Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sarah Polk

Sarah Polk grew up in a wealthy household in Tennessee. At the age of 15, Sarah and her sister were sent to a Moravian school in which Sarah and her sister were taught the strict morals and piety of the Moravian church. Her religious upbringing impacted her greatly, but I don’t believe she became a born again Christian until later in life.

On a journey to Washington DC in 1833, when James Polk was in the House of Representatives, James and Sarah stopped for the night when a meteor shower occurred. Sarah was wide awake watching the display in the sky and she was terrified for her life. She was sure the end of the world was imminent!

a meteor shower

The very next year, 1834, she joined the First Presbyterian Church on 4-and-a Half Street in Washington DC and from then on she conducted herself with confidence in regards to all manner of her life whether it be for this world or the next. Although I haven’t found a biographer to make mention of her experience of being saved, I believe Sarah Polk truly was. What else would change a woman from cowering in fear for the end of the world to a confidently pious woman other than forgiveness from Jesus Christ?

Every Sunday morning she would put on her shawl and bonnet, ready for church, and ask her husband and whatever friends he had visiting to come with her to church. (Eventually, political friends stopped their Sunday visits or left before she could ask them to go.) Sarah banned hard liquor, dancing, and card playing in the White House. Dancing “would be respectful neither to the house or the office.” She would not attend horse races or be escorted by men other than her husband. When she was traveling by boat on a Sunday she asked that no music be played.  She was frugal with her money allotted to her to fix up the White House and for entertaining (much to Julia Tyler’s frustration!)

Sarah was also a partner with James in the political world. Sarah would much rather sit and talk politics with the men than retire with the women to the parlor. Sarah read the newspapers for her husband and marked the articles necessary for him to read. James did not consult with his cabinet often since he consulted with Sarah so much. They had no children which freed up Sarah’s time to be involved. She also let the kitchen and the other staff in the White House be in charge of the entertaining. She did not bother to instruct them but let them do their thing.

James promised to be a one term president and he stuck to his word. He died only three months after the end of his presidency at his home in Nashville. Sarah had him buried in a monument of a tomb in the yard. Sarah lived for 42 years longer than James.

James Polk's grave

I would love to tell you that Sarah did wonderful things with her long widowhood, but, frankly, her life was dull after James died. She did raise her niece and when her niece married they continued to live with Sarah. But when I say she raised her niece, the niece lived in the home and Sarah paid for a nurse to care for her, and for her schooling. Sarah did attend church and faithfully read her Bible, but didn’t do much else.

Literally half of the biography I read, Memorials of Sarah Childress Polk by Anson Nelson and Fanny Nelson, were about the latter half of her life and was entirely things like, “a group of young school boys visited and Sarah talked to them about her time in Washington…” and “once she received a letter from such and such a wealthy man praising Sarah for her high morals and lovely character” and “she gave a fancy watch she had to the daughter of a General she admired.”

Sarah Childress Polk

She remained publicly neutral during the Civil War, entertaining officers from the North and the South when they passed through Nashville. Sarah’s land in Mississippi was destroyed during the war including her cotton and she lost all her slaves, but it did not totally devastate Sarah like Julia Tyler was financially devastated. Perhaps because Sarah made a habit of always spending less than she earned and also had far less people to support than Julia did.

Sarah Polk died in 1891 and this biography was written in 1892 so the biographer lacked opportunity to see how Sarah Polk was treated or remembered in history. But on the other hand, her death came 42 years after her time in the White House and what she did in the White House was all Sarah ever did publicly.  I wonder if a biography written today would look any different.

I guess I would sum up Sarah Polk as admirable in character and her love for the Lord, but I was hoping there was more she would have done in her retirement years. She seems so boring after the dramatic and flirtatious Julia Tyler. (Although it was "good-boring" since we are talking about real life here!) She had a little of Abigail Adams about her, with her intense interest in politics, but she lacked Abigail’s big mouth. She was like Dolley Madison in that she was free from raising children which enabled her to put her whole self into her husband’s politics. But part of the beauty of studying the first ladies is seeing how each first lady is different in themselves and different in their executing of the role for both their time in the White House and the time out of it.

1 comment:

  1. Great comparison between Sarah and the other First Ladies!