Schooled in the Triad: Sarah Childress Polk, Salem College

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sarah_polk_0003by Brian Clarey

This one’s a love story.

Salem College had already been around for 45 years when young Sarah Childress came in as a freshman. It was 1817, and not too many women got to go to college back then; Salem College was one of the only institutes of higher education for them.

But it was back home in Murfreesboro, Tenn. that she met the love of her life, James K. Polk, who would eventually preside over one of the most troubling presidencies in US history.

On the advice of Andrew Jackson, Polk took Sarah as his wife and brought her to Washington DC, where after turns as a representative from Tennessee and speaker of the House, with a few years back in his home state to serve as governor, he was elected president in 1844.

Sarah, 41 at the time, was something of a dour first lady. She allowed no alcohol, gambling or dancing in the White House, and did not dance at her husband’s inaugural ball. They called her “Sahara Sarah.”

While her husband still served in the House and his old friend Jackson was president, she became embroiled in what became known as the “Petticoat Affair.” It was a domestic White House scandal involving Sen. John Eaton of Tennessee and his wife, the former Peggy O’Neil, who worked in her family’s boarding house before marrying the senator. Both were widowed at the time, but the Washington social set thought that O’Neil had not waited the right amount of time before remarrying. The women divided into factions, with Second Lady Floride Calhoun leading a group that gave O’Neil the Mean Girls treatment. Sarah was one of the few Washington wives who would associate with O’Neil.

It’s crazy — Jackson lost his entire cabinet over this.

Polk served one term as president, and died just three months after returning to Tennessee with his wife, still the shortest retirement of any US president.

Sarah, widowed at 41, wore black every day for the rest of her life and rarely left her home in Nashville, Polk Place, where she died in 1891.