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Friday, December 2, 2011

Book Review: Sarah Childress Polk by John R. Bumgarner

Sarah Childress Polk: A Biography of the Remarkable First Lady
by John R. Bumgarner
Paperback, 176 pages
Macfarland & Co Inc Pub
March 1997
goodreads button

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Personal collection
“Historians generally consider James K. Polk one of the most effective presidents in United States history. Many of them doubt, however, that President Polk would have been successful without the counsel of his wife Sarah. The president dominated his cabinet and trusted no one--except for his wife.
Sarah Childress Polk (1803-1891) was a highly educated woman who became President Polk’s virtual secretary and more: She critiqued his speeches, evaluated his Cabinet decisions, and worked side by side with her husband. Mrs. Polk was praised for her astute views on matters of state by both Polk’s supporters and his opponents. She outlived her husband by 42 years, and was often consulted by politicians who respected her opinions and trusted her instincts, including Confederate and Union officers in the Civil War. This is the story of a powerful and tireless first lady who became one of the most influential Americans of the middle and late nineteenth century.”

I read this book with a dual purpose – one: I was researching for my Master’s research project on First Ladies and politics and two: I’m trying to read a non-fiction on each President and First Lady. This book only somewhat met my expectations.

It should be noted that the author of the book is a M.D. – not a PhD. His previous books were related to the health of the Presidents and he originally intended this book to be about the health of President James K. Polk, however he states he found Sarah Polk more interesting. I have no problems with him being a doctor – however a lot of time was spent on medical conditions on the Polks as well as the general populace – to the point that it became distracting. Nowhere in the above description is the medical focus alluded to.

While there was great information provided about Sarah Polk – who is little written about – I felt like less time was spent on her than on her husband, or various friends and cohorts, and the above mentioned medical diagnoses. For someone who really was a remarkable First Lady you don’t come away from the book feeling that.

Also, this book could have certainly benefited from better editing – and I’m not talking about spelling and grammar. The information really needed some fleshing out – it felt barebones in many places and could certainly have benefited from transitions between paragraphs and thoughts. There is one section that comes to mind where within three paragraphs we jumped from James Polk becoming Speaker of the House, to the issue of owning slaves, to letters from family (about various subjects), and then back to the main thread. It was very choppy and certainly drew my attention away from the main topic.

As I said previously – there is not a lot currently out there still in print about Sarah Childress Polk – this was the only one I could get my hands on even through the state library system. With those constraints, this book does provide great information if you can wade through the obstacles. If you were to only use this as a reference tool and pull information from it, it would probably be fine – however as a read it is certainly lacking.

Buy the Book: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | RJ Julia 

Also by John R. Bumgarner

parade of the dead
Parade of the Dead

the health of the presidents
The Health of the Presidents

Copyright © 2011 by The Maiden’s Court 


  1. Weird! And too bad -- I confess I know very little about our presidents, nevermind our first ladies, so I've been enjoying your series of posts on them. Sarah C Polk sounds intriguing but I doubt I'd make it thru this book. I'll just keep reading you for tidbits! ;)

  2. Audra - you know, Polk wasn't really on my radar either. There is another book out there called Eighty Eight Years with Sarah Polk which I would love to find but none of the library's that I know of have it and it's not being published. I'd be interested to read that one.

  3. The most effective, and I would not have spotted his name in a crowd of others :/ Well at least now I know his wife ;)


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