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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ranking Sarah Childress Polk

A few weeks ago we looked at how Dolley Madison has been ranked among First Ladies of the United States – this week I would like to take a look at Sarah Childress Polk – the wife of the 11th President, James K. Polk. Unlike last time, I have very little information from the Siena Research Institute (SRI) on her behalf.

Sarah does not fall in the top 5 or the bottom of any of the individual categories: Background, Value to the Country, Intelligence, Courage, Accomplishments, Integrity, Leadership, Being Her Own Woman, Public Image, and Value to the President. But I would like to explore a few of these a little more based on some of my own research.

Sarah was one of the few pre 20th century First Ladies that received any sort of formal education. At her time (1845-1849) college was an unheard thing for almost all women – however she was educated. Sarah attended the Moravian Female Academy, Abercrombie School and Daniel Elam School. I would say that this should give her some credit in the Accomplishments category.

In the category of Value to the President I would have to say that she should have been very highly ranked. From the various articles that I have read about her and from the book Sarah Childress Polk by John R. Bumgarner it is fairly clear that James Polk relied on her immensely. She not only was his secretary but also screened correspondence, met with cabinet members and proofread his speeches among other things.

In terms of Public Image at the time she was very well respected and loved by the American public. She was one of the first women to be given franking privileges (free postage). After her tenure in the White House she was visited every year by the member of the Tennessee legislature on New Year’s Day. While she kept her political views and the aid she gave her husband very low key, she was very popular.

Researcher Robert P. Watson (who has written many works on the First Ladies) conducted his own poll, the Watson Presidential Scholar Poll in 1996-1997 and his results place Sarah number 6 in the Top Ten First Ladies. The SRI poll results are as follows:

Overall Score:
1982: 22nd
1993: 20th
2003: 10th
2008: 26th

I would be more willing to personally place her somewhere close to the 10th-15th position. I can see why she might be placed in the mid twenties – the presidential terms close to the Civil War are frequently overlooked by scholars and many don’t know much about Sarah – so in that regard I am surprised she is even in the twenties.

Copyright © 2011 by The Maiden’s Court


  1. Interesting post. Polk is not a President I remember extensively, so his wife was completely off my radar.

  2. Jenny - I don't really know too much about Polk either - but his wife was very very active in his career. The story goes that she wouldn't agree to marry him unless he agreed to run for the legislature!


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