Sarah C. Polk

Born: September 4, 1803
Died: August 14, 1891


Fun Facts
  • Although James and Sarah Polk had no children, Sarah “adopted” an orphaned great niece at the start of her widowhood.
  • Sarah often hosted large dinner parties serving the food one course at a time. One congressman’s wife estimated 150 courses were served during “four mortal hours” of dining.
  • Sarah Polk outlived her husband by forty-two years, making her the longest widowed first lady in American history.
  • After Sarah’s death, she and James were moved to the Tennessee State Capitol grounds where they remain today.
  • Sarah Polk was her husband’s chief advisor throughout his career. She is credited with starting the use of the song “Hail to the Chief” as the official presidential anthem during her time as first lady.

Test your knowledge of the 11th U.S. President and learn Polk trivia with our Online Quiz.

Uncommon Privilege

Sarah was born on the Tennessee frontier, but she grew up amidst wealth and refinement. Her father Joel Childress was a successful businessman and planter who wanted his children to have a good education. The frontier offered few opportunities for girls, however. After briefly attending a local school that taught the social graces, Sarah enrolled in the Moravian Female Academy in Salem, North Carolina. The Academy’s strong curriculum included arithmetic, grammar, Bible study, Greek and Roman literature, geography, music, drawing, and sewing. Sarah’s stay at Salem was cut short by the unexpected death of her father, but her education there had helped prepare her for her future role on the national stage.

Uncommon Influence

The Tennessee legislature was meeting in Sarah’s hometown of Murfreesboro when James K. Polk began his political career as a state representative. The couple’s courtship culminated in a New Year’s Day wedding at her mother’s home. The newlyweds then moved to Columbia where James practiced law and launched his campaign for U.S. Congress.

Sarah’s education and political interests were assets for her ambitious husband. During James K. Polk’s years as a Congressman, Tennessee Governor, and eventually President, Sarah served as his unofficial advisor and secretary. Because she could intelligently converse about government, she earned the respect of the era’s prominent politicians.

As First Lady, Sarah capably handled her position’s social obligations. Responsible for remodeling the interior of the President’s House on a limited budget, she created an elegant setting befitting the highest office in the land. A strict Presbyterian, she did not allow the dancing and heavy drinking that were common at Washington parties. Despite her restrictions, she remained a popular hostess whose hospitality enhanced the President’s political influence and popular image.

Uncommon Perseverance

While in Washington, Sarah planned the renovation of the Nashville mansion that she and her husband had purchased for their retirement. But James K. Polk’s stay at Polk Place was tragically short. When he died just three months after leaving the Presidency, 45-year-old Sarah donned the black mourning clothes that she would wear for the rest of her life: more than four decades.

As a widow, Sarah assumed responsibility for an orphaned great-niece. This “adopted” daughter, Sally Jetton, became Sarah’s constant companion. Sarah stayed involved in Nashville society, and maintained neutrality during the Civil War. Throughout her widowhood, she preserved President Polk’s political papers and personal belongings. After a short illness, she died at Polk Place three weeks before her 88th birthday and 42 years after her husband’s death.

Links

Educational Resources

Lesson plans, educational activites and links for further reading are available here.

Additional Reading

Read about President
James K. Polk
here.


Videos

Sarah Polk’s White House

Accomplishments

1817–1818

Attended the Moravian
Female Academy

January 1, 1824

Married James K. Polk

1825–1839

Served as a Congressman’s Wife

1839–1841

Served as First Lady of Tennessee

1845–1849

Served as First Lady of the
United States