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ABOUT THE WHITE HOUSE * FIRST LADIES



OUR FIRST LADIES:
18th Century
about_first_ladies_marthawashington Martha Washington
about_first_ladies_abigailadams Abigail Adams

19th Century
about_first_ladies_marthajefferson Martha Jefferson
about_first_ladies_dolleymadison Dolley Madison
about_first_ladies_elizabethmonroe Elizabeth Monroe
about_first_ladies_louisaadams Louisa Adams
about_first_ladies_racheljackson Rachel Jackson
about_first_ladies_hannahvanburen Hannah Van Buren
about_first_ladies_annaharrison Anna Harrison
about_first_ladies_letitiatyler Letitia Tyler
about_first_ladies_juliatyler Julia Tyler
about_first_ladies_sarahpolk Sarah Polk
about_first_ladies_margarettaylor Margaret Taylor
about_first_ladies_abigailfillmore Abigail Fillmore
about_first_ladies_janepierce Jane Pierce
about_first_ladies_harrietlane Harriet Lane
about_first_ladies_marylincoln Mary Lincoln
about_first_ladies_elizajohnson Eliza Johnson
about_first_ladies_juliagrant Julia Grant
about_first_ladies_lucyhayes Lucy Hayes
about_first_ladies_lucretiagarfield Lucretia Garfield
about_first_ladies_ellenarthur Ellen Arthur
about_first_ladies_francescleveland Frances Cleveland
about_first_ladies_carolineharrison Caroline Harrison
about_first_ladies_francescleveland Frances Cleveland
about_first_ladies_idamckinley Ida McKinley


20th Century
about_first_ladies_edithroosevelt Edith Roosevelt
about_first_ladies_helentaft Helen Taft
about_first_ladies_ellenwilson Ellen Wilson
about_first_ladies_edithwilson Edith Wilson
about_first_ladies_florenceharding Florence Harding
about_first_ladies_gracecoolidge Grace Coolidge
about_first_ladies_louhoover Lou Hoover
about_first_ladies_eleanorroosevelt Eleanor Roosevelt
about_first_ladies_besstruman Elizabeth Truman
about_first_ladies_mamieeisenhower Mamie Eisenhower
about_first_ladies_jacquelinekennedy Jacqueline Kennedy
about_first_ladies_ladybirdjohnson Claudia Johnson
about_first_ladies_patnixon Patricia Nixon
about_first_ladies_bettyford Elizabeth Ford
about_first_ladies_rosalynncarter Rosalynn Carter
about_first_ladies_nancyreagan Nancy Reagan
about_first_ladies_barbarabush Barbara Bush
about_first_ladies_hillaryclinton Hillary Clinton

21st Century
about_first_ladies_laurabush Laura Bush
administration_michelle_obama Michelle Obama



SARAH CHILDRESS POLK
b.1803 -- d.1891

Silks and satins little Sarah took for granted, growing up on a plantation near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Elder daughter of Captain Joel and Elizabeth Childress, she gained something rarer from her father's wealth. He sent her and her sister away to school, first to Nashville, then to the Moravians' "female academy" at Salem, North Carolina, one of the very few institutions of higher learning available to women in the early 19th century. So she acquired an education that made her especially fitted to assist a man with a political career.

James K. Polk was laying the foundation for that 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 had encouraged their romance; he certainly made Polk a political protege, and as such Polk represented a district in Congress for 14 sessions.

In an age when motherhood gave a woman her only acknowledged career, Sarah Polk had to resign herself to childlessness. Moreover, no lady would admit to a political role of her own, but Mrs. Polk 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 was helping him with his speeches, copying his correspondence, giving him advice. Much as she enjoyed politics, she would warn him against overwork. 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 sedateness and sobriety. Some later accounts say that the Polks never served wine, but in December 1845 a Congressman's wife recorded in her diary details of a four-hour dinner for forty at the White House--glasses for six different wines, from pink champagne to ruby port and sauterne, "formed a rainbow around each plate." Skilled in tactful conversation, Mrs. Polk enjoyed wide popularity as well as deep respect.

Only three months after retirement to their fine new home "Polk Place" in Nashville, he 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. The house became a place of pilgrimage.

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 in her 88th year. Buried beside her husband, she was mourned by a nation that had come to regard her as a precious link to the past.


Click about_presidents_jamespolk here to read the biography of President James K. Polk.

MD5: a4205e4e5a386b4e34b1e0508b1f30df
Original URL: http://whitehouse.gov/about/first_ladies/sarahpolk/

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