cover image Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk

Lady First: The World of First Lady Sarah Polk

Amy S. Greenberg. Knopf, $30 (400p) ISBN 978-0-385-35413-4

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.)