Sarah C. Polk
Born: September 4, 1803
Died: August 14, 1891
- Sarah Polk outlived her husband by forty-two years, making her the longest widowed first lady in American history.
- James K. Polk was buried three times. Because he died of a highly contagious disease, he was buried the day after he died on the outskirts of town. A year later, he was exhumed and buried under an elaborate tomb in the side hard of Polk Place, his wife’s home in Nashville. After Sarah’s death, they and the tomb were moved to the Tennessee State Capitol grounds where they remain today.
- After Sarah’s death, she and James were moved to the Tennessee State Capitol grounds where they remain today.
- Although James and Sarah Polk had no children, Sarah “adopted” an orphaned great niece at the start of her widowhood.
- 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.
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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.
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.
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.
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Read about President
James K. Polk here.
Attended the Moravian
January 1, 1824
Married James K. Polk
Served as a Congressman’s Wife
Served as First Lady of Tennessee
Served as First Lady of the