Lady first The world of first lady Sarah Polk

Amy S. Greenberg, 1968-

Book - 2019

"While the Woman's Rights convention was taking place at Seneca Falls in 1848, First Lady Sarah Childress Polk was wielding influence unprecedented for a woman in Washington, D.C. Yet while history remembers the women of the convention, it has all but forgotten Sarah Polk. Now, Amy S. Greenberg's riveting biography brings Sarah's story into vivid focus. We meet Sarah as the daughter of a frontiersman who raised her to discuss politics and business with men. We see the savvy and charm she brandished to help her brilliant but unlikeable husband, James K. Polk, ascend to the White House. We watch as she exercises truly extraordinary power as First Lady: quietly manipulating elected officials, shaping foreign policy, and dir...ecting a campaign in support of America's expansionist war against Mexico. And we meet many of the enslaved men and women whose difficult labor made Sarah's political success possible. Lady First also shines a light on Sarah's many contradictions. While her marriage to James was one of equals, she firmly opposed the feminist movement's demands for what she perceived to be far-reaching equality. She banned dancing and hard liquor from the White House, but did more entertaining than any of her predecessors. During the Civil War, she worked on behalf of the Confederacy even though she claimed to be neutral. And in the late nineteenth century, she became a celebrity among female Christian temperance reformers, while she struggled to redeem her husband's tarnished political legacy. Sarah Polk's life spanned nearly the entirety of the nineteenth century, and her legacy, which profoundly transformed the South, continues to endure. Comprehensive, nuanced, and brimming with invaluable insight, Lady First is a revelation of our eleventh First Lady's complex but essential part in American feminism."--Dust jacket.

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New York : Alfred A. Knopf 2019.
Main Author
Amy S. Greenberg, 1968- (author)
First edition
Item Description
"This is a Borzoi Book."
Physical Description
xxiii, 369 pages, 24 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, map ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 339-355) and index.
  • Preface: Mrs. Polk's 1848
  • Blackboard, maps, and globes
  • A salon in Washington
  • Communications director
  • Female politicians
  • Mrs. Presidentess
  • The power of American women to save their country
  • That fine manly lady
  • Profit and loss
  • Neutral ground
  • Influence
  • Epilogue: Love makes memory eternal
  • The Childress family
  • The Polk family.
Review by Choice Review

Greenberg (history and women's studies, Penn State) resuscitates the story of Sarah Polk (1803--91), wife of the eleventh president of the US, making a convincing argument for her as the "first politically effective partisan" spouse residing in the White House. Her influence at times involved policy matters. That included extolling the concept of Manifest Destiny, a driving force behind the Mexican-American War (1846--48) and the US's acquisition of a vast swath of land in the West. President Polk's popularity waxed and waned, but Sarah Polk's proved remarkably constant over the years, notwithstanding her close association with slavery and more nebulous identification with secession as the Civil War tore the nation apart. Somehow remaining above the fray while politically engaged through instrumentalities like the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the stern but somehow charming moralist retained her virtually unblemished public image throughout her very long life (she outlived her workaholic husband by 42 years). Arguing that her subject provided a model for antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly, Greenberg limns a woman who was a conservative political activist even as she massaged journalists and cultivated an image of unfailing modesty. Thoroughly researched and clearly presented, this biography is a study of contradictory antifeminism. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers. --Robert C. Cottrell, California State University, Chico

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by New York Times Review

LANDFALL, by Thomas Mallon. (Pantheon, $29.95.) The latest of this author's Washington political novels imagines the goings-on inside (and outside) George W. Bush's White House in 2005-6, with a romance between aides figuring as prominently as Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. ALL THE LIVES WE EVER LIVED: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf, by Katharine Smyth. (Crown, $26.) In this elegiac memoir written in the wake of her father's death, Smyth turns to Woolf's masterpiece "To the Lighthouse" for comfort and insight. Her exploration of grown-up love, the kind that accounts for who the loved one actually is, gains power and grace as her story unfolds. LADY FIRST: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk, by Amy S. Greenberg. (Knopf, $30.) Greenberg argues that Polk, the slaveowning territorial expansionist who was married to the 11th president, was one of the most powerful and influential first ladies in history. BOWLAWAY, by Elizabeth McCracken. (Ecco/HarperCollins, $27.99.) McCracken's long-awaited new novel offers a rich family saga, a history of candlepin bowling and a burlesque chronicle of American oddballs. It's a crowded book, but McCracken's ironic perspective and humane imagination never desert her. THE COLLECTED SCHIZOPHRENIAS: Essays, by Esme Weijun Wang. (Graywolf, paper, $16.) Wang draws on her own multiple psychotic breaks and hospitalizations to present a picture of schizophrenia that never reduces it to pathology. She effectively explores the state of mind she enters when gripped by an episode, recasting it as simply another form of consciousness. WE CAST A SHADOW, by Maurice Carlos Ruffin. (One World, $27.) This ingenious novel, set in a futuristic American South and featuring a father willing to go to extremes to protect his son from racism, marks the debut of an abundantly talented and stylish satirist. NOTES FROM A BLACK WOMAN'S DIARY: Selected Works of Kathleen Collins, edited by Nina Lorez Collins. (Ecco/HarperCollins, paper, $17.99.) Collins, who died in 1988, is best remembered as the first black woman to direct a feature film ("Losing Ground"). But she was a skilled writer too, and this collection, edited by her daughter, probes complex interior lives. THICK: And Other Essays, by Tressie McMillan Cottom. (New Press, $24.99.) This profound cultural analysis, a model of black intellectualism, deftly mixes the academic and the popular. DRAGON PEARL, by Yoon Ha Lee. (Rick Riordan/Hyperion, $16.99; ages 8 to 12.) Elements of Korean mythology turbocharge this space opera, in which a shape-shifting fox disguised as a human seeks her missing brother. The full reviews of these and other recent books are on the web:

