Sarah Childress was born on September 4, 1803, to Elizabeth and Joel Childress and grew up on a plantation near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Her father sent Sarah and her sister away to school, first to Nashville, then to Moravian Female Academy in Salem, North Carolina, one of the very few institutions of higher learned available to women in the early 19th century.
James K. Polk was laying the foundation for his career when he met her. He had begun his first year’s service in the Tennessee legislature when they were married on New Year’s Day, 1824; he was 28, she 20. The story goes that Andrew Jackson encouraged their romance; he certainly made Polk a political protégé, and as such Polk represented a district in Congress for 14 sessions.
Although the Polks never had children, Sarah found scope for her astute mind as well as her social skills. She accompanied her husband to Washington whenever she could, and they soon won a place in its most select social circles. Constantly—but privately—Sarah helped him with his speeches, copied his correspondence, and gave him advice. He would hand her a newspaper—“Sarah, here is something I wish you to read…” and she would set to work as well.
A devout Presbyterian, she refused to attend horse races or the theater; but she always maintained social contacts of value to James. When he returned to Washington as president in 1845, she stepped to her high position with ease and evident pleasure. She appeared at the inaugural ball, but did not dance.
Contrasted with Julia Tyler’s waltzes, her entertainments have become famous for their sedateness and sobriety. Skilled in tactful conversation, Mrs. Polk enjoyed wide popularity as well as deep respect. She continued to closely advise her husband throughout his time in office.
Only three months after retirement to their fine new home “Polk Place” in Nashville, James died, worn out by years of public service. Clad always in black, Sarah Polk lived on in that home for 42 years, guarding the memory of her husband and accepting honors paid to her as honors due to him as she continued to manage enslaved labor on their plantations in Tennessee and Mississippi.
During the Civil War, Mrs. Polk held herself above sectional strife and received with dignity leaders of both Confederate and Union armies; all respected Polk Place as neutral ground. She presided over her house until her death on August 14, 1891.
Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of the Polk family.
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