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Tennessee Votes to Keep Polk’s Grave Where It Is. For Now

A resolution to move the grave from the capitol grounds in Nashville to one of his boyhood homes failed by one vote

James K. Polk. Oil on canvas. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the James Knox Polk Memorial Association of Nashville and the James K. Polk Auxiliary of Columbia, Tennessee)
smithsonian.com

The 11th president of the United States is staying put, at least for the time being. Yesterday, Andy Sher at the Times Free Press reported the Tennessee House of Representatives voted whether or not to allow James K. Polk’s body and that of his wife, Sarah to be moved from the capitol grounds in Nashville to the James K. Polk Home and Museum, some 50 miles south in Columbia, Tennessee. But the resolution, Senate Joint Resolution 141, received only 49 of the 50 votes needed to move it forward.

Why the hoopla over the final resting place of the late president, who has resided on the capitol grounds for 125 years? It depends on who you ask. Richard Fausset at The New York Times reports that supporters of the move claim they want to honor the terms of Polk’s will. They also claim that in its current spot the grave is often overlooked, and moving the remains to the Polk home will increase the visibility of the former POTUS.

According to Fausset, Polk’s corpse has already been on the move a few times. When he died of cholera in 1849 at the age of 53, a Nashville city law required that cholera victims be buried at the municipal cemetery. A year later, his remains were transferred to his estate, Polk Place, located a few blocks from the state capitol. There he remained while Sarah was alive. But following her death in 1891 came a legal bump in the road.

Polk's will had stipulated that following Sarah's death the estate should be placed in trust and administered by the state. He also decreed that the state must allow a blood relative to live there. As Bill Carey at The Tennessee Magazine explains, however, that “established a perpetuity,” which was illegal. Some of Polk’s heirs filed lawsuit to successfully contest the will. After they won, Polk Place was sold, and in 1893 the Polks' remains were moved to their current resting spot on the capitol grounds.

Since Polk Place was subsequently torn down, the legislators wanted to move the Polks' remains to the house in Columbia, built by Polk’s father, where he lived as a young man between 1818 and 1824. Thomas Price, the curator of the James K. Polk Home and Museum in Columbia tells Chas Sisk at NPR that he doesn’t believe Polk wanted to be buried in Nashville, specifically, but at a place he was familiar with and loved.

The sponsor of the bill, state senator Joey Hensley, argues that Polk’s current resting spot is not ideal for visitors. “I honestly served up here 14 years and had never seen the site,” he tells Fausset. “It’s not handicap accessible. It’s not really talked about much when they do the Capitol tour. Not many people visit it. It’s just not a very good place to honor his legacy.”

But critics of the move says it’s just a way to drum up tourism. Fausset reports Andrew Jackson’s burial site and home, the Hermitage, is just 10 miles east of downtown Nashville and draws most historical tourists.

Teresa Elam, a very distant relative of the childless Polk says she objects to the move, especially since their bodies have been buried in the capitol grounds for over a century now. “I just have a lot of bad feelings about disturbing the grave,” she tells Sisk. “But also, taking him out of Nashville, which he truly loved. In his will, he wanted to stay here.”

For now, at least, Polk will stay in the city. The controversy does put a renewed spotlight on Polk. Campaigning with a promise just to serve one term, the former governor of Tennessee was elected in 1845 as a "dark horse" candidate. A noted workaholic, in four years, he achieved his four principal goals—cutting tariffs on imported goods, establishing an independent U.S. treasury, and and expanding U.S. territory to stretch from coast to coast. The aggressive land policy ultimately led to the Mexican-American War, which waged from 1846 to 1848.

During his presidency, Polk also established the U.S. Naval Academy, the Interior Department and the Smithsonian Institution. For accomplishing his campaign promises, he consistently appears in the top dozen presidents as ranked by historians. But his reputation has also come under fire by critics—including Ulysses S. Grant—who point out that the Mexican-American War was an unjust conflict and that Polk’s annexations and expansion in the southwest gave more power to pro-slavery politicians.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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