie School in Nashville for two years to acquire the refinements deemed proper for their station. They finished their education at the Moravian Female Academy in Salem (now Winston-Salem), North Carolina.

Murfreesboro was teeming with political activity when the Childress daughters returned home. James K. Polk was elected clerk of the Senate in 1819, which gave him the opportunity to renew his acquaintance with Sarah. Polk also ran successfully for a state legislative seat. The couple’s courtship blossomed into betrothal and they married on January 1, 1824, afterward settling in Columbia.

James K. Polk continued to advance politically, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1825 to 1839, when he launched his campaign for governor in order to wrest political power from the Whig Party. During his extensive absences from home, Sarah Polk acted in conjunction with Polk’s closest political advisors to assure his election. She sent documents pertinent to his congressional record and kept him apprised of newspaper articles dealing with the election. Successful in 1839, Polk lost the governorship to Whig James C. Jones in 1841 and again in 1843. Sarah became despondent over her husband’s losses and worried about his health throughout and following his strenuous campaigns.

In 1844 James K. Polk was the Democratic choice for president. Discreet inquiries of the Tennessee delegation as to the suitability of Sarah Polk as first lady sealed the nomination. In a close race, Polk lost his home state by 267 votes but won the presidency.

Childless, Sarah Polk devoted her life to her husband’s political career. During the fourteen years he served in the House of Representatives, she accompanied him to Washington on all but two occasions, his first journey and during the upheaval known as the Peggy Eaton Affair that occurred during Andrew Jackson’s presidency. Becoming acquainted with the Washington social scene and hosting parties to cement political bonds served her well when she became first lady. She had already attained a reputation for graciousness, and the Polks made it their policy never to speak ill publicly of even their bitterest of political enemies. Consequently, Sarah Polk moved easily among Whig and Democratic men and women.

Throughout Polk’s four years as president, newspaper reporters praised Sarah Polk’s deportment as first lady. She fulfilled all of the tenets of mid-nineteenth-century white, upper-class womanhood. Twice weekly the White House doors were thrown open to visitors and Sarah Polk greeted her guests with dignity and charm. On those occasions she became the eyes and ears of her husband, who often declined to attend owing to pressing political matters. To save her husband’s energy, she read the daily newspapers, marking passages of interest. Sarah Polk’s behind-the-scenes role in her husband’s political career remained secret to avoid subjecting her to public ridicule. She steadfastly held to her religious upbringing, barring dancing from the White House and attempting to bar, unsuccessfully, visitors on the Sabbath. Although both Polks suffered from illness during their four years in Washington, they rarely missed church services.

Upon completion of his term as president in 1849, the Polks undertook a long journey from Washington to Nashville, where well-wishers greeted them enthusiastically en route. When they arrived at New Orleans, word of a cholera outbreak reached them. They concluded their journey from Kentucky by land in the face of shipboard cases of the dreaded disease. A debilitated James K. Polk spoke before a gathering in his honor at Nashville on April 1, 1849. Although his health improved initially, he died on June 15. As a measure of his abiding trust in his wife, Polk praised her in his will for standing by him through all vicissitudes of his public and private life.

Sarah Childress Polk outlived her husband by forty-three years, only occasionally leaving her home other than to attend church services. On August 12, 1891, she became ill and died two days later. She was originally entombed beside her husband on the grounds of their home. In 1893 the remains of President James K. Polk and First Lady Sarah Childress Polk were removed to the capitol grounds in Nashville.


In Washington as congressman's wife during the administrations of John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and Martin Van Buren, Mrs. Polk very much enjoyed her social duties. She risked a breech with Jackson, her husband's mentor, by taking part in the social ostracism of Peggy Eaton.

Although not particularly attractive, Sarah Polk was lively, charming, intelligent, with a good conversationalist. President Polk at times discussed policy matters with her. Sarah helped James with his speeches in private, copied his correspondence, and gave him advice. While she enjoyed politics, she also cautioned him against overwork. A devout Presbyterian, she as First Lady banned dancing and hard liquor at official receptions and refused to attend horse races or the theatre. She hosted the first annual Thanksgiving dinner at the White House.

Only 41 when her husband became president, Sarah Polk outlived several of her successors: Margaret Taylor, Abigail Fillmore, Jane Pierce, Mary Todd Lincoln, Eliza Johnson and Lucy Webb Hayes. Only a handful of first ladies have lived longer -- Anna Harrison, Edith Bolling Wilson, Betty Ford, Lady Bird Johnson, and Bess Truman. Only three months after retirement to their new home "Polk Place" in Nashville, James Polk died. (He had the shortest retirement of any former US President).

Contrasted with Julia Tyler's waltzes, the Polk entertainments were noted for sedateness and sobriety. 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. Mrs. Polk was said to be popular and respected.

She retired with the former president to Nashville, Tennessee, where she remained after his death in 1849. During the Civil War, she supported the Confederacy. During the Civil War, both Union and Confederate soldiers came to pay their respects to her.

Sarah Polk lived on in that home for 42 years. She lived through the longest retirement and widowhood of any former US First Lady, and wore black always.

She and James had no children.

She was the First Lady of the United States after James was inaugurated as the 11th President on March 4, 1845.

James' and Sarah's bodies were moved to the grounds of the State Capitol in Nashville, Tennessee in 1893.

Presidential First Lady. She was born Sarah Childress on a plantation near Murfreesboro, Tennessee the daughter of a prosperous planter and merchant. As was usual with daughters of the wealthy during this time, her education was entrusted to a series of finishing schools. She was well qualified to assist a man with a political career. James K. Polk had just began his first year's service in the Tennessee legislature when a courtship with Sarah commenced and ended in marriage; he was 28, she 20. It is said that Andrew Jackson himself was the matchmaker. The couple was childless and all her energy was directed to helping her husband, acting as his secretary and upon becoming First Lady worked along side the president conducting the business of the land and even attended cabinet meetings. However, fun times in the White House were over. An over zealous Presbyterian, she issued edicts: no dancing, singing, music, card playing, gambling or alcohol at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. No business was conducted on Sunday. Sarah observed the first traditional Thanksgiving day dinner in the White House. Just three months after the Polk's vacated the White House to retire to a newly constructed home in Nashville, (Polk Place) Andrew died of Cholera. Sarah endured the longest widowhood of any first lady extending over forty two years. During the Civil War, both sides respected her neutrality and she entertained officers from both armies. Clad always in black, she turned their home into a shrine in her husbands memory. His grave was on the grounds of the estate. Because of her austere views and no children, her life became barren and joyless. She had some famous visitors, President and Mrs Hayes stopped by and later President and Mrs Cleveland. Upon her death at age 87, her burial next to her husband was short in duration. Polk Place became a run down, unkempt mansion in downtown Nashville and sadly was sold and demolished. The graves were moved to an even more austere site on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol. Only the cast iron fountain from the property was preserved and is today displayed at the James K. Polk Ancestral Home in Columbia. Constructed by his parents, he began his political career from this home. Adjacent is the Polk Sister's home containing many items from President and Sarah Polk. The Polk Memorial in Pineville, North Carolina is a reconstruction on land from the farm of his birth and where he spent most of his childhood. The log buildings and furnishings are not original to the Polk homestead but are period pieces of that time. (bio by: Donald Greyfield)

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Sarah Polk's Timeline

September 4, 1803
Rutherford, Tennessee, United States
August 14, 1891
Age 87
Nashville, Davidson County, Tennessee, United States
Age 87
Tennessee State Capitol Building and Grounds Nashville Davidson County Tennessee
Salem, North Carolina, United States
Winston-Salem, North Carolina, United States