I arrived at the Polk State Historic site in Columbia, Tennessee, on a rainy January afternoon. I had become aware of the site as I drove past Columbia several times, I was looking forward to learning about James K. Polk’s presidential contribution. My guide, Debbie, who also plays the part of Mrs. Polk for the museum’s reenactments, told me the story of our 11th President as she guided me through the house.
Polk’s Early Life
James was born in a log cabin in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, in August 1795. He was one of ten children born to Jane and Samuel Polk. James was ten years old when his father wanted to move west. The family trekked some five hundred miles from North Carolina to Maury County, Tennessee, where the family settled. Today, a historical marker marks the location of his boyhood.
He was not a healthy child in the frontier of Tennessee. His frail health followed Polk his entire life. In 1816, his father, Samuel, a land agent, completed the Federal-style home in Columbia, Tennessee. James lived at the Columbia residence from 1818-1824. This is the only existing home of James K. Polk.
Polk’s mother, Jane, was alive when James became President. His father Samuel died in 1827 at age 55. All of Samuel and Jane’s ten children lived to adulthood. Jane lost three boys in 1831, and six of her children died before she did in 1852. Although she outlived her son, she never lived in the White House. Several of the Polk family members are buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Columbia.
James married Sarah Childress on January 1, 1824. Sarah was eight years younger than James. She was educated and from a prominent family in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Sarah was indispensable to James. Both James and Sarah had many relatives that lived nearby in Columbia. James’ father owned a whole block where the house is located. When Polk was away in Congress, Sarah would often dine with her mother-in-law, who lived next door with James’ sister.
Becoming a politician
In 1820, Polk was admitted to the bar and had a successful law practice in Columbia. His first case was defending his father in an assault case. Polk developed a love politics while in college. He was a gifted orator. At age 28, Polk was elected to the state legislature. Just two years later, he was elected to his first term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He held the Congressional seat from 1825-1839. While there, James mastered political persuasion and became Speaker of the House. President Andrew Jackson was a family friend and mentor to James.
The Campaign begins
In 1839, James returned to Tennessee to run for governor, and Sarah served as his campaign manager. Polk won his first election but lost the next two. Popular thought of the day was that he was politically dead. Polk’s ascent to high office would begin at the Baltimore Democratic presidential convention in 1844. The party convention was deadlocked. Polk was ultimately nominated on the ninth ballot, and the dark horse won the democratic nomination for President. The campaign against opponent Henry Clay was difficult. The Democrats distrusted the Federal Government, but Republican Henry Clay underestimated the diminutive Polk.
While resting after the arduous campaign back in Columbia, the message arrived from Nashville informing Polk that he had been elected President. He told Sarah to keep the information secret until the announcement about the Presidency was made public. The entire town was happy that Polk had been elected. Sarah welcomed all townspeople to their house to offer congratulations.
The Hardest Working Man in the United States
Polk often referred to himself as the ‘hardest working man in the United States.’ He was a workaholic. Sarah handled all the social news and occasions when they were in the White House. While Polk micromanaged the government, he did reduce taxes on imports and form an independent treasury. One of Polk’s main objectives was to expand the U.S. territory to the West Coast. In order to do this, he annexed Texas. He also offered to buy the rest of the Southwest territory from Mexico.
Polk sent troops to the Rio Grande in Texas, territory that was claimed by both the U.S. and Mexico. On April 25, 1846, Mexico ambushed some American soldiers, and Polk hurried to Congress, demanding that a declaration of war be enacted against Mexico. “Mexico had shed American blood on American soil,” he declared. This began the Mexican-American War.
After two years of fighting, the U.S. occupied Mexico City. Polk forced Mexico to sell Southwest territory to the U.S. Many Civil War generals gained their experience fighting in the Mexican-American War. The war reshaped the United States and defined the American spirit.
After his four years in office, Polk had made the executive office more powerful and acquired more territory than any other president.
After the Presidency
James and Sarah moved to the house they built in Nashville, Polk Place in 1849. James died on June 15, 1849, at age 53, after contracting cholera. He and Sarah had no children, and James’ will was declared invalid.
Upon James’ death, Sarah’s mother sends Sally, a great-niece, for Sarah to bring up. Sarah remained in mourning for 42 years until her death in 1891 at age 87. Sally does eventually inherit the contents of Polk Place, but being a woman, she could not inherit the property. Polk Place was torn down in 1901. Because of his cholera infection, Polk was buried the day after his death.
