Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk by Amy S. Greenberg

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Biographies of American First Ladies tend to be similar to almost clone-like degrees, pictures of “petticoat power” wielded exclusively behind the scenes and with varying degrees of noise or scandal attached, depending on how well the First Lady in question meshed with the social power structure that has been morphing and changing and running things in Washington since the first moment Abigail Adams exceeded her cold meats budget and had to test the White House’s credit with the wives of local merchants.

But the main reason First Lady lives tend to adhere to the same basic pattern, argues Penn State Professor of History and Women’s Studies Amy Greenberg in her fascinating new book Lady First, is because First Lady Sarah Polk, wife of the nation’s 11th President, created that pattern in the first place. She married James Polk in 1824 and was his personal and political partner for decades before their stay in the White House from 1845 to 1849. They were married for 25 years and had no children, and long before they came to Washington, they had developed a working relationship based on the personal respect and trust James Polk extended to nobody else in his life. He was a bitter, pinched, carping, petty, secretive, obdurately evil man, and in every way she tempered him and bettered him and provided him with the kind of wide-ranging social network he was utterly incapable of forging on his own.

She was, in other words, politically active, in ways that are taken for granted in modern times but that scarcely had any exact precedents in her own day. As Greenberg states with unblinking bluntness: “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.”

Sarah Polk didn’t tilt against those assumptions out in the open; she was no public firebrand, and Greenberg does a vivid job of tracing where and how she exercised her sway behind the scenes. According to Greenberg, she “understood the symbolic power of her position in a manner that her predecessors had not,” and Lady First is a marvelously knowing excavation of that understanding. In many ways, the book doubles easily as a portrait of Democratic wheeling and dealing in Antebellum America.

James Polk died in 1849, thoroughly unmourned (as Greenberg reminds her readers, he was not only the youngest man to become president but also now the youngest to die). “Elizabeth Blair Lee met with friends who were ‘not very tender of Mr. Polk,’” Greenberg writes. “She, for one, felt ‘sorry’ for Sarah, whom she knew to be devoted to James. But for James, she expected ‘few will mourn deeply.’”

As Greenberg writes, again with the eloquent directness that runs throughout the book, “The depth of Sarah’s bereavement defies easy description.”

Lady First follows Sarah through the nearly half-century she outlived her husband, and it’s a testament to Amy Greenberg’s narrative abilities that this long anticlimax is every bit as interesting as the years of power. This is the biography Sarah Polk has deserved all these years and never quite until now received.

—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.