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tv   Washington Journal  CSPAN  June 1, 2015 12:02am-1:37am EDT

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>> you are watching american history tv, all weekend, every weekend on c-span3. to join the conversation like us on facebook at c-span history. american history tv is featuring c-span's original series first lady's influence and image at 8:00 p.m. est on sunday night throughout the rest of the year. c-span produced this series and cooperation with the white house historical association. through conversations with experts video tours of historic sites and questions with the audience we tell the story of the 45 first ladies farenthold, margaret taylor and abigail fillmore on influence of image.
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>> sarah polk was very up on diplomacy and her strong suit happened to be intelligent political discussion. she made no bones about the fact and she really took an interest in politics and that she was her husband's partner. she grew up in a political household in tennessee. her father was a local politician. so she grew up loving politics. she married james after he won a seat in the legislature because she would not have married him if he'd been content to be a clerk. unfortunately for james k. polk, he died just three months after leaving the white house and sarah began a 42-year widowhood. polk place became something of a shrine to her husband and she
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would invite anybody who wanted to come for a visit to see the objects that they had collected throughout their long and illustrious political career. she lived there for many years on her own and during the civil war generals on both sides would come and visit her to pay their respects to her. that's a very interesting commentary on what a beloved status she still held. >> she was, you know, earnest about her husband's work. she went to every post she could go to within. she went through that arduous journey. the hardships were terrible; they really were. she was very well liked in the diplomatic community. they had met all kinds of people, friends and enemies, and others, and they had to make things work and things work out. they were very experienced people. frankly, they were more sophisticated than what was around them. >> she very much felt that women should develop their minds and cultivate scholarship as much as men, pretty path-breaking at that point in our history for a first lady to do. >> we know today that first ladies have causes. literacy and reading would have been abigail fillmore's cause.
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this bookshelf was part of the first white house library. >> she much preferred her tie to a room with a good book than standing in a receiving line making mindless chatter. >> we know that abigail was a very wonderful seamstress. we do have her quilt here, a very colorful quilt called the tumbling block pattern. >> she was one of the true intellectuals. she loved reading. she was very caught up on politics and liked very much being a part of all the cultural accoutrements that came with living in washington. ms. swain: welcome to c-span series "first ladies: influence & image." in this program, we'll meet three first ladies; one, her husband's trusted political adviser. the next, a steadfast general's wife; and the third, a teacher who established the first white house library. they served during the 1840s and early '50s as the country continued to grow and tensions continued to mount over the issue of slavery.
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to introduce us to sarah polk, margaret taylor, and abigail fillmore, we have two historians at the table. meet conover hunt, an author and historian, and an expert in historic preservation. and paul finkelman is a historian and a legal scholar based at albany law school. he's the author of a biography of millard fillmore. welcome to both of you. mr. hunt: thank you. mr. finkelman: thank you. ms. swain: well, james k. polk is sometimes described as the least-known influential president. would you agree with that and why? mr. finkelman: well, he's certainly not very well known and he's certainly important. when he was nominated for president, he had no public office.
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he had twice lost the governorship of tennessee. before that, he had been a one-term governor. and before that, he had been a member of congress. so, he was a lawyer practicing law in tennessee, and he was what is known as the dark-horse candidate, the first dark-horse candidate. he had hoped to get the vice presidential nomination. that's what he was pushing for. and suddenly in a deadlocked convention out of nowhere, polk is the presidential nominee. most people don't know who he is. he becomes president and almost immediately puts us in a position to have a war with mexico. he pushes for the war. he is prepared to declare war on mexico and in fact sends troops including zachary taylor who will be the next president. he sends zachary taylor to the mexican border in an area that's completely disputed that all international laws says belongs to mexico, but polk's says is american land. and while taylor's troops were there, he goes to his cabinet that and they vote on a saturday afternoon to ask for a declaration of war against mexico. that night, he gets a message because it takes a long time to get information from mexico to washington. that night, he gets a message that taylor's troops had been in combat. and so he rewrites his message to congress saying, "american troops have been killed on
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american soil." abraham lincoln would later give a speech known as a spot speech in which he would say, "show us the spot where it took place," because it wasn't on american soil. so, he gets us into war with mexico. we acquire mexico. all of this is very important. it also means the complete blow-up of all of the sectional compromises and pushes the country headlong into what would ultimately be secession and civil war. but we don't know anything about him. ms. swain: well, and his wife is also on frequently -- when you do modern historical surveys of influential first ladies, his wife was always on the top tier. mr. hunt: always. ms. swain: why is that? mr. hunt: she was truly a political partner with her husband. they did not have children at a time when women were expected to be mothers, and hearth and home, the keepers of the faith. but she was very much her husband's political equal and his partner. she never went too far within the boundaries of what a proper victorian or early victorian lady should be in the 19th
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century. but everyone knew that they shared an office in the private apartments. she was active in discussions at the many state dinners they had. and he would ask her to mark newspapers and articles for him to read. she was a sounding board. franklin pierce become he became president told her that he -- told her husband that he would much rather talk politics with sarah polk than with james polk. and yet the women of the time accepted her. she was very pious, very religious, a very strict presbyterian. she did not allow dancing in the white house. she got rid of hard liquor.
