From Presidents’ Failures to Their Wives’ Successes


Jesse Ann Benton Fremont

Michael David Cohen, editor of the Correspondence of James K. Polk and Research Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, checks in with another post from this weekend’s annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  For his previous posts click here.  Cohen is the author of Reconstructing the Campus: Higher Education and the American Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  For another report on this panel see Elise Leal’s post from earlier today. Enjoy–JF

The 2016 conference of the Organization of American Historians came to a close on Sunday. After beginning with a discussion of the least successful presidents, it ended with presentations on two of the most consequential wives of presidents (or would-be presidents). My last session of the meeting was “Gender and Antebellum Political Leadership: Reconsidering the Power of the ‘First Lady,’” featuring Amy Greenberg on Sarah Childress Polk and Stacey Robertson on Jessie Benton Frémont.

As editor of the letters of James K. Polk, in whose administration both Sarah Polk (obviously) and Jessie Frémont were active, I took almost embarrassingly copious notes. I won’t bore you with these. Drs. Greenberg and Robertson will, when ready, publish their findings much more fully and precisely than any summary of mine could. I will note, though, that their papers fit together in a welcome synergy.

Much scholarship of nineteenth-century gender history has divided into two areas: the domestically oriented sphere in which most women operated and the quest by some women and men for more nearly equal rights and opportunities. Yesterday’s papers showed us that women’s political empowerment (to use a word that neither the speakers nor their subjects did) arose through both avenues. Sarah Polk became one of the most powerful people in American politics by assisting her husband in a discreet and submissive manner. Jessie Frémont promoted husband


Sarah Childress Polk

John C. Frémont’s presidential campaign by, literally, stepping onto the political stage herself. Greenberg’s and Robertson’s papers thus bridge two large bodies of scholarship that, considered together in new ways, may yield new insights into both separate spheres and the early days of women’s rights. Along these lines, commentator Susan Johnson suggested that historians of politics take the household, not the individual, as the unit of action.

On another level, the panelists’ scholarship should help draw into the historical spotlight two women whose political activity (especially Sarah Polk’s) has faded into undeserved obscurity. Matt Gallman, the other commentator, pointed out that rates Polk as the twenty-third most influential first lady, right behind Julia Dent Grant. Like her husband’s a century ago, perhaps her star is now on the rise.

Until next year!