Sunday, September 04, 2011

Sarah Polk's Birthday

Today is the birthday of Sarah Childress Polk, First Lady of the United States from 1845 to 1849. She was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in 1803 to Joel Childress, a prominent planter and merchant, and Elizabeth Whitsitt Childress, and educated at 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. Sarah married James Knox Polk when she was 20.

"In an age when motherhood gave a woman her only acknowledged career, Sarah Polk had to resign herself to childlessness," says her White House biography. "Moreover, no lady would admit to a political role of her own, but Mrs. Polk found scope for her astute mind as well as her social skills. 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."

She is credited with requesting that "Hail to the Chief" be regularly played for the president during his entrances, though it had been played on occasion for previous presidents. Historian William Seale posits that Sarah Polk was concerned the President Polk "was not an impressive figure, so some announcement was necessary to avoid the embarrassment of his entering a crowded room unnoticed."

Sarah Polk outlived her husband by 42 years, passing away in 1891.

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