Tags: Presidential History | first lady | James Polk

Sarah Polk: The Causes That Defined President James Polk's First Lady

By    |   Wednesday, 24 Jun 2015 05:49 PM

Sarah Polk dedicated her life to her husband's political career and used her stature as first lady to take a pointed interest in the issues of the day.

James and Sarah Polk enjoyed a 25-year marriage that spanned a period of American expansion, as well as Polk's time as Governor of Tennessee and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. A striking woman by historical accounts, Sarah was also admired for her intelligence, wit and social grace.

A woman who grew up with wealth and refinement, Sarah received a strong education at the Moravian Female Academy in Salem, North Carolina, where she learned math, grammar, Bible study, Greek and Roman literature, geography, music, drawing, and sewing, according to the President James K. Polk Home and Museum.

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Though she left school early because of her father's death, her education and political causes were assets for her husband. She served as his unofficial secretary and was his closest confidant. Her ability to discuss the government's inner workings earned the respect of prominent politicians, such as Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson and Franklin Pierce.

As first lady, Sarah balanced social obligations with her devout Presbyterian beliefs. She wouldn't attend horse races or the theater, but kept in contact with the president's political allies. She attended the inaugural ball, but didn't dance, according to The White House Historical Association. Hard liquor wasn't served at official functions, though wine was occasionally available.

Despite these restrictions, the Polk Museum maintains that Sarah remained a popular hostess whose presence enhanced the president's influence and image.

Sarah's political role evolved based on her husband's needs. Since they were together often, there are few letters that show examples of her political skill, according to The National First Ladies' Library. As Polk's secretary, she clipped news stories and editorials, and put aside items she felt warranted the president's attention. She often served as a filter to the outside world.

Typically, Sarah stated her opinions by repeating Polk's beliefs, though she disagreed with him on the issue of a federal banking system that would issue paper money backed by funds housed in a federal reserve. Polk opposed this, and Sarah couldn't convince him that his view was outdated and inconvenient.

Sarah was decidedly pro-slavery, because her religious beliefs told her that each person's roles were pre-determined by God. This logic also fed into the Polk's shared view of "Manifest Destiny," or the belief that the United States was meant to expand through the Oregon Territory and through the Mexican-bordered southwestern area.

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Sarah Polk dedicated her life to her husband's political career and used her stature as first lady to take a pointed interest in the issues of the day.
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Wednesday, 24 Jun 2015 05:49 PM
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