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Sarah Childress Polk (1803 - 1891), wife of James K. Polk, was First Lady of the United States from 1845 to 1849.
The elder daughter of Captain Joel and Elizabeth Childress, Sarah grew up on a plantation near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. She was schooled first to Nashville, then to the Moravians' "female academy" at Salem, North Carolina, one of the very few institutions of higher learning available to women in the early 19th century.
James K. Polk had begun his first year's service in the Tennessee legislature when they were married on New Year's Day, 1824; he was 28, she 20. The story goes that Andrew Jackson had encouraged their romance; he certainly made Polk a political protege, and as such Polk represented a district in Congress for 14 sessions.
She accompanied her husband to Washington whenever she could, and they soon won a place in its most select social circles. Constantly--but privately--Sarah was helping him with his speeches, copying his correspondence, giving him advice. Much as she enjoyed politics, she would warn him against overwork. He would hand her a newspaper--"Sarah, here is something I wish you to read..."--and she would set to work as well.
A devout Presbyterian, she refused to attend horse races or the theater. When he returned to Washington as President in 1845, she stepped to her high position. She appeared at the inaugural ball, but did not dance.
Contrasted with Julia Tyler's waltzes, her entertainments have become famous for sedateness and sobriety. Some later accounts say that the Polks never served wine, but in December 1845 a Congressman's wife recorded in her diary details of a four-hour dinner for forty at the White House--glasses for six different wines, from pink champagne to ruby port and sauterne, "formed a rainbow around each plate." Skilled in tactful conversation, Mrs. Polk enjoyed wide popularity as well as deep respect.
Only three months after retirement to their new home "Polk Place" in Nashville, he died. Clad always in black, Sarah Polk lived on in that home for 42 years. During the Civil War, Mrs. Polk held herself above sectional strife and received with dignity leaders of both Confederate and Union armies; all respected Polk Place as neutral ground. She presided over her house until her death in her 88th year. She was buried beside her husband.