The First Lady to our 11th U.S. President, James K. Polk, Sarah Childress was born September 4, 1803, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Her parents were Joel Childress and Elizabeth Whitsitt. Her father was a well-known merchant, planter, and land speculator, and was able to give his six children, of which Sarah was the third, exemplary educations for the time and place where they lived.
Sarah attended the Moravian’s Salem Academy in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was a very prestigious school, and she was exceptionally well-educated for the daughter of a southern planter.
Sarah was considered pretty and vivacious, with long black hair, brown eyes, and an olive complexion. When she was young, she wore her hair parted in the middle, with ringlets on the side, as was the fashion of high society ladies of the day. However, she did have a prominent overbite, which caused her to draw in her lips to try to hide it, and she often came across as having a disapproving expression, even when she was being happy and carefree.
She met future president James K. Polk when both were students of Samuel P. Black in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He was 19 at the time, and she was 12. Polk was intrigued by the spirited beauty, but he waited several years to begin courting her. In fact, when Andrew Jackson was president, he knew the Childress family, and encouraged Polk to court Sarah, calling her “wealthy, pretty, ambitious, and intelligent,” all considered admirable and desirable qualities in a political wife.
James Polk and Sarah Childress became engaged in 1823, and got married at Sarah’s parents’ home on January 1, 1824. She and James never had children of their own, but they were not without children in their lives. They raised one of James nephews, Marshall Tate Polk, as his official guardians. After James died, Sarah became the official guardian of one of their orphaned nieces, Sarah Polk Jetton, and raised this niece as her own child.
When James became president in 1845, Sarah jumped into her First Lady duties with enthusiasm. Not only did she host social events at the White House, as First Ladies were expected to do, she advised James with crafting his speeches, and even gave her input on policy. James respected his wife’s intelligence and opinion so much that her input was taken seriously, and meant something to him. She was one of the first First Ladies who was really active in the political side of things at the White House.
She was also very protective of her husband’s health, as it was never robust. During all of his political roles before he became president, and especially after, she was there, urging him to not take on too much work. She was vigilant about him overworking himself. And, while she was lively, charming, and excellent at making interesting conversation, she created a more somber atmosphere at the White House than Washington locals were used to.
This was because of her strict Presbyterian upbringing. As First Lady, Sarah banned card games, hard liquor, and even dancing at official White House receptions. The ban on dancing was especially stunning to those who had been around Washington, D.C. for a while because dancing had always been a traditional part of those gatherings. Sarah did not even dance at the Inaugural Ball. She also refused to participate in traditional First Lady pastimes, such as horse racing and the theater.
Because of these restrictions, the social affairs put on by the Polks were much more subdued than previous administrations. Her seeming ban on fun earned her the nickname “Sahara Sarah.” However, while Sarah banned many things from her White House gatherings and receptions, including hard liquor, she was not opposed to wine. In fact, the diary of a Congressman’s wife who attended a four-hour dinner at the White House hosted by the Polks says there were six glasses around each plate, each glass for a different type and color of wine or champagne, so the glasses, when filled, formed a rainbow around the plates. “Sahara Sarah” wasn’t quite so dry, after all.
Sarah Polk has the distinction of hosting the first official American Thanksgiving dinner at the White House.
After James’s one term as president was up, he and Sarah attended successor Zachary Taylor’s inauguration, then left via horse and carriage for their new home in Nashville, Tennessee, which they called “Polk Place.” However, James died three months after arriving there, giving him the distinction of having the (thus far) shortest retirement of any former U.S. president. Sarah was granted the newly approved Congressional pension of $5,000 a year for widows of former U.S. presidents.
Sarah lived quietly in Tennessee, with her wards and other relatives nearby, until the Civil War, a little over a decade after leaving the White House. During the war, she remained officially neutral in her position, in order to preserve her relationships with friends and relatives on both sides of the conflict. However, her Union sympathies were clear with all of the Union officers of high standing she hosted at her home during the war, including future U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant.
Sarah lived 42 years after her husband and lived at Polk Place as her primary residence that entire time. She has, to date, the longest retirement and longest widowhood of any former First Lady. She never re-married after losing James, and she wore black as a symbol of her mourning for him for the rest of her life. She died August 14, 1891, at age 87, and was buried next to James on their home’s land in Nashville. However, the two were later moved and re-interred together on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol.
Sarah outlived at least six of the First Ladies who came after her. Only eight First Ladies have lived to older ages than her, and most of them have been modern ones, in office since 1950. Sarah Childress Polk was truly a remarkable woman.