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but they had wines and, of course, and brandies with the frequent dinners they had. and she was not a prude, but she was very much a woman who knew what she wanted and set her rules out and everyone had to play according to those rules. and she was respected for it. she was very, very popular. ms. swain: well, to introduce you to the polks by video, we're going to take you to the polk ancestral home. the house that the polks lived in together no longer exists but this historic site contains much of the history of the family. we'll take you there next. >> >> this is the inaugural fan. it's an incredible piece of history. it was a gift from president polk or president-elect polk to his wife, sarah. she carried it with her on the day of his inauguration. it's gilt paper with bone styles ornately carved and it features the lithographic images of the first 11 presidents from washington all the way through james k. polk. she carried it with her
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throughout the festivities of the inauguration in the spring of 1845. the back is as beautiful as the front and features a lithographic image of the signing of the declaration of independence. the polks came into the white house a young vibrant couple but
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amidst a democratic party that was widely split. it was one of the reasons why james k. polk said he would run for a single term only and then step down. so, sarah polk used the white house and her time as the president's wife to enhance her husband's political prestige. dining in the polk white house was a serious affair. twice a week on tuesdays and fridays, mrs. polk would entertain 50 to 75 people coming to dinner. the china that they used was beautiful. the polk china is considered some of the most beautiful of the white house' china. it features the presidential seal embossed along the side band. the dinner set is white embossed with gold. they had a tea set that was blue, and they had a dessert set in green. you'll often read that mrs. polk didn't allow alcohol in the white house, that her presbyterian upbringing precluded that from happening. it's not exactly the case. she stopped the serving of whiskey punches at public levees in the polk white house but wine was one of their largest bills during their years there. one of the more interesting objects in the collection sort of speaks to sarah and her ability with music as well. we have a music book that has handwritten notations and one of the songs featured inside is the song "hail to the chief," which she of course is credited with starting as the official presidential anthem during her time as first lady. ms. swain: well, i wanted to ask about that "hail to the chief" because a little controversy has erupted between our last program with the tylers who are also claiming that they introduced "hail to the chief," and the polks who as you can see make it part of their history. is there a definitive answer on that? do either of you have it?
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mr. hunt: i won't touch it. [laughter] mr. finkelman: i don't care. ms. swain: you don't care? there you go. mr. finkelman: it came about in the 1840s. ms. swain: yes. mr. finkelman: it's possible that the tylers used it and the polks then confirmed its use. it's kind of antiquarian silliness to worry about something like that. there's so many more important things to talk about. ms. swain: you drew the contrast with julia tyler who brought dancing to the white house, who ended their -- her brief tenure, eight months as first lady, by throwing a huge party as they left the white house. was sarah polk more in touch with the times? mr. hunt: sarah polk was -- historian william seale calls it an imperial presidency. meaning, that the couple thought the office of the presidency and the white house as the official executive residence needed to be highly respected. and so there was more formal protocol and so on. the -- it was a very liberal approach. you could come with an introduction to any of their receptions, because polk was a democrat.
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but at the same time, she dressed. he dressed. people were well dressed. there were more formal dinners. there were multiple courses. and it was considered an honor to be at the white house. basically sarah polk said, "dancing at the white house is not dignified." ms. swain: and she was known for her frugality. does the president still making a $25,000 a year salary and expenses for the white house events have to be paid out of that salary?
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but how was her frugality seen by the washington and american public? mr. hunt: i can do that. mr. finkelman: i want -- i want a turn to take that one. mr. hunt: she reorganized the staffing at the white house. and sarah polk was a very well-organized woman. and what she did was she hired a sort of a steward. they brought in their own servants and got rid of the some of the paid staff at the white house. she then got her steward to cut deals with the various vendors grocers, and so on in the washington area. and if they gave them significant discounts, they would give them the royal seal as it were. and so, they say... ms. swain: so, the first endorsement by the white house right? mr. hunt: by her majesty's whatever. you know, it's the american version of that, but kept rather quiet. but if, you know, if you want us to buy all of your rolls for all of our white house dinners which were a lot, then by god, you're going to have to give us a discount. and it worked. and they were very, very frugal in that way, always, during the entire time they were married. ms. swain: and just to clarify when you say she brought in her own servants, these were slaves? mr. hunt: yes. they did have slaves. mr. finkelman: i was about to say she owned those servants. and that's important to understand that they come -- the polks come from very wealthy circumstances and they are slaveowners. and they bring a lot of assets
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with them. so again, they can afford to be president just as john tyler could afford to be president. ms. swain: and we have a quote from her and i'd like to have you put this into context. she writes, "if i should be so fortunate as to reach the white house, i expect to live on $25,000 a year and i will neither keep house nor make butter." that the echoes of modern first ladies and baking a cookie right? finkelman: almost like hilary clinton and the cookie. mr. hunt: right. it's actually -- for someone -- the context of it is someone some had said "i think i'll vote for mr. clay," his opponent in the president, because they say that his wife keeps a good house and makes her own butter. and that was sarah's retort. the -- and by god, she did live on the $25,000 a year and she did not keep house. she ran a house. and she did not make butter, but she made sure that butter was made efficiently and that the place was run like a top ms. swain: it looks like you have something you want to say about that? mr. finkelman: well, i was just going to say slave mistresses don't make butter unless they
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choose to make butter because they enjoy the handicraft of making butter. and it's important to see this both for sarah polk and for margaret taylor. ms. swain: and i want to tell folks that this is as always an interactive program. you can see we're working facebook comments and tweets in already. we also want to take your telephone calls and we'll put the phone numbers on the screen. and we'll begin at taking your phoned-in questions as well throughout our program here on our three first ladies we're featuring on this part of our series.