Sarah Childress Polk
Sarah defined the role of the First Lady. She was outgoing, educated, and sociable. Politicians could tell her things they wouldn’t tell James. James and Sarah were a good team. The venerable Dolly Madison was Sarah’s mentor in Washington.
Sarah lived in Nashville at Polk Place during the Civil War. There she entertained generals from both sides of the conflict. During the Civil War, both Polk Place and the Hermitage were declared neutral territory.
Sarah mourned James for four years, and it was only after that time that she received guests.
In 1888, when Sarah is 85 years old, she is asked to turn on the lights for the World exposition that was being held in Cincinnati. Cyrus Field, who laid the first transatlantic cable, ran a line to Polk Place so she could turn on the lights for the exposition.
She was the first woman in Nashville to get a telephone. When a friend got the second one, they played the piano for each other over the phone.
Polk Historic Residence
There are several original items from Polk Place, including the Hall tree and table, grandfather clock, and hall light fixture. The light fixture looks quite contemporary.
The home reflects the style of the 1840s, the era of Polk’s Presidency. Much of the furniture displayed was purchased while the Polk’s were in the White House. The wallpaper and drapes are historic reproductions. The floors are 204-year-old Poplar wood that is native to the area.
Deep red was Sarah’s favorite color. She helped design the Red room in the White House. The Piano Forte was shipped from England in 1815 to Sarah’s parents in Murfreesboro. She played beautifully. There are tall windows throughout the rooms of the home, which provided both light and airflow. The chandeliers were bought for $54 apiece while the Polks’ were in the White House.
Hail to the Chief
When the President enters a room, ‘Hail to Chief’ is played. This began because Sarah had the song played when President Polk entered a room. She enjoyed a Scottish fiddle tune, “Hail to the Chieftain,” and it became ‘Hail to the Chief.’
A unique marble-topped table was presented to Polk by the Tunisian Ambassador of Navy. The inlay was created from the ruins of Carthage. The thirty stars surrounding the eagle represented the thirty U.S. States when Polk left office. “What’s wrong with this picture?” It’s not a bald eagle pictured in the marble.
George Healy painted the portraits of James and Sarah. Polk was 49 years old in the painting. He was the first president to be under the age of 50. Polk stated that the fourteen to fifteen hours needed to pose for the portrait was time wasted.
It was Civil War photographer Matthew Brady that photographed Polk while in office. Brady also captured the first photo of the White House. The photograph of Polk had to touch up because Polk looked so haggard. Polk only took twenty-seven days of vacation during his single term.
The dining room table is set with a reproduction of the White House china. Dinner could take up to four hours and would include a multitude of courses. Sarah was the first to put the presidential seal on the White House China.
The gold frames on portraits were used to reflect the light. They were gifts from Andrew Jackson and painted by Ralph Earle. It’s odd how Andrew Jackson’s likeness crept into the paintings.
The green paint used in the study was expensive to make and also dangerous to make as it contained arsenic. Polk graduated with high honors from the University of North Carolina. He gave his entire commencement speech in Latin. James set up a small law office once he was admitted to the bar. His first case was defending his father, who had gotten into a fight in town.
In his study, you will find Polk’s right-handed writing chair and some of his books. James laid the cornerstone of Washington Monument on July 14, 1848. It was Polk that had the first postage stamp issued with the likeness of Benjamin Franklin, the first postmaster general. The Smithsonian Institute began during his term. He believed the postal service was his greatest accomplishment. Sarah had a small bed put in his office so he could nap. It wasn’t used much or at all. Polk would wear himself out with work.
The master bedroom is decorated to resemble Sarah’s room at Polk Place. Her mother stitched the Sampler. Many times a sampler will tell the family’s history. The portrait of Elizabeth Childress, with glasses, means the person can read.
The home was out of the hands of the family for many years and served several agencies. The museum opened in the 1920s by Sarah’s great-niece, Sally, and her daughter Sadie.
Within the museum you will find a number of artifacts from the Polk’s lifetime.
The residence receives about 12,000 visitors yearly. The museum is a non-profit association run through the State of Tennessee.
A tomb was created at Polk Place. Sarah was buried beside him. Years later, they were both interred at the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.