A Reference Resource
Sarah Childress Polk was dignified, gracious, and held high morals. She was a helpmate to her husband and an accomplished hostess. In many ways, she was the quintessential nineteenth-century woman. In others, such as her higher education, her political interests, and her disdain for domesticity, she heralded the coming of the twentieth-century woman-and of the twentieth-century First Lady.
Sarah Polk's reputation in Washington, D.C., was, in some ways, better known than her husband's. As wife of the Speaker of the House, she held an important social position in the capital and entertained large groups of people, inviting both political friends and foes to her parties. Many admired her moral code and commitment to religious principles, and she actually enhanced her social standing-and her husband's political status-by refusing to drink, dance, and attend the theater and racetrack.
When James K. Polk waged his Tennessee gubernatorial campaign, his wife was not only his social hostess but also his unofficial campaign manager. She sent important documents to her husband on the stump, oversaw his strenuous schedule, and, with his political aides, coordinated various elements of the operation. Few, however, knew of her contributions to her husband's successful bid for the Tennessee governorship.
When Polk became president in 1845, Sarah implemented a very different social calendar than that of her predecessor, Julia Tyler. Gone were the waltzes and polkas, the wine drinking and opulent entertainments. The Polks strictly observed the Sabbath, causing something of a controversy in Washington since even the President did not conduct governmental business on Sunday. But Sarah did not ignore the important social responsibilities incumbent on the role of presidential spouse. At one point she even stayed at the White House while Polk went on vacation in order to tend to her duties. She also attended the inaugural ball-although she did not dance-and held special receptions on the Fourth of July and New Year's Day. Dispensing with invitations, she hosted two evening receptions per week where she and the President would greet visitors and shake hands for hours. This level of access to the President was meant to be a sign of Polk's democratic ethos and accessibility. These events were not as glamorous as her predecessor's, but Sarah's restraint, efficiency, and hospitality won the respect of the public and the press.
Although Sarah Polk willingly performed her social duties, she loathed most domestic obligations and instead chose to focus on political issues. She was much like her husband in this regard. Indeed, she freely admitted that she would "neither keep house, nor make butter" but would "always take a deep interest in State and national affairs." To the end, Sarah continued to be her husband's political partner, although she did so privately. She served as his private assistant and reviewed national and local newspapers, clipping those articles she deemed of interest to the President in order to save him time. She acted as Polk's proxy at certain functions, helped to edit some of the President's speeches, and copied his correspondence. Sarah's political influence was extensive and acknowledged by President Polk when he asserted, "None but Sarah knew so intimately my private affairs."
Within the administration, Sarah was an important asset to the President. Occasionally she discussed politics with White House guests, including Henry Clay. She urged her husband to support a national bank, to no avail. Sarah was more successful in influencing him to fulfill the nation's "Manifest Destiny" by claiming territory as far west as the Pacific Ocean for the United States. She supported the President's decision to go to war with Mexico and adjusted his social calendar to include patriotic events in support of U.S. soldiers.
Outside of the White House, Sarah adopted an approach to politics that was more in keeping with her own southern upbringing. She enjoyed discussing political issues with members of the government and with her husband could be politically outspoken at times, but publicly she often masked her own strident opinions by prefacing them with "Mr. Polk believes...." She refused to support the women's rights activists who convened the Seneca Falls Convention, and she supported slavery because she believed that the South would collapse without it.
When James K. Polk declined to seek a second term, Sarah Polk left the White House with her reputation of a moral woman, a devoted helpmate to her husband, and a gracious hostess intact. In doing so, she elevated the position of First Lady by imbuing the role with her dignity. Yet this often-neglected presidential spouse should also be remembered for navigating her own course within the conventions of the era. Childless at a time when motherhood, in large part, defined a woman's worth, and contemptuous of domestic pursuits at a time when cooking and cleaning defined a woman's activities, Sarah Childress Polk looked to politics as a substitute activity. However, in keeping with contemporary norms she channeled her passion for politics into promoting her husband's career.