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you know, dolley madison has been an element of our series from the very beginning and this is dolley's last hurrah. mr. hunt: yes, it is. ms. swain: what was dolley madison's role with the polk white house? mr. hunt: dolley madison's role was of course she has come back to washington. and sarah polk and dolley became very close. and dolley mentored sarah. and sarah also fed dolley. ms. swain: which was important because she was... mr. hunt: which was very important. ms. swain: she was very, very broke at that time. mr. hunt: treated her as the grande dame and honored her in all of their entertainments. they were the -- the two war
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first ladies, the war of 1812 and 30 years later, the mexican war. there are many, many parallels between dolley madison and sarah polk -- the sense of self, the sense of fashion, the understanding the role of the first lady in conveying the, you know, sort of indirect that would support her husband's presidency. and by the way, it's not easy to be a first lady during war. there were many, many detractors as the war went on. the -- but, i mean, polk went in and said "i'm going to do the following things in four years" and by god he did. ms. swain: this is also in the 1840s the first time we have had photography. mr. hunt: yes. ms. swain: and we've got a fabulous photograph to show you on screen right now which brings together a number of these characters all in one place. here is -- are the polks and there is dolley madison, the second from the screen right with her turban as we've been seeing her so often.
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mr. hunt: yes. ms. swain: and we have an opportunity here to see harriet lane who served as a white house hostess later on, and sarah polk and dolley madison with james k. polk. photography as a political tool, how do politicians absorb this new technology and begin to use it for benefit? mr. finkelman: well, they're just beginning to figure this out. and you really don't get it i think until the 1850s and maybe the 1860 election when photography is everywhere.
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now, it is almost a novelty in the 1840s and it's not all that terrific. first of all, you have to sit for a long time. it's not a single-shot click and your picture is there. you have to actually sit there rigidly and not move while the photograph is being taken. so i think they are moving towards photography. what's much more important i think than photography is still the very sophisticated linotype and the sophisticated art in newspapers so you get a wonderful campaign posters that are being done from what when polk runs for example, currier who later becomes currier and ives, does a campaign poster for polk's opponent, henry clay "justice to harry in the west" is a picture of henry clay. so, they are using that kind of technology. photography i think, you probably want to save for the fillmores and beyond. ms. swain: we also have the first known photograph of the white house in this time period which we're going to show next. and we are i should say working with the white house historical association throughout this series. so as we look at this white house in 1846, i think that's the date on this photograph, sarah polk brought some innovations to the white house -- central heating and gas lighting. mr. hunt: well, she didn't actually bring them. let's say they arrived. and central heating and gas lighting, she did hold out when they put in the gas lights and insisted that the oval room at the white house be left with candlelight. and when they turned on the gas lights, of course when they shut down the gas for the night, the whole white house during a reception went dark and yet the oval room was still lit with the beautiful candle lighting. there were experiments, but it ultimately saved the presidential family a lot of money because they had to heat the white house out of that $25,000 salary. and so these efficiencies did come in, starting with the polk's, well earlier but mainly the gas.
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ms. swain: central heating in the white house must have been a great innovation. mr. hunt: central heating in the white house must have been a joke. i don't think... ms. swain: why do you say that? mr. hunt: i don't think it would have been very warm. ms. swain: i had to be better than the alternative, though? i mean... mr. hunt: right, yes. yes. mr. finkelman: well, you wonder though because a nice warm fireplace in the right room keeps that room warm.
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ms. swain: true. mr. finkelman: again, what we're -- what you're getting at which is always true for the white house, for every presidency, is that technology is going to change the way presidents campaign, the way presidents portray themselves, and the way presidential families live. notice by the way, you just had a picture of polk up there. he's sitting there very stiff like this because that's what you had to do when you were getting a photograph taken. i just saw a picture of john kennedy giving a speech with his fist in the air and you can almost see the fist shaking in the photograph. you couldn't do that in those days.
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ms. swain: so we have no sense of personalities so much in these photographs? mr. finkelman: in fact we get a bad sense of personality because what we get is that these people are absolutely stiff and frozen and have no personality. they are dead. mr. hunt: well, they used a brace to keep them still. mr. finkelman: they -- yes -- they're not smiling. you don't smile in these pictures because it would be too hard to smile that long. ms. swain: gary robinson asked on twitter, conover hunt, what was sarah's educational background that allowed her to be so politically savvy and an equal to her famous husband? mr. hunt: one of the most advanced educations for a woman of her day. her father was a great believer in educating women. she and her older sister were educated at academies in murfreesboro, nashville, and then he sent them to the salem academy in winston-salem, the famous moravian school which is salem college today. it's 500 miles away. it took them a month to get there and they were there for two years. but she was unusually well educated for her time. and i think that atmosphere encouraged her to speak her mind and participate in discussions. she grew up in a political household. ms. swain: this next question on twitter is one that we'll answer by video, dave murdock asked: did sarah's frugal ways also prevented her from lavish gowns and fashions, and did the american people see her as frugal? let's watch this video, again back at the polk historic site.
