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Portrait of Sarah Polk by George Peter Alexander Healy in 1846 Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sarah Childress Polk, the wife of James K. Polk, the 11th American president (1845-49), wrote no memoir and kept no diary, unlike Louisa Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams. Nor did she compose brilliant, quotable letters in the manner of the strong-minded Abigail, Louisa’s mother-in-law and the wife of the second president, John Adams. Actually, Polk rightly described herself as a “poor correspondent,” for her few remaining letters are thin and decidedly unliterary. As for firsthand accounts of Polk, they are coloured by partisan politics. She was a president’s wife, after all, and the wife of a controversial president at that. If you disliked James Polk — many did — you dismissed or denigrated her; if you admired him, you wanted to keep her sanitised, and celebrated, for posterity.

Amy S. Greenberg, in Lady First, her intriguing biography of Polk, thus faces a conundrum: whether a biographer can capture something of a subject’s personality, never mind her inner life, without primary or secondary sources to yield the small, incidental details that add up to a full-fledged portrait. Greenberg, who teaches history and women’s studies at Pennsylvania State University, partly solves the problem by drawing on social history. She argues that Polk disappeared from historical memory because she’d been implicitly erased by the writing of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, whose account of the women’s rights movement “consecrated Seneca Falls” and retrospectively elevated the reformers who participated in its 1848 convention. Obviously, Polk was not among them. Rather, according to Greenberg, she was “so powerful she had no need for women’s rights.”

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Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk - By Amy S. Greenberg, Alfred A. Knopf, 372 pages, $30 Image Credit: Supplied

Presumably, Polk wielded her great power covertly, deflecting attention from herself while manipulating men and women into believing she was just a demure, pious and apolitical wife instead of a slave-owning expansionist who also pushed for a divisive, ruthless and ultimately successful war with Mexico. Roundly condemned in its own time as “Mr Polk’s War,” Greenberg renamed it “Mr and Mrs Polk’s War” in her previous book, A Wicked War, which keenly recounts the American invasion of Mexico as a corollary to the nasty, brutish lust for territorial acquisition otherwise known as Manifest Destiny. And, as if forecasting her biography of Sarah Polk, Greenberg hailed her in that book as “one of the most powerful first ladies in history.”

That’s certainly debatable, as is the striking assertion that Polk is the foremother of such conservative powerhouses as Phyllis Schlafly, Nancy Reagan and, oddly, Ivanka Trump. But Polk was undeniably her husband’s confidante and adviser. Although he had been the dark horse of the Democrats in 1844, he became an enormously effective (though not necessarily admirable) one-term president, who almost doubled the size of the United States, created an independent treasury and cut tariff rates. Before that, as a good Jacksonian (he was dubbed “Young Hickory”), Polk had served as speaker of the House of Representatives, where his distinguished accomplishment was the passage of an unconstitutional “gag rule” to table those annoying petitions against slavery, which Northern women in particular considered immoral. He then served as governor of Tennessee. By his side staunchly stood Sarah, who had married him in 1824, when she was 20 and he a member of the Tennessee legislature — “likely at the prompting of Sarah,” Greenberg comments.

The daughter of a politically well-connected planter family, Sarah had been educated far from her Tennessee home in Salem, North Carolina, at the Salem Female Academy, one of the country’s oldest institutions of higher education for women. Intelligent, affable, attractive and rich, she inherited nine slaves when her father died and remained a slave owner as long as she could, although James Polk, before his death, suggested that if he were to outlive her, he would free the slaves on his large Mississippi plantation; if he did not outlive her, then at her death, or presumably before, if she thought it proper, “she shall emancipate them.” She didn’t, and to explain why, Greenberg discounts the president’s suggestion as a public relations ploy. If he had intended to free his slaves, Greenberg speculates, he would have talked it over with his wife, who never would have ignored his dying wish.

Sidestepping what we cannot know about Sarah, Greenberg instead provides a great deal of information about the magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book because Mrs Polk subscribed to it. Similarly, we learn about the difficulty of travelling by stagecoach from Middle Tennessee to the nation’s capital on terrible roads. (Democrats opposed federal spending on roads, bridges and canals.) We learn about the importance of the Washington salons, where women like Sarah Polk forged political alliances. We learn about the specious difference between news, which men deliver, and gossip, which is supposedly the province of women, and we learn that Polk charmingly manipulated what Greenberg calls “gendered spheres of influence.”

Unlike social history, though, biography concerns itself with the individual and her idiosyncrasies: that is, how a single subject is unlike the crowd. As a result, an element of defensiveness occasionally creeps into Greenberg’s prose, particularly regarding her many speculations or frequent use of “may have.” In an uncharacteristically awkward sentence, Greenberg explains that she will “embrace the opportunity for conjecture grounded in larger patterns of evidence.” Yet she persuasively refutes the notion that Polk compensated for not having children by inviting her nieces to stay at the White House for the entire Polk presidency. Employing a favourite device, the rhetorical question, Greenberg sharply wonders: “Having finally reached the pinnacle of political success, is it likely she would start expressing remorse for the very condition [childlessness] that enabled her to get there?” Instead, according to Greenberg, the first lady delegated to her nieces the time-wasting custom of returning social calls; that way, she was available to serve as her husband’s unofficial secretary and communications director, as she had during his entire career.

Yet the savvy woman who masked her power with demurrals was also prone to severe moral lapses. Considering herself a benevolent Christian woman who deeply cared for “her people,” Polk inherited her husband’s huge Mississippi plantation at his death, in 1849, just months after he left the White House. While vicious overseers terrorised the plantation’s slaves, its absentee mistress was deciding when to sell her cotton, and in which market, from the comfort of her Nashville mansion; the plantation turned a neat profit despite a high mortality rate, particularly among young adults, and a desperate slave uprising. “The only truly benevolent slave owner was the woman or man who freed all their slaves,” Greenberg crisply notes. And though the Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery in Mississippi in 1863, the enslaved population at the Polk plantation didn’t learn of their freedom for another two years.

Polk’s willful self-deception is linked to her ability to wield power while denying she possessed it. Certainly this was her strategy during the Civil War, when the Union Army occupied Nashville. Polk feigned neutrality or loyalty, depending on what suited her, and she successfully importuned Andrew Johnson, the military governor of Tennessee and then American president, to pardon ex-rebels or to grant such favours as being able to sell her cotton untaxed. Greenberg’s excellent chapters on Polk’s alliances during and after the Civil War reveal the fault lines in the first lady’s character without defensiveness or hyperbole: Sarah Polk, a lady first, unquestionably wielded her unequal status with a velvet vengeance.

–New York Times News Service