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  • Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk by Amy S. Greenberg
  • Allison Dorothy Fredette (bio)
Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk. By Amy S. Greenberg. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019. Pp. 369. Cloth, $30.00.)

With Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk, Amy Greenberg has crafted an engrossing, revealing, and surprising portrait of a little-known and lesser-understood first lady. Widely hailed as one of the most popular and well-liked women of her time, Sarah Childress Polk is a name that few would know today. (Using her preferred name, Mrs. James K. Polk, would scarcely help things, since the one-term president himself has fallen out of favor since his death in 1849.) Greenberg sorts fact from fiction, throwing aside many previous hagiographies, and instead roots her story in a firm knowledge of the past. As a result, her book is more than the story of Sarah Polk; it is a history of Tennessee settlement and politics, femininity in the nineteenth century, the last battles of the second party system, and the relationships between white southerners and the slave system. Yet Sarah Polk, complicated and intelligent, remains at the center of it all. Greenberg’s Sarah Polk is powerful—shaping her husband’s policies and decisions, selecting with whom he socializes and what he reads, and assisting with his campaigns—but she does it all by using “deferential politics” to hide her true role (xxiii). As Greenberg states, her story is a pivotal addition to the history of first ladies and the development of women’s political power in the nineteenth century.

Lady First begins with a broad look at Sarah Childress Polk’s family, including her father, Joel Childress. Among the early white settlers to Tennessee, he was a complex man. Convicted of “felonious slaying” by Judge Andrew Jackson, he was branded with an “M” on his hand (10). Yet he was also an intellectual who sent all of his children, regardless of gender, to be educated at the finest schools in Tennessee and North Carolina. Greenberg describes Sarah’s education at two very different academies— Abercrombie’s School in Nashville and the Salem Female Academy of North Carolina. Writing for a popular audience, Greenberg deftly describes Sarah’s experiences while also connecting her story to the larger historical literature on female education in the nineteenth century, as well as gendered expectations for southern women. It is a skill she uses throughout the book. [End Page 269]

After her father’s untimely death, Sarah returned home to Nashville. At the age of twenty, she married James Polk, a “reserved young man” widely considered to be a rising star in the community (23). Greenberg spends the next six chapters detailing James’s ascendance up the political ladder, from congressman to governor to president. At each step, Greenberg makes clear how pivotal Sarah was to James’s success. During his runs for governor, Sarah served as his de facto communications director; she answered letters, forwarded information, and printed and distributed speeches. During his presidency, the pair retired to his office each night, where Sarah would review papers alongside James, marking articles she wanted him to read. But her most lasting impact may have been in shaping the social role of the political wife.

When Sarah arrived in Washington as a congressional spouse in 1826, she stepped into a “domestic power vacuum” (42). The most recent first ladies either had elected not to entertain at the White House or were unable—and their husbands had suffered as a result. Sarah Polk understood instinctively the value of “parlor politics”—using social spaces to conduct government affairs—and she began hosting parties at the couple’s boardinghouse. Her ability to navigate different social circles and charm both men and women served her husband well, especially as Andrew Jackson’s contentious term began.

Greenberg skillfully demonstrates the subtle but important ways that Sarah Polk continued to influence party politics and national policy during her time in the White House. For example, Sarah Polk foreshadowed the ways in which contemporary first ladies make sartorial statements. For her husband’s inauguration, she chose a...