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and then, we'll talk with you about this because you've done some work on sarah polk's gowns. let's watch. >> how sarah looked was important to her, and i think certainly from the standpoint of how she looked and how she was perceived by the public. but i think she saw it also as a reflection on the presidency itself. she was known for having beautiful dresses and looking incredible in a white house that was equally beautiful. the blue dress is called robe de chambre. it was purchased in paris, france in 1847 by mrs. polk and worn by her late in the administration. it's basically a robe. it would be the undress-dress costume of a first lady. if she was taking visitors before she was properly dressed, this is the dress that she would wear. the white dress is a ball gown also made in paris, france, a high-end fashion for the 1840s v-cut in the center. it was a style that mrs. polk used again and again. we get the indication that she found a style that she liked and thought she looked good in and sort of kept with it. but it's a beautiful gown in silk and satin. it has a great deal of lace attached to it as well. and mrs. polk again, always a frugal woman that she was, often purchased dresses and then would buy a great deal of material to go along with them so she could enhance them and change the way that they looked. so instead of having to buy five or six gowns, she would buy a single gown and then buy extra material to make them look differently. mrs. polk was a master at accessorizing. she had a wonderful collection of handbags and purses and reticules. and then of course her jewelry was of the american mode in the 19th century. it was thought to be rather un-american for women to wear precious gems and semiprecious stones. instead, she would wear a gold and silver, french paste, and enamel wear. her headdresses are unusual. they're incredibly rare. so, few of these headdresses have survived from this time period because they're made out
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of silks and satins they tended to get worn out. but we have a wonderful collection of headdresses. and then one unusual piece, a turban which by the 1840s would have probably fallen a little bit out of fashion. but of course, dolley madison was still alive during the polk administration and was a regular visitor to the polk white house. we wonder if sarah polk didn't adopt that style after mrs. madison. ms. swain: conover hunt is the author of this cover story in the white house history magazine which is published by the white house historical association showing that you've done a lot of work on sarah polk's approach to fashion and what that symbolized for her. what can you tell us about it? mr. hunt: she had a well-established sense of style from her childhood. she grew up with silks and satins. during the white house years, of course she dressed elegantly for evenings and receptions. but in the summer of 1847, they sent an order to paris for some gowns for the first lady, which was not the usual style, and all of the invoices survived, and so do the gowns, which is amazing.
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sort of the top designers in paris were asked to make some gowns for mrs. -- for the first lady. and this were hugely done by a commercial agent that they had. jacob l. martin was the agent in paris. and so, he got the order and immediately found his good friend, madam moulton , quote "good friend", who went around the paris shops and they found a shop. madam manoury made three gowns which you've -- one at the smithsonian, is another of the pink one and the robe de chambre, and the blue gown at the smithsonian survived. but it was very unusual for her. now, this order for clothes, lots of accessories, cost about $450. dolley madison's order in 1811 costs $2,000.
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ms. swain: wow. mr. hunt: to give you an idea. ms. swain: $2,000 in dollars of those days? yes. mr. hunt: the pink gown that you saw, it was -- had more lace on it which has now taken off, but that costs $100. the blue -- the green gowns were about $25 made by seamstresses in washington. but of course, the fabric would have been extra. ms. swain: so, she was trying to find that sweet spot between frugality and image? mr. hunt: but she did it so well. everyone said that she was beautifully dressed. she had beautiful deportment. she carried herself like a lady, acted like a lady and was very gracious. ms. swain: paul finkelman, at the same time we're learning about sarah polk and her sort of modern approach to being a political partner, what's happening to women at large in the united states? 1848 is the seneca falls convention. mr. finkelman: right. ms. swain: so what's going on with women overall? are they beginning to ask for more presence, power in society? mr. finkelman: well, the 20 or
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30 people at seneca falls are. and it's important to have some perspective on what is happening to women at this time. for most american women, not much is changing and not much is being asked. the most important changes for women, the cutting edge of women in politics, is actually coming out of the antislavery movement. so that in the north, you have thousands and thousands of women who are politically active really for the first time in american history. in the -- starting in the 1830s, there's -- which is known as the "great petition campaign." and literally hundreds of thousands of petitions show up in washington asking congress to do things like not annex texas because it was seen as a great slave conspiracy, which it was to repeal the fugitive slave law, to end slavery in the district of columbia. and many of these petitions were gathered by women and many women signed these petitions. so what you get is women actively participating in politics to change america for the better.
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the other great women's movement is the temperance movement and women are very active in the temperance movement. they're active in movements to prevent prostitution. and these are things that are, of course, are close to what would be considered domesticity for women, but it's outside the house. it's out in the public space. and what's fascinating is that someone like sarah polk probably with the exception of temperance would have been appalled at what most of these activist women were asking for. eventually, of course, in about 1848, some of the abolitionist women along with a few men such as frederick douglass who's at the 1848 convention are asking for the right to vote for women. and that of course is a long time in coming, but it's beginning at this time. ms. swain: ted is on the phone from jackson, mississippi. hi, ted, what's your question?
