NASHVILLE, TN — The issue of relocating the bodies of President James K. Polk and his wife Sarah is – pardon the expression – dead and buried.
A subcommittee of the Tennessee State Senate’s State and Local Government Committee sent the resolution authorizing the removal of the President and First Lady from their resting place on the grounds of the state capitol to so-called "summer study," a legislative nicety that is almost always a euphemistic way of killing a measure.
Barring an unusual turn of events in the Senate, which regards the committee process as sacrosanct, the move essentially ends the effort to move the Polks from where they’ve lain since 1893 to the grounds of a house built by Polk’s father in Columbia, 50 miles south of Nashville.
Touted by the James K. Polk Memorial Association as a move to a more appropriate place of repose that would generate more interest, the effort has been lambasted and excoriated by historians, legislators and some descendants of the Polks since it emerged early last year.
Interestingly, the failure of the resolution comes on the heels of a U.S. House committee reporting favorably on a bill authorizing the Department of the Interior to study adding the Polk House to the National Park Service. That bill, sponsored by Rep. Scott DesJarlais, had languished in the mire of the House committee process for years.
A 1981 state law requires the approval of the General Assembly to relocate the couple. The Senate approved a resolution of support, sponsored by Republican Sen. Joey Hensley, late in last year’s session, but the House of Representatives never took up the bill, forcing the resolution back into the normal legislative pipeline after the General Assembly reconvened in January. Nashville State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Democrat, was among the most vocal opponents of the effort, though he was chastised by Republican colleagues for characterizing it as "macabre." Yarbro, along with Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, said that the legislative effort was premature because the move also requires approval by the Tennessee Historical Commission and the Davidson County Chancery Court.
Under the Tennessee Heritage Preservation Act of 2016, passed as a result of an effort by the city of Memphis to relocate a statue of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, slave trader, Confederate general and an early Ku Klux Klan leader, the relocation of any memorial or monument dedicated to an historic figure is prohibited unless a waiver is granted by a 2/3 vote of the Tennessee Historic Commission. As Confederate statues have come down across the South, that law has been under the microscope once again, notably after Memphis sold city parks for a peppercorn fee to private non-profits, leading to the removal of the statue of Forrest and another of Jefferson Davis.
The executive director of the THC wrote to the James K. Polk Memorial Association saying that relocating the Polks’ bodies would be "inappropriate" and "ahistorical" and said the THC would never support the initiative. Tennessee’s state historian and numerous members of the Polk family have also expressed opposition.
The Polk Memorial Association operates the ancestral home in Columbia. The President and Mrs. Polk never lived there – Polk was in law school at the University of North Carolina when his father built the house and spent his adult life in Nashville and Washington; he died in Nashville shortly after leaving the Oval Office.
Polk’s will specifically said he wanted to be buried in Nashville.
"Sarah Polk, and myself, have mutually agreed with each other, that at our respective deaths, it is desired by us, that our bodies may be interred on the said premises, which I have denominated the Polk Place," the president wrote, referring to the now-demolished Polk Place, according to a copy of his will reprinted in a 1956 issue of the Tennessee Historical Quarterly.
Nevertheless, the president was briefly buried at the Nashville City Cemetery after his death before he was moved to Polk Place. After her death in 1891, Sarah Polk was buried next to her late husband and they remained there until 1893 when they moved to the capitol grounds.
Polk Place was nearly purchased by the state but was ultimately demolished after contentious family battle that involved the arcane rule against perpetuities.
Hensley and the Polk Memorial Association say the Polks are "ignored" at their current resting place and that it is not ADA accessible, though relatively flat and smooth sidewalks do wind their way to the tomb. The THC and historians are concerned that the effort to move the bodies to Columbia is an effort to boost tourism and interest in the president’s father’s home, while backers say they simply want to properly honor the Polks and their "wishes," despite what the President’s will makes clear.
Photo by Olivia Lind, used with permission