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [June 2, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review

Few lists of influential first ladies include Sarah Polk, the wife of James K. Polk, eleventh president of the U.S. In this extensively documented account, Greenberg (A Wicked War, 2012) asserts that, despite her current anonymity, Polk was once the most powerful woman in America. She was held up as a paragon of her sex, despite being childless in an era of large families. She was a recognized public figure in a culture in which wives were supposed to be nearly invisible. She was known for her popular and unabashedly political entertainments at a time when government affairs were thought to be far beyond the grasp, let alone the business, of females. More social history than biography, the text traces Polk's steadily growing expertise in charming, manipulating, and exerting pressure to abet her husband's political career, which made for lasting change in Democratic Party policies. This is an in-depth, telling account of a largely overlooked woman who was able to effect profound influence while working within the constraints of her time and place.--Kathleen McBroom Copyright 2018 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Greenberg (A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico), a professor of history and women's studies at Pennsylvania State University, delivers a stellar biography of Sarah Polk, an influential yet not well-known 19th-century American woman. She argues that Polk, as first lady from 1845 to 1849, was powerful, popular, and publicly political. Liberal women supported the emerging women's rights movement, but the more conservative Polk acquired power by manipulating female deference-remaining outwardly subordinate to men-to advance her own power. Born on the Tennessee frontier in 1803, the wealthy, well-educated, religious Sarah Childress married James K. Polk, a fledgling politician, in 1824 and dedicated her life to promoting his career and the Democratic Party platform. She excelled at Washington's "parlor politics," hosting dinners and parties to foster James's prospects in Congress. Sarah managed the correspondence for his 1839 Tennessee gubernatorial campaign and his 1844 presidential run. As first lady, she supported westward expansion and the 1846 war with Mexico. Widowed, she ran the family's plantation, remaining an unrepentant slaveowner through the Civil War. Sarah Polk comes alive in these pages, with Greenberg expertly illuminating the intersections of the public and private, providing readers a refreshing new way to look at 19th-century American political and social history. This is a highly recommended work. Illus. (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Greenberg (history and women's studies, Pennsylvania State Univ.) here examines the life and legacy of Sarah Childress Polk, wife of James K. Polk, the 11th president of the United States. Mrs. James K. Polk, as Sarah preferred to be known, is almost forgotten today, but she is a subject worth rediscovering. Intelligent, well-connected, wealthy, and highly educated, Sarah discovered an interest in politics at a young age, while still in her parents' home. Her marriage at age 20 to James was a successful, companionate marriage, quite unusual at the time. They were partners in marriage and politics. When James served in Congress, Sarah devoted herself to entertaining and created a popular political salon not unlike what Dolley Madison had done a generation earlier. Sarah wielded power and influence while creating a public persona of genteel, pious deference. She skillfully maintained this carefully crafted persona throughout James's political career and into her long widowhood. During the Civil War, Sarah demonstrated her political adroitness by keeping her home in Nashville untouched by Union forces. She managed to entertain Union officers while simultaneously hiding Confederate treasures in her home. Suzanne Toren ably uses her talents for an expressive and well-paced narration. VERDICT Recommended for biography collections and anyone interested in American first ladies.--Cynthia Jensen, Gladys Harrington Lib., Plano, TX