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caller: hi, yes. i'd like to know -- i'd like to know who ran against james k. polk when he was running for president. and did sarah polk play a part in getting her husband elected? ms. swain: thanks very much. mr. finkelman: well, polk runs against henry clay of kentucky and clay had run for president twice before this. clay believes it's his turn to become president. he expects it will be a cakewalk to the presidency because no one's heard of polk. but clay makes a number of mistakes during the campaign and in the end in a very close vote, clay loses to polk. oddly enough, clay carries polk's home state of tennessee, but polk carries new york which has the biggest number of electoral votes. and when he carries new york that puts him into the white house. mr. hunt: yes. the issue of a presidential campaign at that time is very different from what we see today. it was considered proper for the
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candidate to be called to office. the campaigning -- active campaigning went for state offices like the governor. but the candidates did not show up at the nominating conventions. and afterwards, when they were drafted and they accepted the nominations, there were letters sent to the editor but very little stump... mr. finkelman: no stump speech at all yet. mr. hunt: no stumping at all. sarah was her husband's campaign manager for his congressional campaigns and his gubernatorial campaigns. but during the presidential campaign, it was very much basically a lot of them said "whatever you do, don't say anything." [laughter] mr. finkelman: when polk ran for congress, he would canvas the district. and when he ran for governor three times, winning once, he
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went all over the state of tennessee as no other candidate had before. so, one wonders what was going on in polk's mind when nominated for president, he had to sit home and essentially do nothing except write a few letters. ms. swain: next is a question from mary in little rock.hi, hi, mary, you're on. caller: hello. i heard somewhere that barbara bush is related to the polks and she used their dinner service while her and george bush was in the office. is that true? mr. hunt: i don't know. mr. finkelman: i'm clueless. mr. hunt: good question. ms. swain: well, as our series progresses -- mr. hunt: yes. ms. swain: especially as we get to barbara bush we will answer that question for you.but we're going to go back in time now and learn about how that political partnership came together. you told us that sarah polk was from a wealthy family. mr. hunt: yes. ms. swain: in tennessee. how did she and james k. polk meet? mr. hunt: they ran in the same circles, probably through either through andrew jackson or through her own father's family. polk went to the -- graduated from the university of north carolina and then went into law
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and studied in nashville and became clerk of the legislature. and they met there or they met at andrew jackson's because the polk girls were often at the jacksons' home. the -- certainly jackson is known or we think that he advised polk to marry her. "this is who you need as a wife," he would say. and then it is commonly said that she told polk she wouldn't marry him unless he ran for office. but -- and of course he did and he won, and they were married in 1824. ms. swain: so andrew jackson played something of a matchmaker here? mr. hunt: he and his wife rachel did not have any children of their own and had many, many different young people that they took in. jackson would write to sarah and call her "my daughter." ms. swain: and patricia coniglio on facebook asked, is it true that a nickname for sarah polk was the "spanish madonna"?
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mr. hunt: yes. ms. swain: and where did that come from? mr. hunt: that was because she had extremely dark hair and olive skin and they thought that she looked european, exotic. ms. swain: now, the jacksons had no children, but actually sarah and james k. polk also had no children. what was the impact of having -- being freed up from housework and not having to do that, and her ability to become a political partner? mr. hunt: well, i think they breezed into that through the years when they realized they weren't going to have children. by the same token, they spent a lot of time with nieces and nephews. and sarah as first lady brought her nieces into the white house to help her with entertaining and returning calls because she did not return calls. the first lady -- as first lady, she did not do it, and -- which was a change in tradition. but -- and then when of course she was a widow, she had a niece and then a great niece who lived with her. ms. swain: james... mr. finkelman: can i also add, though, that had they had children, she would have had slaves who would have raised the children, who would have done
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all of the diapers. she might have slaves who would have been wet nurses when the children were very -- when the children were infants. so, the notion of the burden of families for someone like sarah polk would be very different than, say, when we talk about abigail fillmore who is a woman of very modest means, and in fact has to raise her own children without the help of a house full of slaves to do the work for her. ms. swain: so sarah and james come to congress here in washington. what is washington like at that time and how involved was she in listening to congressional debates? and -- mr. hunt: she was very actively involved. he went for his first term in the congress without her and never tried that again, because she didn't liked being left at home and all. so she would go and it was often at that time the congressmen lived in a boarding house and established what they called a "mess," several different elected officials living
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together and sharing meals and a parlor, and so on. and they did that for years until he became speaker. and then they had to have larger apartment. but she attended the sessions of congress. she was very, very, you know attentive to the issues of the day. and the elected members of congress knew who were in the mess with her, knew that she was a very tuned-in congressional wife. ms. swain: james k. polk makes it to speaker of the house. how has that happened? mr. finkelman: politicking. mr. hunt: yes. mr. finkelman: i mean, he's a very good politician in the house. the first time he runs for the speaker of the house, he loses. and he loses to a man who would later run for president in 1860. and then in the next time around, he manages to win. part of it has to do with jacksonian politics. polk is jackson's man in the house of the representatives. and so, when jackson has a strong majority in the house polk gets to be speaker of the house. ms. swain: we have throughout our history seen the ascendancy of the presidency, the ascendancy of congress. at this point in our history which branch of government has more power? mr. finkelman: i would say congress.
