Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk
The nation’s 11th first lady should be more widely remembered, said Peggy Burch in the Knoxville, Tenn., News Sentinel. “A natural politician in an era when women couldn’t even vote,” Sarah Childress Polk perfected the art of wielding power while seeming to defer to men. In Amy Greenberg’s new biography, James Polk’s Tennessee-born wife emerges as the backstage impresario who turned a dour, widely disliked congressman into a president who was able during his single term to double the size of the U.S., a goal close to her heart. She shone at salons and receptions, facilitating political conversations while always presenting herself as merely a dutiful helpmate, or, as one admiring 1850 magazine profile effused, “a sweet exemplification of lowliness.” To Greenberg, she was, for better or worse, the avatar of an enduring type of powerful conservative woman.
That last point is “certainly debatable,” said Brenda Wineapple in The New York Times. But Sarah Polk was “undeniably” a political partner to her husband. Born in 1803 to a well-connected planter family, she called Andrew Jackson “Uncle Andrew” and was 20 when she married James in 1824. The couple never had children, but they created a substantial legacy. Greenberg casts them as slaveholding expansionists who promoted Manifest Destiny and, after annexing Texas, provoked a war with Mexico that led to the U.S. acquisition of California, New Mexico, and Arizona. Such territorial additions boosted the value of the dozens of slaves on the couple’s Mississippi plantation, which Sarah inherited after James Polk’s 1849 death in 1849.
When civil war arrived, she played her hand cannily, said Walter Borneman in The Wall Street Journal. Having moved from the White House to a Nashville estate she and James had planned together, she pledged herself a supporter of the Union while using her connections to win favors for family members below the Mason-Dixon line. She wore widow’s black for all of the 42 years she lived after the death of her husband, who, judging by the letters he left behind, considered her his equal. Whatever the reader’s opinion of her politics, “she was all that and more.”