“Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk,” by Amy Greenberg, (Alfred A. Knopf), $30.00 hardcover, 369 pages.
Determining when the term first lady was first used to describe the wife of the United States president is open for discussion. While there are different opinions, it is generally agreed that Dolley Todd Madison, the wife of President James Madison, set the standard for first ladies. Later, Eleanor R. Roosevelt, the wife of President Delano Roosevelt, firmly defined a political activist role for her tenure in the White House. Michelle Robinson Obama was one of the most educated first ladies and the first woman of color to have the role.
Even though Americans dismiss notions of aristocratic titles and elite classes, there is that British legacy within us to find a latent fascination with actors, athletes, and politicians: our pretend royalty. Consequently, presidents and their wives enjoy a unique status, which brings with it public scrutiny. Often, the scrutiny is not pleasant and encouraging.
First ladies have their being and power because of their marriage. And they are judged accordingly. Just like presidents, there are first ladies who make historical and lasting impressions, and there are first ladies who are never remembered.
“Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk”, by Amy Greenberg, is an attempt by the author to revisit the life of Sarah Childress Polk, and place her in the pantheon of significant first ladies. In Rutherford County, Tennessee, Sarah Childress married James Knox Polk in 1824. Polk was a Tennessee state legislator and lawyer.
It was said by many of their peers that Sarah and James K. were politically ambitious from the beginning of their marriage until his election as the 11th president in 1845.
According to Greenberg, Sarah Polk brought a different energy to the White House. Being a strict Presbyterian, she banned dancing in the White House, and alcoholic beverages were not served. With all of the abstaining from frivolity and alcohol, the first lady enjoyed inviting others to parties, receptions, and dinners at the White House.
Sarah Childress Polk, like so many Southerners of her era, was a person of contradictions. She enjoyed the power and prestige that came with being wife of the president; however, she expressed no interest in the women’s suffrage movement. Being a Southern white Democrat of her time, she supported the common man over the elite, but relied upon slave labor to ensure financial solvency for her family.
Amy Greenberg shares a multi-dimensional Sarah Childress Polk with the reader. Greenberg, a scholar in 19th century America, provides the social, political, and cultural context of the Polk family. Will the name of Sarah Childress Polk be added to the first tier of first ladies? History will determine if she is a first lady to be remembered.