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ms. swain: so being the speaker was important? mr. finkelman: now, being the speaker is not as powerful as being president, and we should understand that. but in terms of the politics of america, more i think is happening in congress than in the presidency. i should add, however, that andrew jackson is an extraordinarily strong and dynamic president who pushes the envelope of the presidency and really alters the dynamics of the presidency for his presidency. it reverts back to, say, when john tyler becomes president. he's a very weak president. and so, being speaker of the house was important just as it's important today. ms. swain: well, it sounds like from this quote that sarah polk had a view of this when her husband was in the role.
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here's what she wrote: "the speaker, if the proper person, and what with the correct idea of his position, has even more influence over legislation and in directing the policy of the parties than the president," says she. mr. hunt: the polks -- when particularly when he became president was a powerful president. and in terms of waging war, he pulled a lot of power into the executive branch. but henry clay is the one we all think of as -- mr. finkelman: yes. mr. hunt: as building the job of the speaker of the house and the man who ran for president forever. and -- but through the years the speaker's job grows. the presidency grows in power. it ebbs and flows. the balance of power is the key to the whole thing in that nobody ever just completely runs away with it. and it was set up so that that could not happen. mr. finkelman: yes. ms. swain: our next video demonstrates the role of sarah
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polk as the political wife. >> the travelling desk is really indicative of sarah's life with james k. polk mainly as his helpmate. james k. polk had no staff either as a congressman or even as president of the united states. so sarah took really a hands-on attitude towards being his wife. the travelling desk she took with her on those long trips to washington d.c. as a congressman, they've travelled to washington twice a year in trips that could take 30 days going one way from columbia, tennessee, to washington d.c. and she's of course communicating with her family and friends back home which meant she wrote tens of thousands of letters during her lifetime. so the travelling desk i think is really indicative of communication in the time period. the portraits are painted by ralph earl when james and sarah were in washington as congressman and lady. sarah was very much again a helpmate to him throughout his political career. when he was writing speeches, he
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would get her opinion and she would critique them for him. daily she would read the newspapers and underline passages she thought important for him to read. she was a regular fixture in the gallery in congress. and this is a great time to hear speeches of politicians like henry clay and daniel webster, and john calhoun are giving some of their greatest speeches in this time period. and she was right in the middle of all of it very much a part of his political career. so 14 years a member of the house of representatives, the last four of those, the speaker of the house. and he is to this day the only speaker of the house to become president, which brings with it a whole new level of socials status in washington d.c. and sarah very much played in the part of one of the official hostesses in washington. typically, congress would enact a memorial to the outgoing speaker of the house officially thanking him for his service. when james k. polk left congress to run for governor of tennessee, the congress was so
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widely divided. they refuse to do that. but it's interesting that in the newspapers, a number of politicians wrote poems in honor of sarah at the time that she left. instead, one of them was united states supreme court justice joseph story who wrote a lengthy poem lamenting the loss of sarah polk to washington society. ms. ms. swain: today, we would be amazed at a speaker of the house stepping down to run for governor. why did he decide to do this? mr. finkelman: i think because being speaker of the house is something that you didn't do for a really long time in those days. congressional careers are often quite short in the 19th century. and three or four terms in washington is probably enough. again, think of the arduous task of just getting to washington from tennessee once or twice a year. it's a lot of work. it's a lot of effort. and being the governor is somewhat easier. it's probably less expensive. you are home. and being the governor is a good way to build a political career for the vice presidency or the presidency. what polk's eye is the vice president. he doesn't think he's ever going
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to be president. mr. hunt: well. mr. finkelman: but he thinks -- but he thinks he could be vice president. mr. hunt: next -- he could be vice president next. and then, you know? ms. swain: and a pathway to the white house? mr. finkelman: although the vice presidency is a not a very good pathway to the white house. you know, since thomas jefferson, only martin van buren had made it as vice president. and tyler did only because of the death of the president. ms. swain: sandy is watching us in new castle, delaware and you're on. hi, sandy. caller: hi. one of my question is i know they're from tennessee. how did sarah actually -- what did she actually think about slavery and was she a kind slavemaster? mr. hunt: the -- james k. polk in his will made an expression that he hoped that when she died, she would manumit their slaves. as it turned out, she sold their plantation before the civil war. but the issue of slavery was not
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really brought to the forefront during either in their marriage or during his administration. it became much more critical with the two with the administrations that follow polk. mr. finkelman: well, i think in some ways that's not true. mr. hunt: well, yes. mr. finkelman: that is that the politics of america from the 1830s and the 1860s is swirling around slavery. mr. hunt: yes. mr. finkelman: all the time. the opposition to the mexican war which polk starts and which we didn't have to have, the opposition to the mexican war in part comes from the northerners who see it as a vast conspiracy to steal mexico so that slave owners could have some place to go. and southerners say as much. they say, "we want mexico because we want a place for slavery to spread to." slavery is on the table. the reality is the polks were slaveowners. they are not opposed to slavery. they liked being slave owners. being a slaveowner is very good
