History of Sarah Childress

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.

Historical Fan at the James K. Polk Museum

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.

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