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James K. Polk

Interment Location Visited Sequence in Graves I Have Visited
Nashville, TN July 22, 2006 1st House Speaker visited; 30th President visited

Photographed June 11, 2013.

James K. Polk kept each of his campaign promises, including to serve only one term as U.S. president. He departed the White House on March 4, 1849. A mere 103 days later he died of cholera. In doing so Polk set the record for the shortest post-presidency of any retired chief executive. He and his wife, former First Lady Sarah Childress Polk, are interred on the grounds of the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville. The Polk gravesite is in a row with statues of the two other commanders-in-chief from Tennessee, Andrew Johnson and Andrew Jackson, one of Polk’s mentors.

The state capitol grounds are the third place the former president has been interred. Cholera victims were buried quickly to prevent the disease’s spread, so the day after his death James Polk was buried at the Nashville City Cemetery. When his permanent tomb was completed the following year at his Nashville residence, Polk Place, he was reinterred there. He remained on the grounds of Polk Place for 43 years, the final two of which were spent alongside his wife, Sarah, who died in 1891. In 1893, owing to a legal dispute, the General Assembly voted to relocate President and Mrs. Polk and their Grecian tomb to the capitol grounds, where they currently rest. In 2018, the same body took up a measure to move the Polks again, this time to the President James K. Polk Home and Museum located 47 miles south in the city of Columbia. It failed by one vote.

Photographed June 11, 2013.
Photographed July 22, 2006.

The limestone Polk tomb was designed by William Strickland, a leader of the nineteenth century Greek-Revival architectural movement. His other designs include George Washington’s marble sarcophagus, the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia, and the Tennessee State Capitol — the grounds of which now host the Polk gravesite. Strickland died in 1854 — 39 years before the president’s gravesite was moved from Polk Place to the statehouse, and five years before the capitol itself was completed. Though he was based out of Philadelphia, Strickland is entombed in Nashville, within the walls of his final project.

My first visit to James and Sarah Polk’s tomb came on July 22, 2006. The second excursion came the very next day — my father and I returned because we had time to kill before our flight home. In this photo I am wearing a t-shirt my father bought for me the previous day at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, his home and plantation. I returned to the Tennessee State Capitol and the Hermitage in June 2013.

Photographed July 23, 2006.

 


Fast Facts

Born: November 2, 1795 in Pineville, North Carolina

Spouse: Sarah Childress Polk (m. 1824-1849)

Political Affiliation: Democratic Party

House Speaker Tenure: 1835-1839

Presidential Term: 1845-1849

Vice President: George Mifflin Dallas

Died: June 15, 1849 in Nashville, Tennessee

Cause of Death: Cholera

Age: 53

Last Words: “I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you.”

Interment: Tennessee State Capitol, Nashville, Tennessee

"The Federal Constitution was wisely adapted in its provisions to any expansion of our limits and population, and with the advance of the confederacy of the States in the career of national greatness it becomes the more apparent that the harmony of the Union and the equal justice to which all its parts are entitled require that the Federal Government should confine its action within the limits prescribed by the Constitution to its power and authority."

- James K. Polk
August 3, 1846 in a veto message to the U.S. House of Representatives regarding a bill to fund internal improvements

Sources Consulted

Costello, Matthew R. The Property of the Nation: George Washington’s Tomb, Mount Vernon, and the Memory of the First President. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2019.

Daley, Jason. “Tennessee Votes to Keep Polk’s Grave Where It Is. For Now.” Smithsonian Magazine, March 20, 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/tennessee-votes-keep-polks-grave-where-it-now-180968544/.

Picone, Louis L. The President is Dead! The Extraordinary Stories of the Presidential Deaths, Final Days, Burials, and Beyond. Rev. ed. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2020.

Polk, James K. “Veto Message Regarding Funding Internal Improvements,” August 3, 1846. Transcript. University of Virginia, Miller Center. https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/august-3-1846-veto-message-regarding-funding-internal.

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