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First Lady

By: Claude R. Marx
April 3, 2019

irst ladies have an almost impossible job. They are expected to be supportive helpmates to their husbands but only to a point—if they stray too far afield and become targets for the press, they can become a political liability. Sarah Childress Polk broke many rules and established many of what we now consider the First Lady’s proper roles. But since her husband, James Knox Polk, is not in the pantheon of great presidents, his wife’s contributions are frequently overlooked.

Amy S. Greenberg, a professor of history and women’s studies at Penn State, wants to change that. Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk, might well mark the beginning of a renewed interest in the country’s ninth first lady. Sarah Polk was born into an affluent and politically connected Tennessee family and given a more thorough education than most of her female contemporaries. She was shaped by her devout Presbyterian and Christian reformist outlook. Sarah was a voracious reader who was fascinated by public affairs and might well have sought office herself had she been born later. Instead, she married a rising political star and used her emotional intelligence, political acumen, and charm to help him reach the White House.

James Polk was a smart, introverted man who was a capable—if uninspiring—politician. He was a state legislator, U.S. Representative, Speaker of the House, and Tennessee Governor who cared about humanity but wasn’t all that fond of people. Greenberg makes the argument that without Sarah, his career would have been far less successful.

Lady First never becomes hagiographic, despite Greenberg’s obvious admiration. She is a better scholar than storyteller, but Lady First will likely become the standard against which future biographies of Sarah Polk will be judged. Greenberg contends that Sarah “managed to stand above the constraints that bound other women.” In  addition, she “laughed easily and was an engaging conversationalist. Even her husband’s enemies liked her.” Those traits were invaluable in her informal role as her husband’s secretary. She was especially responsible for his correspondence and some of his press relations. At a time when politicians had few staff members, she did the work we now divide between two or three aides. She had regular access to her husband and helped with patronage dispensation. Her frequent receptions and parties gave her access to political intelligence and helped smooth some of her husband’s rough edges.

When James Polk was Speaker, Greenberg notes, “Sarah’s entertaining was only possible because her husband was suddenly at the center of power, but it’s also true that James remained at the center of power because of Sarah’s success at entertaining.” This sort of political activity became more commonplace among some 20th and 21st Century first ladies such as Helen Taft, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Hillary Clinton, but Greenberg reminds us that their examples show just how much of a pathbreaker Sarah Polk was. On the downside, Greenberg shows how Sarah came across as rigid and self-righteous. But those traits didn’t seem to hurt her effectiveness.

By summarizing and quoting from many of Sarah Polk’s own letters and those of contemporaries, Greenberg paints a verbal portrait of a shrewd politician whose outward charm belied a backbone of steel. The correspondence is enlightening and Greenberg contextualizes the narrative by citing additional source material such as women’s magazines from the mid-19th century. She notes that one such publication argued that women should be seen primarily as behind-the-scenes and reticent help-mates “designed by providence.” But Sarah Polk didn’t follow that advice and Greenberg shows how she used the outward appearance of deference to her husband as a way to deflect attention from her powerful role.

The Polks were loyal Democratic slave owners who favored a limited role for the federal government. The nation’s divide over slavery made the era’s politics especially contentious. In the 1844 presidential election, James Polk was anything but a top tier candidate. He had been out of office for four years, having lost two gubernatorial races. But the various top-flight contenders cannibalized each other and were unable to overcome regional disagreements.

James Polk did not receive any votes for the nomination until the eighth ballot at the party’s convention in Baltimore. He won his majority on the 9th ballot. He defeated the Whig candidate, Kentucky’s Henry Clay, who was a masterful legislator, orator, and one of the most distinguished politicians who never became president. Sarah Polk resurrected her previous campaign roles and, according to Greenberg, “embraced her moralizing image, but made no effort to conform to the ideal of the good housewife during the presidential campaign.”

The major event of the Polk presidency was the Mexican War, which many people, including Greenberg, contend was unjust and the cause of many wounds that eventually culminated in the Civil War. She criticizes James Polk throughout Lady First. And she reiterates her arguments, made more expansively in her previous books, that he knowingly lied in order to precipitate the war and that he sought to add Mexico’s territory to the United States mostly in order to expand slavery’s reach. Those are debatable assertions. Readers wanting a more favorable perspective on the Polk presidency would do well to read Robert Merry’s Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent (2009).

Sarah Polk favored expanding the nation’s boundaries and because of her religiosity was a believer in Manifest Destiny, which was a guiding principle behind the war and the country’s westward expansion. Greenberg notes: “As a woman and a Christian, Sarah’s manifest role was as peacemaker. But if God, quite legibly, called for the expansion of the United States, and she knew the value of the West—to the poor, to women, and to the nation’s security—who was she to reject the possibility that war might bring on a greater, lasting peace.” Greenberg, who has written two books on Manifest Destiny, would have made her discussion more effective had she spent more time on the theological underpinnings of westward expansion.

James Polk promised to serve only one term as president and he kept his word. He died of cholera three months after he left office. Sarah Polk lived another 42 years. She spent her time building up her husband’s legacy, successfully managing the family’s plantation, and lending her support to social causes such as temperance. During the Civil War she declared herself neutral and welcomed military leaders from both sides to her home but later admitted that her sympathies were with the Confederacy.

In promoting her husband, Sarah Polk praised the addition of California, New Mexico, and Texas that came out of the Mexican War. “The country was advanced by those acquisitions, and has ever since reaped benefit from them,” she said. She also acknowledged, however, criticisms of her husband by noting that the president’s “judgment may have been impugned, but not his honor.”

Greenberg dismisses Sarah Polk’s contention that the country was more approving of the war as “wishful thinking.” But she concludes that her subject was a righteous, successful, and trailblazing woman.  Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk is a valuable contribution to the scholarship on first ladies and should help renew interest in one of the more important, if lesser known, presidential wives.