President James K. Polk Home & Museum!

James Polk

We love to tour Presidential homes and museums and learn the history behind them. I like to learn the personal history in particular. According to information we learned while touring, the 11th President of the United States James Knox Polk, while in office kept all of his campaign promises. He only was in office for one term and had the shortest retirement of any US President.

On the corner of W 7th Street in Columbia, Tennessee, across from the Visitors Center, sits the James Polk Home and next door is the accompanying museum. We stopped and toured and learned about this interesting man and his wife and family. I did not know much about President Polk and was fascinated about what we learned.

James Polk
The Polk House!

James Polk

James Polk was born in North Carolina in a log cabin in 1795. His parents were Samuel and Jane Polk. Samuel was a farmer and land surveyor. He moved the family west to Tennessee and they settled in what was then the frontier town of Columbia.

We learned that James was a sickly youth. James Polk’s health improved after what they referred to as “a harrowing surgery performed by noted Kentucky surgeon Ephraim McDowell”.

While living in Columbia, the young man became interested in politics and attended the University of North Carolina. He graduated at the top of his class. After graduation, he became a lawyer in Columbia and soon entered politics at the young age of 27.


According to the First Ladie’s Biographies “Sarah Childress had met James K. Polk when he was serving as clerk of the Tennessee Senate, a position he held from 1821, having been admitted to the bar the previous year. Anecdotal tradition claims that she teased him that they would marry only after he had been elected to political office in his own right. At the completion of his service as senate clerk, he was elected to the state legislature, in 1823, and they married the following year.”

James Polk
The Polk Dining Room is filled with original furnishings.

Our tour guide shared that the surgery that James Polk had as a young man left him sterile and that they Polks never had children. Sarah later raised her great niece and over the years the helped with raising nephews of James’ brothers.

Since there were no children, Sarah traveled with James. She had been educated at the Moravian Female Academy in Salem, North Carolina and was talented in the social graces. She was a great asset to the quiet Polk.

James served a term with the House of Representatives before becoming a state senator. He was aided in his political career by Andrew Jackson who took him under his wing. When in the Senate he rapidly moved up to the Speaker of the House position.

James Polk
This painting is in the museum.

James Polk’s Presidency

James Polk
This table was from the White House years of James and Sarah Polk.

Serving one term as a Governor, he lost two reelections. It seemed Polk’s political career was over. It seemed to be over to everyone but Polk himself! However, in 1844, Polk and his cronies were plotting. They were planning to install him as a Vice Presidential candidate. The Democratic party was split over the issue of Texas and could not choose a Presidential nominee. At the end of the day, Polk’s name was selected, as the Presidential Democratic nominee. In the end he won the campaign against Henry Clay, and Polk was elected the 11th President of the United States.

He had a vision to expand the US from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. He would do this, but it would be with great cost. The museum website states, “The Democratic party platform advocated for the annexation of Texas and the acquisition of the Oregon Territory. But critics worried that aggressive territorial expansion would lead to war with England or Mexico and disrupt the balance of power between free and slave-owning states.”

Slavery and the Polks

The change of adding states would later influence the Civil War by making states choose slavery or no slavery. The Polks owned enslaved persons themselves although religious they saw no moral issues with this and stayed away from the issue.

During their days in the White House, we learned that a lot of Polk’s power came from the persuasion of his wife Sarah. She was a wonderful hostess and helped negotiate many deals. According to First Lady Biographies, the duties of the Presidency was divided between the Polks. “The observations of others indicate that, unlike most First Ladies which preceded her, she fully shared her husband’s ambitions to rise into national politics. To that end, she became a manager of his public schedule and correspondence and an advisor to him in both practical matters and political ones.”

During his presidency, Texas joined the country as the 28th state. The Oregon Territory south of the 49th Parallel was purchased from Great Britian. After a questionable war with Mexico, they ceded New Mexico and California.

The Polk Administration also managed to lower tariffs and establishing an independent Federal Treasury.

After the Presidency

True to his campaign pledge to serve only one term Sarah and James Polk returned to Tennessee in March 1849. They returned to Nashville moving into a home they renovated known as “Polk Place.” The Presidency had taken its toll on Polk’s health. While in office he said he was the hardest working man in America. Polk died of cholera just 103 days after leaving office. Sarah went into full mourning for the rest of her life.

Touring the home was eye opening. I really enjoyed learning about this president. We have stopped at many other over the years like Rutherford B. Hayes, Abraham Lincoln’s museum and more!

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  1. Rob + Ann @TravelLatte

    We love visiting Presidential homes, and have toured many. It’s fascinating to see and learn about the private lives of these very public figures. We have not been to President Polk’s home, but are eager to visit after reading about your trip!

    1. Cindy

      We loved our visit!