First Lady Sarah Childress Polk
Sarah Childress Polk, known for her powerful social skills that helped her husband, James Polk, on the campaign trail.
She was known to be charming, elegant, and quite witty. Many said Sarah must have been born with the gift of gab – this statement rang true – particularly after she told a large crowd that gathered for the Democratic nomination in 1844.
Sarah announced, “If I get to the White House, I expect to live on $25,000 a year and I will neither keep house nor make butter, stick that in your bread oven.”
Today, the media would have taken her statement and plastered it on every television station, radio, and newspaper – every blog – and made headlines on every internet social network available. Sarah’s numbers for likable First Ladies would have fallen rapidly, and the press would have made her into a fool. In 1844, things were different, her statement gave her strength and power, and more voters came to the side of the Polk’s.
Sarah made it to the White House, and she managed to hide away enough money for her retirement. She kept clear of the kitchen; reading newspapers and speeches for her husband; he used her as his private secretary and more. James rarely consulted his cabinet; he knew Sarah was the second most important figure in his Administration.
James said, “None but Sarah knew so intimately my private affairs.” It was true. First Lady Sarah would hold lavish dinners to win support for the war against Mexico and be a stepping stone for the Administration’s policies.
If she had to list all of her accomplishments, a woman like Sarah, with strong Presbyterian faith, would probably write in her own words, ‘I forbid dancing and card playing in the White House – I insisted that the band stop playing when the President and I walked into the Inaugural Ball and start again when we left. The only music I enjoyed was when friends gathered around the piano to sing hymns.
She knew the hardest thing to hit everyone in Washington D.C. was when she demanded no liquor in the White House – meaning hard liquor. Those from the social scene, by this time, were so used to visiting the White House and drinking in various rooms and being entertained by the President – Sarah stopped all of that. Sarah gained a nickname in Washington D.C. – on the streets they called her, ‘Sahara Sarah.’
What actually happened with the ban on liquor did the people money – hard liquor, known as whiskey, was cheap at the time but wine was not. So how did Sarah manage to save money for her retirement? How did she manage for forty-one years, after leaving the White House, never to ask for anything, from anyone?
She would admit it was her use of African Slaves – knowing slaves would not line up to receive a paycheck at the end of any month. Sarah is known to have pointed out to her husband that the Declaration of Independence was wrong – that all men are not created equal. It is known that she told her husband, “There are those men toiling in the heat of the sun, while you are writing, and I am sitting here, fanning myself, in this house as airy and delightful as a palace.”
Sarah was born in September, the year, 1803 – she was the third of six children. Her father was successful at nearly everything he attempted in those early years. From being a plantation owner in Tennessee, where he too used many African Slaves, to a Tavern Keeper, and he acquired a large enough ‘fortune’ to send Sarah to the best of schools. Her education emphasized her love of reading and did give her the gift of gab. She was known to have an astonishing ability to organize and sort out problems – this would eventually help her husband.
She met James Polk, a relatively short man, quite, and business-like. After school they fell in love immediately – but marriage would be based on one thing – they get on with a political career, together. Sarah expected James to win a seat in the Tennessee legislature, and when he did, she agreed to marriage and partnership in politics. Sarah knew James as the businessman that he was, and hardworking, a man who wanted to get ahead no matter how hard or how long it would take. Her plan worked.
James and Sarah were never blessed with children; perhaps it was something Sarah herself never wanted – and both agreed to. This would be a secret taken to their graves.
James, although thrilled that he and his wife made it to the White House – promised he would only remain for one term. Sarah and her husband worked all hours of the day and night – they retired, back to Tennessee following his four-year term. A year later James Polk died – and it is known in the history books something within Sarah died too.
After serving as his second hand in the White House, Sarah Polk became a secluded woman – a woman who did nothing. Her home in Tennessee became a shrine, a temple for her late husband. People would catch a glimpse of Sarah on Sunday when she left her house to attend church. When the Civil War broke out, she left the property and became a landlord, opening the house to Officers from both the South and North.
It’s strange, a woman without children, or the nurturing of home and family, that the only thing that brought her any comfort in her later years would be caring for a grandniece. Sarah Polk lived 41 years longer than her husband, and passed away in 1891, never asking for any help from anyone. She predicted this in her younger years; she planned it that way.
One wonders today what Sarah Polk would have been like as First Lady – acting as second in the Administration of her husband – how this would have been received and was it received then as easily as written in the history books, besides the anger of those in D.C. over the use of hard liquor.
Did Politians accept the fact that the First Lady made changes to our government? And, was she acting before our nation more like the President, himself. Did he give her the upper hand when it came to decision-making – was her love more important than the office of President of these United States.