Reaction Weekend

Sarah Childress Polk – America’s first First Lady

Book review - Lady First by Amy S. Greenberg

BY Gerald Malone   /  17 May 2019

James K. Polk, President USA, 1845 – 1849. The name caught my eye because – ignoramus – I had never heard of him. Shame on me that many mid 19th century US one term Presidents are terra incognita.

There’s good old John Tyler 1841 -1845; oh, yes, then unforgettable Zachary Taylor 1849 -1850 (shorter term than Theresa May); and we can never overlook the thrusting Millard Fillmore 1850 – 1853; or Franklin Pierce 1853 – 1857 (played in the iconic movie starring Mel Gibson, “Who the Hell was Franklin Pierce Anyway”?

Particular shame that I knew nowt about James K Polk. Why? Because he was the President who in one term increased the land mass of the USA by 40%; successfully fought the controversial Mexican War of 1846; turned the country into a truly continental nation, bagging Texas, New Mexico and California, while driving the still annoying Brits – they took as long to leave America in the 19th century as they’re taking to leave Europe in the 21st – out of Oregon and up to the Canadian border.

Never mind “Again”, James K. Polk was the President who originally made America “Great” and laid the foundations for the world economic and military superpower we are familiar with today. And he did it in four years. Talk about implementing an election agenda.

Think Brexit. It’s 1,060 days since the people’s vote of 2016 instructed the government to leave the EU. What’s happened? Zippo! President Polk was in office for 1,460 days and rebuilt his nation. May, meet Polk!

But polite society America is ashamed of him because expansion was achieved through the catalyst of the Mexican War, provoked by Polk in a contrived dispute over an “alleged” Mexican incursion over the Rio Grande. Familiar? Weapons of mass destruction, anyone?

So, in these politically correct times, when slaughtering natives, invading neighbours and stealing territory is slightly #metoo outmoded, President Polk is conveniently glossed over.

Not that the growing cult of apologists for crimes past – it’s easy to apologise for the past while screwing up the present – seem keen to hand back Texas, California or New Mexico to the original custodians anytime soon. Oregon was snaffled by a treaty forced on the Brits by threat of war, so that’s all right then. But don’t expect a Polk statue to be erected on a U.S. university campus near you anytime soon.

I’m grateful to Amy S. Greenberg for relieving me of my ignorance by writing an excellent book (it’s not really a biography) on the life and times of Polk’s wife, Sarah Childress Polk, Lady First. No, the title’s not a publisher’s egg on face inversion. And it’s as much about the tumultuous second half of America’s 19th century as it is about Sarah Polk. She is Ms. Greenberg’s prism.

My thanks to The New York Review of Books – a must-read for anyone wanting to bullshit about obscure books without actually going to the trouble of buying them – whose review of Ms. Greenberg’s Lady First caught my eye.

I know what you’re thinking!!! How could you? Heaven forfend! This is no cheapskate piece based on their review. I bought it. Amazon delivered it. I read it. Twice. Lovely hard back edition, with the pages artfully simulating hand cut.

Central to Ms. Greenberg’s thesis is the point that although Sarah Polk was indeed the “First Lady” during her husband’s presidency, pioneering that role for successors, she perforce had to be a lady first. The Polks were from Tennessee. In that era, especially in the American South where women still played fourth fiddle, although Sarah was powerful politically she could never overstep the boundaries dictated by received social mores.

Throughout her 60 odd years of political influence she was always a southern lady first, but cannily exploited what others misconstrued as a supine position to enhance her influence without sticking her head above the parapet.

The Polk period is a turning point in the making of modern America. From it flowed the tensions between north and south that led to the Civil War; the tinder-box of race relations, ultimately spawning the Jim Crow laws of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, eventually addressed by President Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 Civil Rights Act; and, the Ku Klux Klan. I’d forgotten it was founded by southern Democrats!

Lady First largely ignores the sweep of history and focuses on granular detail – the social interactions which largely explain the nagging paradox; why did the nation of the Statue of Liberty, new-stretching from sea to shining sea, tolerate overt discrimination well into the second half of the 20th century?

The opening chapters are frustrating. Ms. Greenberg admits up front that not much of Sarah Polk’s correspondence survives, yet takes us on a day-to-day detailed narrative – clearly fiction.

The assumptions come thick and fast; “Sarah must have thought”; “Sarah probably started the sunny day with a coffee”; “Sarah said, ‘Alexa, what’s the weather in Murfreesboro today’ and slipped a cartridge of Decaf into the Nespresso machine”. Well, maybe not.

But the first 100 pages are a bit breathless, conjured too much from Ms. Greenberg’s fertile imagination, which detracts from the factual and fascinating narrative of her husband’s successful campaign, elected first as a Congressman for Tennessee and the role she played as his de facto election agent.

It’s when the fiction is abandoned and the facts dominate that this book get’s into its stride, becomes a “must read”. Representative Polk became Speaker of the House, abandoned Congress to become Governor of Tennessee, then endured his Churchill wilderness years before gaining the Presidency in 1845.

Through this period Sarah was heard but not seen, building an enduring social network of Washington contacts while helping to sustain the family fortune, unapologetically based on the southern slave economy.

President Polk died prematurely in June 1849 from cholera, only six months after demitting office. The second chapter of the Sarah Polk story begins. Ms. Greenberg argues that her political influence as a former first lady endured until her death in Nashville in 1891.

She performed a high wire balancing act during the Civil War, when she outwardly supported the Confederacy – her duty as a former First Lady – but harboured deep sympathy for her Southern relatives, friends and neighbours.

In her latter years she became a celebrity among female Christian temperance reformers. In her White House drink and dancing were taboo, yet she entertained and exploited Washington’s tight knit political society more than any predecessor – with the possible exception of Dolly Madison.

This book is at its strongest when shining a light on the unconstitutional, yet potentially influential, role of First Lady. Over the 240 years of the Republic they have come in all shapes, sizes and characters; independent operator, Eleanor Roosevelt; dazzling socialite, Jacqueline Kennedy; stalwart and silent, Lady Bird Johnson; interfering, eye averting Hillary Clinton; enigmatic fashionista, Melania Trump.

Sarah Childress Polk is either an exemplar to them all, or undermined democracy by creating a powerful, unaccountable office of state for herself that endured beyond her husband’s term in office. Take your pick. I’m always surprised that the USA, where the constitution and the rule of law are seemingly so venerated, tolerates the shape-shifting role of “First Lady”, going so far as to define it by title. Then again, maybe it’s just down to personality and what First Ladies make of the cards they are dealt.

Ms. Greenberg clearly does her homework. Almost as entertaining as the narrative are the accompanying 40 pages of notes and 20 page bibliography: “A Most Unpleasant Part of Your Military Duties; Military occupation in Four Southern Cities 1861 -1865,” by Anne Karen Beeler; and “The Duty of American Women to Their Country”, Catharine Beecher 1841, I pluck at random, to give a flavour of the deep trawl Ms. Greenberg has undertaken to research her book. No local Tennessee rag newspaper is overlooked.

This book is brilliantly conceived, well constructed and flowingly readable, pace the occasional gripe over fictionalising. The casual reader with a broad interest in American history and current affairs – me – will gain much from its sweep of the century. The hard-bitten academic will ignore the tittle-tattle I enjoyed and dig down to the sources Ms. Greenberg has assiduously scoured. Something for everyone.

Unelected, First Ladies have potential to wield soft power. Any new arrival in the Lincoln Bedroom – presuming they are the First Lady – should read this book to find out how. Now, what else has Ms. Greenberg written? Ah, yes, Manifest Manhood and The Antebellum American Empire. Here goes.