Sarah Childress Polk
September 4, 1803, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee
August 14, 1891, in Nashville, Tennessee
Sarah Polk served as first lady throughout James Polk’s presidency in the years 1845-1849. She was 41 years old when she became first lady.
Throughout Polk’s political career, Sarah was actively involved in helping her husband with his work. She not only advised him, but she also influenced what he read and helped write his speeches. Sarah continued to advise Polk and serve as his personal secretary when he became president despite the additional responsibilities thrust upon her as first lady. Her strict Presbyterian religious beliefs frowned on dancing, drinking, card playing, and any activity held on a Sunday other than attending church services. She therefore set a new tone for entertainment in the White House and subsequently hosted many quiet gatherings and dinner parties centered on conversation and fine foods rather than music and dancing. In fact, Sarah had actually forbidden music to be played at her parties. Despite the more reserved atmosphere ushered in by Sarah, she is particularly noted for hosting the first annual Thanksgiving dinner at the White House, as well as opening White House receptions to ordinary people.
Sarah was more interested in politics than homemaking and handicrafts pursued by most women of her time. Before her husband was elected president, she remarked that if she became first lady she would “neither keep house nor make butter.”
James Polk noted about Sarah’s significant role during his presidency: “None but Sarah knew so intimately my private affairs. . . . She was politician, counselor, nurse, and emotional resource.”