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for the polks. and i suspect that she treated her slaves as kindly or as unkindly as was necessary to get the labor and the support from the slaves that she wanted. that's what slavery was about. ms. swain: heath is in franklin, tennessee. your question? caller: yes. a hero of mine is a nephew of sarah polk named general lucius polk. he served with general patrick cleburne and he tried to get the confederacy, petition the confederate government to end slavery and get african-americans to fight for the south. he was wounded several times during the war and at some point he was sent behind lines and allowed to stay in columbia, tennessee. and he would eventually run the ku klux klan out of murray county but sarah polk i have heard somehow, kept him from going to union prison camps when any other confederate prison --
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prisoner would have been sent to union prison camps. i've heard that she was afforded power because the union's people just respected her so much. ms. swain: ok, heath thank you. i'm going to jump in right there because our time is short. and it's important to say james k. polk announced he was going to be a one term president. and we will get to your question because the civil war does come and sarah polk is a widow. how long does james k. polk live after leaving the white house? mr. hunt: three months. ms. swain: three months? mr. finkelman: three months. ms. swain: three months? and so, what happens to sarah
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polk and especially during the civil war? mr. hunt: she becomes a widow. she wore widow's weeds for the next 42 years until she died at practically the age of 88. and the house that they had purchased had been fixed up for their retirement became a shrine to her husband. she was very reclusive, only went to church, but she received people. during the civil war, she did not take sides. the mayor came to her and said "you know, the union is coming into the city. what should i tell the general the union general? "and she said, "you may tell him that i am at home." and so, he came to call. and the confederates and the union troops respected her. she did not take sides. she was completely neutral and she isolated herself into that period prior to the civil war. and it -- people their artifacts in storage at polk place to preserve them. and -- but she just went right on through. and she earned a great deal of respect for that. ms. swain: from both sides? mr. hunt: from both sides. ms. swain: do you have any more comments to add to this period?
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mr. finkelman: no. only that the contrast, of course, would be with president tyler who becomes a member of the confederate government having once taken an oath to support the constitution of the united states. and so in that sense, the contrast i think with sarah polk is revealing. ms. swain: jamie -- jenny standard webber on facebook who apparently portrays her as a docent at the national first ladies' library in kenton, ohio writes, "mrs. polk lived more than 40 years as a widow. did she continue to be involved in politics after the president died?" mr. finkelman: no, she did not. mr. hunt: she would speak about her husband's time. any honors that were sent to her, she accepted on behalf of his memory. she was conversant with what was going on, but not an active political player. ms. swain: we have one more video from the polk era. let's watch. >> james k. polk was a promised
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one-term president. as such after four years, james and sarah polk were going to retire. and while they're in washington still in the white house, as they were outfitting the white house as part of that restoration, they took the opportunity to purchase things for polk place, that home in nashville that they were going to retire into. they purchased all of the furnishings for polk place through alexander steward's shop in new york city. and they picked some of the finest american furniture being made at that time. they are all rosewood framed with red velvet. so we have gentlemen's chairs and sofas. these little side chairs, they had 33 of them. we have 18 remaining of the original set of 33. so that they would ring the rooms with these little chairs and as they had guests they would bring them out into the room. we have some interiors of what it looked like probably taken
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around the time of her death in 1891 and the house is still filled with the objects that they had collected throughout their political lives together. unfortunately for james k. polk, he died just three months after leaving the white house and sarah began a 42 year widowhood. every new year's day she opened the polk place and held a levee for the state legislature as a body. polk place became something of a shrine to her husband. and she would invite anybody who wanted to come for a visit to see the objects that they had collected throughout their long and illustrious political career. ms. swain: patricia lynn scott on facebook writes, "when i visited nashville, i was amazed at all the plaques there that recognized the sites of president polk's homes and
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offices that were raised. years later, i visited the children's home outside of nashville. why would they allow those buildings to be torn down?" mr. hunt: progress. that's just, you know, i've work in the historic preservation for 40-some years. if we didn't have a need to preserve buildings, i wouldn't be in the field. but -- is there are periods, you know, the polk home was torn down in nashville. and the great niece kept the artifacts together until they could find a home. and that's what the museum in columbia is. but montpelier, the madison's home, in private hands for years, and really not saved until the '80s -- in the 1980s. these things go on and on all of the time. the homes of the presidents are deemed to be among the most important. but in some cases, you have multiple homes that one president lived in. ms. swain: as we say goodbye to dolley madison's influence, sheldon -- sheldon cooper, we can't do a program without dolley in it. and sheldon cooper asks, as influential as dolley madison was on future first ladies, did sarah polk provide guidance to future first ladies?
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mr. hunt: yes, 50 years after -- she was alive, you see, until the early '90s. dolley died in '49. and so, sarah was the embodiment of the elegant proper first lady after dolley died. and the respect passed down with her. yes. ms. swain: so building on that the question is, what is sarah polk's legacy? mr. finkelman: i'll let her answer this since she's written great deal on sarah. mr. hunt: i think that james k. polk probably might not have been able to achieve his ambitious one term agenda without her help. she certainly kept the white house running because he's literally worked himself to death. and she handled his legacy well after his unfortunate early death. we have most of the legacy is his, the first postage stamp the permanent treasury department, the almost doubling the size of the united states, and many things to be thankful for. the first ladies themselves are not so much innovators as they are -- sometimes they embrace those aspects of the american character that the public needs and i think that she did it very, very well.