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A sturdy biography of Sarah Childress Polk (1803-1891), who revolutionized the amorphous role of first lady while her husband, James, served as president from 1845 to 1849.By today's standards, Sarah, who preferred to be known as "Mrs. James Polk" after marrying when she was just 20, was no feministof course, women could not vote during her lifetime, nor could they own property in most statesbut she always found ways to become a force in electoral politics despite the legal and societal limitations she faced. Born into an enlightened, financially comfortable Tennessee family, Sarah received more formal education than most women of her era and became comfortable conversing about politics in rooms dominated by men who usually excluded women. She originally met James Polk through her older brother. As Greenberg (History and Women's Studies/Penn State Univ.; A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico, 2012, etc.), a leading scholar of Manifest Destiny, shows, James saw in Sarah not only a domestic partner, but also a behind-the-scenes manager for his political ambitions. His career progressed from the Tennessee legislature to the House of Representatives to the Tennessee governorship to the presidency of the United States when he was age 49. Sarah and James worked together to expand the geographic reach of their nation, waging a bloody war against Mexico to accomplish their goal. James did not desire to build a long-term political dynasty; he promised to serve only a single four-year term. After the presidency, he planned to return to his slaveholding Southern estates to increase the family wealth and enjoy his childless union with Sarah. Instead, he died the year he left the White House. Sarah lived another four decades as a slaveholding businesswomen, never leaving Tennessee even once but also never retreating into isolation. Even during the Civil War, she managed to support the Confederacy while maintaining influence with Union politicians. Though she is largely forgotten, this concise but thorough biography brings her back into the light.An illuminating study of a nontraditional female powerhouse. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Preface Mrs. Polk's 1848 History can be capricious, as the following story about two events and one exceptionally powerful woman should make clear. For the twenty-three million residents of the United States and the seven and a half million residents of Mexico, the landmark event of 1848 was the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended a twenty-month-long war between the two countries, and transferred approximately half of Mexico's prewar territory to the United States. Although the war left thirteen thousand Americans and at least twenty-five thousand Mexicans dead, and the contested status of slavery in the newly acquired territories, including California and New Mexico, was already provoking threats of secession in the South, it was recognized at the time as a remarkable victory for both the United States and that exceptionally powerful American woman. Her name was Sarah Childress Polk, and the defeat of Mexico was her reward for years of labor alongside her husband in the name of America's "Manifest Destiny." President James K. Polk, a taciturn fifty-two-year-old left prematurely aged by compulsive work habits and chronic intestinal complaints, emerged from the war admired by some but loved by very few other than his wife. Humorless and secretive, he lied to members of his own party, to Congress, and to the American people. The war was divisive; antiwar agitators across the country condemned the president for prosecuting an immoral war, and the nation turned against his political party, the Democrats. The opposition party, the Whigs, easily won the presidency that year with a war hero, General Zachary Taylor, as their candidate. But forty-four-year-old Sarah Polk, a slim, elegantly dressed woman whose vivacity, youthfulness, and ability to charm formed a perfect contrast to her husband, suffered no such backlash from the war that she helped promote. On one hand this is entirely unsurprising. An age-old set of assumptions enforced by both law and custom proclaimed women un t for public life. They weren't citizens, and they couldn't vote. If they were married, their identities were legally subsumed into those of their husbands. That even rich, well-educated white women like Mrs. James K. Polk were biologically and socially incapable of contemplating matters such as foreign policy was for most Americans an assumption so obvious as to go entirely unquestioned. Were a woman intellectually capable of engaging with affairs of state, American politics was utterly unwelcoming for the "gentle sex." Americans were justly proud of their democratic institutions, but those institutions were competitive, coercive, and quite liable to turn violent. Men physically fought over political positions, while partisans fueled by free alcohol attacked one another at the polls. The wrong political statement, put into print, could result in a challenge to a duel, or a surprise attack in the streets. Election-day riots were sadly common. This was considered no space for women. There was little debate over this point because America's men and women agreed that the two sexes were suited to different spheres. Men belonged in the political, competitive, public world of work and elections, and women in the peaceful, religious, domestic realm of children and home. Women who crossed this line and insisted on openly expressing their political views did so at their own peril. The abolitionist Grimké sisters became notorious in the 1830s for insisting on speaking in public, and were threatened with death by angry mobs. This was the reality of women's lives in 1848. Yet somehow Mrs. James K. Polk managed to stand above the constraints that bound other women. Her views on the Manifest Destiny of the United States were well known, as were her political efforts in support of her husband. Indeed, her dedication to her husband's agenda, and the fact that the two were a seemingly inseparable team, was a large part of her appeal as a First Lady. In 1848 she was the most powerful woman in America. She controlled access to her husband and helped coordinate the Democratic Party's political agenda. She managed her husband's political campaigns and negotiated on his behalf with men who understood her value as a conduit. No accident, her power was grounded in decades of work as a political spouse, her remarkable powers of innovation, a deep and abiding love of politics, and the unpaid labor of dozens of enslaved people who toiled for her in her home and on a cotton plantation. As a marital partner and her husband's closest advisor, Mrs. James K. Polk (the name she preferred for herself) helped create the office of the First Lady. Her political partnership with her husband and the manner in which she expanded the First Lady's role prefigured the activist First Ladies of our own era. Excerpted from Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk by Amy S. Greenberg All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.