How First Lady Sarah Polk Set a Model for Conservative Female Power

The popular and pious wife to President James Polk had little use for the nascent suffrage movement

(Photo illustration by Smithsonian.com; Photos courtesy of Wikipedia)
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In July 1848, as hundreds of women suffragists gathered in Seneca Falls to demand the right to vote and assert their right to participate in the public sphere, one prominent woman in Washington, D.C., was busy shaping the nation’s policy and guiding its direction at the highest level of government. Unfortunately for the activists, she didn’t share their politics.

First Lady Sarah Polk formed half of an unusual political partnership with her husband, President James Polk, during his sole term in office from 1845 to 1849. Despite his brief time in office, Polk had an outsized influence on American history, particularly with regard to the Mexican-American War.

As president, Polk sought his wife’s counsel on decisions, relied on her smart politicking and benefited from her popularity. Her active role in his presidency made her the most powerful woman of the era, asserts Amy S. Greenberg, professor of history and women’s studies at Pennsylvania State University and author of the new book Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk.

Religious and conservative, Polk didn’t support the suffragists’ campaign; she had no need for what they sought. Polk had leveraged her privileges as a white, wealthy, childless and educated woman to become “the first openly political First Lady, in a period when the role of women was strictly circumscribed,” explains Greenberg, whose book hits shelves amidst a wave of feminist political activism. 131 women were sworn into Congress this January and the race for the Democratic Party nominee for the 2020 presidential election features multiple women candidates.

It’s with some irony, then, that this first breakthrough in national politics would come from Polk, a figure who viewed women as subservient to men, owned slaves, created a false, populist persona and would post-White House be a stalwart supporter of the Confederacy. Over 170 years after Polk left Washington, Greenberg writes, “she set a model of conservative female power that grew and flourished in the century after her death, and which actively shapes our current political moment. Phyllis Schlafly, Nancy Reagan, and Ivanka Trump: all are political heirs of Mrs. James K. Polk.” Smithsonian spoke with Greenberg about the First Lady’s life and legacy.

Sarah Polk was the most powerful woman in the United States in the middle of the 19th century. How did she come by that power? How did that power manifest itself?

Her power would not have been possible without her reliance on the power of the men around her. We have this idea that before women got suffrage, women were not political actors. But, here's a woman who was, in many ways, super conservative. She didn't support women's rights, and she was surrounded by men who would say, generally, that they did not think that women were deserving of having the vote. She became powerful by being the exception to the rule. It was a rule that even she believed in, which was that politics was really something for men, not for women.

The other super important thing is that her husband, the president, relied on her to help him. He really pushed her to be more politically involved than she might have been otherwise. They figured out early, I think, in the relationship that they weren't going to have kids. He said to her, “Look, why would you just stay at home like these other wives do? Why don't you accompany me on my travels and help me with my political work? Read all these newspapers and tell me what you think about them.” Either because he didn’t want her to be lonely, or because he perceived that this was something that was going to help him.

What did her partnership with her husband look like?

President Polk was super unlikeable. From early on in his career, politicians around him found that they were better off communicating with James through Sarah. I found records of when she was in the White House where politicians would come to the White House and they were coming deliberately to meet with her.

She also was James’ communications director. There's all these really remarkable letters where men are writing to James, but they'll say in the letter, “If Mrs. Polk is reading this, then please convey so and so.”

While James was in the White House, he was also sick often. So, she held receptions without him, or he was too busy to hold the receptions. She became the means by which James was able to accomplish all of this stuff during his one term, even though nobody liked him and people, basically, didn't trust him. It seems to me that Polk couldn’t have successfully prosecuted a war against Mexico without her lobbying other politicians on his behalf.

Why was she so popular among Americans?

There hadn't been a beloved figure in the White House since Dolley Madison. Sarah was just immediately popular because she was extremely pious. She did a really good job pretending to be down to earth. During this time period, her party, the Democrats, were supposed to be the party of the common man. Sarah just did an amazing job presenting herself as a first lady for [the people], which she did by emphasizing her religiosity. She kept the Sabbath, which, oh my God, people loved that about her. Everything about her appearance seemed really modest.

She was very, very good at manipulating her public persona with the press by making sure that stories were printed about her work with the poor. One of my favorite early anecdotes about Sarah was that Congress allotted a tremendous amount of money for remodeling the White House, which was in serious disrepair. But Sarah let it be known that she was not an extravagant person, and so she would only take half the amount of money allotted; people thought that this was fantastic.

The reality was she was super extravagant. Personally, she spent a ridiculous amounts of money on her clothes. She wasn't interested in remodeling the White House because she would rather spend her time lobbying politicians and reading newspapers. But [the news reports] made the public think, “Oh, well we have this, actually, thrifty person. That's so fantastic.”

How did she negotiate between the masculine and feminine spheres of the era?

In a time period when the vast majority of the public believed women were only suited for the private sphere—life within the home, taking care of children, making the house beautiful and being pious—Sarah managed to amass power.

She never presented her opinions as her own opinions. She always presented herself as representing her husband. She was able to amass and exercise political power by saying to men, “Well, Mr. Polk thinks this, or that.” Or, “This is really what Mr. Polk would like to have done.” She was so good at presenting herself as deferential to the beliefs of the men that she talked to, so they knew she wasn't trying to challenge them. She worked within their system and could be an aid to them in this way.

