The Polk Tomb (James and Sarah), near the Tennessee State Capitol.
For about 125 years, President James Polk and First Lady Sarah Polk have rested in the Polk Tomb on top of Capitol Hill in Tennessee. This area is considered their home. For instance, while James served as governor within the area, his wife Sarah was occupied raising her niece and doing First Lady business. James and Sarah Polk’s resting place may have settled by the Tennessee State Capitol, but after over 100 years, James’s finalized resting place was put up for debate. While the Tennessee Senate had approved the Polk’s bodies to be moved, the governor, Historical Commission, and courts within the state, had not signed off on the approval. The Polk Tomb had raised several questions about the sacredness of presidential graves and the rights about the ownership of their remains.
Backstory and Context
According to the Washington Post, James is referred to as “The dead president who never rests in peace.” This label is certainly correct, for James Polk’s remains had been moved multiple times before the recent debate in 2018. After James died during the cholera outbreak in 1849, he was originally buried at the Nashville City Cemetery in a temporary grave. He was then moved to Polk Place, James’s home, due to how his fatal illness was highly contagious. Sarah chose to stay by his side during this move, even after her death, she was buried next to him. Unfortunately, preservationists could not save Polk Place and two years later, the Polk’s heirs sold the property and it was demolished. It is currently replaced by a YMCA and the Capitol Hotel. Due to the demolition, James and Sarah’s request in their will to be buried in Polk Place would not be honored. Instead, the State Capitol Grounds with the newly built Polk Tomb in Tennessee was considered to be the next best thing. The Polk Tomb is a national landmark that is protected from further destructive developments within the Tennessee State Capitol boundaries. It is also located across from the original Polk Place site and near the statue of President Andrew Jackson. The Historic Nashville corporation felt that the President and First Lady should be left alone in the area, however, this is not a decision set in stone (Bain).
The most recent debate is about determining whether or not the Polk Tomb would be moved to the James Polk Home and Museum in Columbia. It is understandable to question why this chaos would reoccur over a president’s grave. There are varying answers to this question. For example, The New York Times supporters claim that they want to honor Polk’s will, even though it stated that they wished to be buried by Polk Place. Thomas Price, the curator of the Polk Home and Museum, believes that Polk did not want to be buried in Nashville specifically, but rather, by a place that he was familiar with and loved. His point can also stand by the fact that the Polk Home was built by James Polk’s father, and if he is moved, he would still be buried with Sarah, which was another request in his will. Another claim is that their grave’s current location is often overlooked and that if the remains are moved, it will be acknowledged. The state senator Joey Hensley claims that Polk’s current spot is not ideal for visitors and not a good place to honor his legacy. However, critics say that the move is just a ploy to reel in tourists to the site, considering that where Polk would be moved is near Andrew Jackson’s burial site, which is a huge tourist spot (Daley).
In March of 2018, this proposal initially ended with one vote short so no action was taken to move the tomb. However, a month later, the House of Representatives then approved a resolution to relocate the Polk Tomb. It was passed by 51-37 votes, only one away from the required minimum. The proposal was then sent to Gov. Bill Haslam, who had originally opposed the movement. Due to the fact that the proposal comes as a joint resolution, the governor can possibly let it pass without his signature. However, his intentions and decision are currently unknown. Furthermore, even if this was able to come into effect, it still requires approval from the Tennessee Historical Commission, the Capitol Commission, and be taken up in court (USA TODAY NETWORK, Ebert).
This current controversy does shine a spotlight on Polk, considering his very short presidency as “the dark horse candidate.” During his presidency, Polk’s main purpose in foreign policy was to gain additional territory. This included sending troops near Mexico and claiming parts of their land. Mexican troops responded by killing eleven U.S soldiers, which resulted in Polk requesting a declaration of war, the Mexican-American War (Pinheiro). Furthermore, there was a large amount of disapproval from critics, including Ulysses S. Grant. He pointed out that the war was an unnecessary conflict. Not only that, but Polk’s constant need to expand territory caused the debate against slavery to continue further, which ultimately led to the American Civil War (History.com Editors). With the controversy surrounding Polk ‘s actions and priorities, it makes one question why so much fuss has been made in regard to his burial resting place. This movement issue has raised questions about the sacredness of honoring a president’s grave or burial location. Maybe we should disregard a president’s popularity, success, failures, or legacies when making these decisions. If we look at the job of the presidency and the honor bestowed on them, all should be put to rest with dignity and equal respect.
Pinheiro, John C.. JAMES K. POLK: FOREIGN AFFAIRS, Miller Center. December 11th 2019. Accessed December 11th 2019. https://millercenter.org/president/polk/foreign-affairs.
History.com Editors . James K. Polk, History. June 7th 2019. Accessed December 11th 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/james-polk#section_3.
Bain, Aja. THE TOMB ON THE HILL: THE DEBATE OVER THE POLKS’ FINAL RESTING PLACE, Historic Nashville . April 3rd 2017. Accessed December 4th 2019. http://historicnashvilleinc.org/tomb-hill-debate-polks-final-resting-place/.
USA TODAY NETWORK . House narrowly approves resolution seeking to relocate tomb of former President James K. Polk, Tennessean. April 9th 2018. Accessed December 4th 2019. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2018/04/09/tennessee-politics-president-james-k-polk/501426002/.
Daley, Jason. Tennessee Votes to Keep Polk’s Grave Where It Is For Now, Smithsonian.com. March 20th 2018. Accessed December 11th 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/tennessee-votes-keep-polks-grave-where-it-now-180968544/.