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ms. swain: the election of 1848 brought the taylors into the white house and as we continue our program tonight, we're going to learn more about zachary taylor and more importantly, for our first lady series tonight, his wife, margaret peggy taylor. but it is a brief stay in the white house. so, there will be about 10 minutes worth of exploration here. tell us the -- set the stage for the 1848 election. mr. finkelman: well, polk is leaving the office. he chose to be a one term president which probably was good because he probably would not have gotten a nomination again and he probably would have been defeated. he was not very well liked when he left office. it is true that he started a war which was successfully won but when it was over, he didn't want to have peace. he fired his envoy to mexico and his envoy to mexico negotiated peace treaty after he had been fired, and then sent it back to washington. and polk was forced to bring a treaty to congress that he did not actually want to sign or have congress ratify but he was forced to do it.
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during the war, he became very jealous of the very, very successful general zachary taylor. and so, he demoted taylor and put general winfield scott over him. and then, he got jealous of scott because scott was getting all the headlines. so, when the war ended, polk is leaving and taylor is the great hero of the war. taylor had never voted in a election. taylor had never done anything political. he had been a career military officer for his entire life. his wife, margaret smith taylor, or peggy taylor as she's known, had travelled with her husband to some of the most remote military bases in the country. she had been a military wife the wife of a man who started as lieutenant and ended up as a major general. and taylor's politics were almost unknown other than that he said over and over again he supported henry clay.
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henry clay of course had lost to polk and henry clay believed that it was his time to win 1848. it was going to be a whig year. clay's party is the whig party. clay thinks he will win. and then out of nowhere, taylor gets the nomination and clay is absolutely devastated that he doesn't get to be nominated. and in addition to taylor getting nomination, a completely obscure, almost unheard of person, millard fillmore, who is by -- when nominated, is the most obscure person ever to be nominated for president, at that time gets the vice presidential nomination. so he had this kind of strange access of taylor who was a louisiana sugar planter running with fillmore who was the comptroller of the state of new york. for me, there's a kind of personal thing which i have to say i currently teach at albany law school where fillmore was living. and next year, i will be a visitor at lsu, a law school in louisiana. so, i am the embodiment of the
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albany-baton rouge access as well. mr. hunt: yes, i'd like to say let's don't discount that that mexican war brought us all of the western southwest, california, new mexico, et cetera. he was a commander in chief and he acted like it. and if it upset winfield scott who had quite a temper and zachary taylor, so be it. but as it turned out, that is what history has recorded. we greatly expanded the united states during that time and we got those properties for very, very little. in terms of the history of real
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estate, polk rates high. ms. swain: a little bit on to zachary taylor. mr. finkelman: only if you think that going to war with a country to steal half their country is an appropriate and legitimate thing to do. and a significant numbers of americans believed that the mexican war was purely a land grab and a war of aggression. and many americans including john c. calhoun who was -- who was a great defender of slavery, believed that the mexican war was a huge mistake because calhoun predicted correctly that once you had the mexican war you would open up again the question of slavery and the territories and that would cause a catastrophe, which it does. ms. swain: zachary taylor, "old rough and ready," a couple of points about him -- mr. finkelman: yes. ms. swain: he was the last southerner elected for 64 years until wilson and the last president to hold slaves while he was in office in the white house. but his partner in all of this was margaret, known as peggy taylor. what do we know about her?
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mr. hunt: she was not particularly keen on being first lady. she had gone around to all of his postings with him and innumerable children. actually, it's very interesting that their daughter, knox, married the young jefferson davis who fought with taylor in mexico. and unfortunately their daughter died after only three months of marriage. but later when they were in the white house, the taylors became quite close with jefferson davis and his second wife, varina. and varina was very -- was very close to the first lady. the first lady let her daughter do a lot of the entertaining and it was such a brief amount of time really that they were in office that -- what else can we say about him? mr. finkelman: well, he was -- he was inaugurated in march of 1849, elected in november of 1848.
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mr. hunt: yes. mr. finkelman: but didn't take office until march 1849, and taylor dies in july of 1850. so there is essentially a 15-month period when they're in the white house and she doesn't want to be there. ms. swain: she retreats to the upstairs of the white house? mr. finkelman: she basically retreats to the upstairs of the white house. now oddly enough, like her predecessor, she came from a political family. one of her aunts was married to a three term governor of maryland. and one of her cousins was married to senator reverdy johnson of maryland. she came from a very, very wealthy family of maryland planters although she grew up most of her early years in the washington d.c. and northern virginia area. among other things, one of her playmates was nelly custis who was the granddaughter of martha washington. so, this is somebody who has been around politics as well. but the opposite of sarah polk she doesn't want to be involved in politics. she didn't want her husband to run for president.
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congressman from ohio assassinated two days into his term as president. get the complete schedule at the new congressional directory is a handy guide to 114th congress color photos of every senator and house member, bio, contact information and twitter handles. district maps, foldout of capitol hill a look at
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