She never challenged men, even on minor points. She always represented herself as submissive, and above all deferential. This allowed her to move back and forth between the world of women and men in a way that other women weren't able to.

Although Sarah enjoyed her political power, she didn’t support pathways like suffrage for other women to gain power. Why not?

I think it’s safe to say that she didn’t support suffrage because on some level, she just didn’t need it. She found a way to gain her political power without suffrage. In a way, there’s a hypocritical aspect to her personality, which is that she’s perfectly fine with not allowing other women the rights that she, herself, has.

If you wanted to be more generous, you could say, “Well, she didn't support suffrage because she was coming out of this extremely conservative, religiously based mindset whereby hierarchy is enshrined in the Bible.” She’s a huge supporter of slavery, and she believes that the Bible says wives be subservient to their husbands and that black people be subservient to white people. In this time period, a lot of rich, white women out there figure out that their class position is allowing them to operate in ways that our historical narrative doesn't tell us about, which is that they're able to be really powerful because they’re rich, because they’re white, and because they’re surrounded by men who acknowledge their right to exert influence in the political arena.

What role did Sarah play in championing “Manifest Destiny” and the war with Mexico?

Sarah grew up in a household where the family became wealthy by moving onto the land that was taken from Native Americans, and then farming and growing cotton on that land with slaves. She grew up believing that the way to wealth was through moving west, because this is what her family had done.

She supported Manifest Destiny from the beginning, as did her husband who grew up in a similar situation. [During the presidential campaign,] James Polk was the most explicit about claiming that God had chosen the people of the United States to expand across the continent.

While other Democrats were more restrained, about the idea of Mexico being entitled to the land that they owned, or even Great Britain having some rights on the continent, James was really out in front and saying, “No. No, America’s destiny is to occupy all of the lands that are currently being occupied by these less deserving people.” Those were Sarah's views, too. She maintained until the end of her life that one of the greatest achievements in American history was the war that her husband had directed against Mexico because it led to annexing California, Nevada and most of Arizona to the United States.

When she was in the White House she was very careful to make sure that veterans of the Mexican-American war were invited to parties and shown particular respect. While the U.S. was fighting Mexico, she had extra evening receptions at the White House, complete with military music, preferably with veterans in attendance, where she could lobby different members of Congress to continue supporting the war.

Sarah and James owned dozens of slaves. Can you talk about her time as a plantation owner?

When James ran for president, he had to conform to the views of many Americans, especially Americans who lived in the North, that slavery was not necessarily an ideal system. He maintained that he never bought or sold slaves, except to keep families together. To the extent that was true, it was only true because of Sarah. When she married James, she insisted that the slaves she had inherited from her father be allowed to stay with family members, and she wouldn't let any of them be sold away from the family.

After James died, she became the sole owner of their cotton plantation which James had bought and stocked with very young slaves, despite his claims that he wasn't buying and selling slaves. With Sarah’s help, he was buying all sorts of young people, taking them away from their families and sending them to Mississippi, which was absolutely the worst place to be a slave in the United States. The work was back-breaking, and all these people had been taken away from their families.

Sarah had a relationship to her slave property that could best be described as paternalistic. She was invested in this view that she was a “good” slave owner. Of course, in reality, she wasn't a good slave owner because she was holding these people in bondage.

Throughout the 1850s, she managed this cotton plantation herself, which forced her to come to terms with the fact that there was no such thing as being a beneficent slave owner. She ended up selling slaves away from the plantation, despite her claim that she would never do such a thing. Then right before the Civil War, she sold a half-interest in the plantation and made a tremendous amount of money by basically selling slaves en masse.

When the Civil War started, Sarah was a widow living in Tennessee. How did she behave during the conflict?

She remains in her house throughout the Civil War in Nashville because her husband's grave is there. She says she'll never leave it, so she stays when a lot of other wealthy and powerful Confederates leave.

Sarah manages this remarkable trick, which is to claim that her house is neutral territory, that she, herself, was neutral and that she was entitled to be treated with respect by everybody because she was a First Lady. Her husband had given his life to the Union, and so she needed to be treated not only with respect, but actually to get special favors from the Union army.

All of these Union generals really don't trust her and believe she's actually a dyed-in-the-wool, hardcore Confederate, which I think basically she is. They have to do what she wants because she is First Lady Sarah Polk, and she manages to actually pull this one over.

While all these Union generals are treating her with respect and allowing her to travel around and to sell cotton, despite the ban on Confederates selling cotton, Sarah is secretly working on behalf of the Confederacy. She’s not a spy, but she’s hiding valuable confederate property in the house for people who aren't as well-situated as her, sending money on behalf of imprisoned Confederates, and asking for special treatment of and leniency for Confederate soldiers. She spends the entire Civil War using her power to help the Confederacy.

What was Sarah Polk’s lasting influence?

Sarah Polk left a legacy that we still see today of conservative women who pretend to be deferential to men and use that pretense to actually amass and exercise power. I see her as the beginning of an American tradition of conservative women who, because of their wealth, political connections and power, are perfectly happy exercising rights that they're not necessarily willing to extend to other people.

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