Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

March 12, 2013

Random Thoughts: A woman who lived by her beliefs

By Dorothy Copus Brush
Chronicle correspondent

CROSSVILLE — Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of Casey Jones' birthday. The folks in Jackson, TN, are planning a celebration. They have never forgotten their hero and keep him alive at the Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum.

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Sarah Childress Polk was Tennessee’s second “first lady” of the United States. Eight years younger than her husband James K. Polk, whom she married in 1824, she was the taller of the couple and had the same capacity for hard work.      

James K. Polk was Tennessee’s 11th president of the United States. On a cold, rainy day he was sworn in as the youngest man to date, age 49, to hold the office. Sarah stood holding a fan which had been given to her. An umbrella would have been more appropriate. As John Quincy Adams remarked later, “The address was given to a large audience of umbrellas.”

Polk was a short man who always had his nose to the grindstone. His wife, though taller, had no appetite for worldly pleasures and they made a perfect couple in temperament.

Sarah had been raised a strict Calvinist. She did not dance, play cards or drink. When the Polks appeared at the Inaugural Ball all dancing stopped. The band played Hail to the Chief and after a brief appearance the Polks left and dancing resumed. Because she was the daughter of a prosperous merchant, Sarah wore expensive clothes but always in good taste. Her gown that night was a magazine blue velvet with a deeply fringed cape.

Preceding them in the White House were the fun loving Tylers. Rumor had it that they had left the place in a mess from all their entertaining. Sarah handled the problem with diplomacy. She interviewed several decorators and then announced the public rooms would receive some repair. As for the private rooms nothing would be done. If they were good enough for the Tylers they were fine for the Polks.

Two evenings each week the Polks received visitors informally because the president believed the people needed time with their leader. In his diary he noted he found these receptions pleasant and this schedule freed up the other evenings so he could work on business.

And work he did, late into the night.  He had declared publicly that he would serve one term and he would spend those four years on territorial expansion and reducing tariffs. Often he turned to Sarah to do the reading of papers that crossed his desk.

Sarah banned dancing and the serving of spirits in the White House. The couple would not accept expensive gifts and Sarah refused to accept flowers from the federal conservatory because she thought the public would think she had special privileges.

A woman who lived by her beliefs Sarah never hesitated to act. To get to Washington for the inauguration the Polks went by steamer up the Ohio River. They docked at Louisville on Saturday because of a bad storm. Sunday morn a band came aboard and started playing music for the passengers. Sarah asked that it be stopped because it was the Sabbath and the music stopped. Polk said, “Sarah directs all domestic affairs, and she thinks it is domestic.”           

As promised the Polks returned to Nashville at the end of four years and on June 15, 1849 the workaholic James Polk died there at age 53. Sarah surrounded herself by mementoes and made Polk Place a living museum. She was held in high esteem in Nashville and each New Year’s Day the Tennessee legislature called on her. She died in 1891 at age 88.

In 1893 following the sale of the Polk home the Polk Tomb was moved to the northeast lawn of the Capitol where it remains.