tv QA Amy Greenberg CSPAN March 11, 2019 12:05pm-1:06pm EDT
-- >> what it means to be an american is that we're fortunate to live with something called the united states constitution. and with that we have the privilege of the first amendment and the second amendment specifically which allows us to settle our differences in this system so we don't have to jump into foxholes, dodge bullets, and stand in front of tanks. >> voices from the road on c-span. >> this week on "q&a," amy greenberg professor of american history at penn state university on her book, "lady first" the orld of first lady sarah polk.
brian: amy greenberg, why did you name your book lady first? prof. greenberg: it was not the title that the press wanted. when i thought about first lady sarah polk, and how she deployed power, i thought about the fact that, in her own mind, she was always a lady before anything else. she thought of for self as mrs. james k. polk. she was very invested in people deferring to her. but she was willing to defer to men. she considered herself a lady. i thought lady first was a good title. brian: what would you say about their relationship? prof. greenberg: james and sarah polk had about as close and positive of a relationship as any married couple can have. they were rarely separated. the reason sarah came to washington when james was a new congressman when she was 22
years old, was because they couldn't stand to be apart. they were newly married. the whole time they were married the depended on each other far more than anybody else. she was james' closest confidant. he did not have a lot of male friends, but he and sarah were basically inseparable. brian: why did he not have a lot of male friends? prof. greenberg: depending on who you talk to, there are different answers to that question. my reading of his character and all of his letters and studying his career over the past decade, i think that he was an introvert. he was, i think, a nervous person. he was not a voluble, fun guy. he had almost no sense of humor. people did not really take to him.
he had a hard time forging close connections with other people, with the exception of members of his own family and sarah. also that he lied to various politicians. he had a reputation of being an trustworthy. brian: did the public know he was lying at the time? prof. greenberg: i don't think they did. this is a question historians have debated. particularly as pertained to the declaration that he made about the united states going to war with mexico. rather than going to congress to ask for a declaration of war, he went to congress and he said, a war is in the process. just give me some money to fight this war. this statement that he made to congress was that, american blood had been shed on american soil. despite all of the united states' effort to avoid war with mexico, it was mexico's war.
he basically said the united states is not responsible for this war. mexico is the enemy. that, i think, everybody knew it was a lie. there were probably people who did not know, but everyone in congress knew it was a lie. brian: you went to the university of california at berkeley. prof. greenberg: yes. brian: you got a phd from harvard. when did you first get interested in the u.s./mexican war? prof. greenberg: when i was in grad school, my dissertation advisor was a great historian named bill. his advisor, when he had first gone to grad school at berkeley was charles. charles sellers wrote two volumes of what was supposed to o be a trilogy on polk's life.
one afternoon, as historian grad students tend to do, i pulled these volumes down from the stacks at the library and i started reading them. as opposed to what i was supposed to be reading, my school work. i found the way that sellers wrote about polk, and the way that he brought the antebellum era in america to life to be utterly compelling. that is when i got interested in polk. i grew up in southern california. when i was growing up, very little was ever said about the u.s./mexican war. am pretty confident our curriculum in school swipped from the mission period to spain and california, to the bear flag revolt when americans were up against mexican, spanish rule and declared california free. i do not ever remember learning about the u.s./mexico war, but by the time i was in college i realized that california was taken from mexico. brian: we have, back in 2012, an
address you made at the abraham lincoln library in springfield, illinois about a wicked war. prof. greenberg: yes. brian: that is another one of your books. when did you write that, and what is the main message in that book? prof. greenberg: the way that i got interested in sarah polk was in the process of writing that book. when i look back at my career of wriling books, every book grows out of the previous books. what i really wanted to do was tell the story of the u.s./mexico war in a way that was focused on individuals and how they were affected by the war. i felt like, as a scholar and as a teacher, there were no books about the u.s./mexico war that really made sense to students. there is a lot of battles in a lot of different places, and the u.s. wins all of them, then the
u.s. takes all of this land. it is kind of a hard story to aire rat unless you want toaire ralt it -- narrate it as the u.s. was incredibly advanced in terms of technology and had an amazing fighting force and defeated mexico and end of story. i knew for a fact that a lot of people died in the war and impacted a lot of people. i thought, what if i wrote the story in the way that somebody might narrate a war, like world ar ii. my father fought in. or the civil war, so that people got a sense that it was a war where people suffered and people sacrificed, and not just an abtract moment where the u.s. steamrolled over mexico and took away all this territory which we now feel as part of the united states and that's great. so, the main message of that war
was the main message of the book was that the war mattered to a lot of people in really profound ways. the war mattered to all the officers that later thought in -- fought in the civil war. i got their start in the u.s./mexico war. ulysses s grant is a person that called it a wicked war. robert e lee. most of the generals in the civil war fought in the u.s./mexico war. it mattered to them, but it also matter to all of the men who went to mexico and thought. -- fought and it mattered to the family members who fought. and it mattered to abraham lincoln, who gave his first national speech about how the u.s./mexico war was immoral. i wanted to place the war in the context of the time period and somehow how it affect the the -- affected the united states and affected the people. brian: the years of the war? prof. greenberg: 1846 to 1848. brian: did james poke -- polk
lie us into that war? prof. greenberg: yes. brian: how many people died in that war? prof. greenberg: between 13000 and 15,000 americans. brian: what did america think of that war back then? prof. greenberg: the war started off with a burst of enthusiasm. there was a whole generation of young men who had grown up hearing stories about the texas revolution, which was a decade earlier, about the alamo. which we can never forget. these were these two moments where the mexican army put to death prisoners in a way that was horrifying to americans, and unethical from a battlefield standpoint. people in the u.s. were raised thinking of mexico as deceitful, and a country that had really etrayed america. when polk said that american blood had been shed on american
soil, there was a huge rush of volunteer enthusiasm for the war. many more men volunteered to fight then there was room for in the volunteer infantry's. the war started out with incredible enthusiasm. not just enthusiasm among the democratic party, but also among the opposition party. we live in such a partisan time now that it is hard to imagine a president of one party declaring a war, and lying to get the country into the war, and politicians knowing it is a lie, but being very enthusiastic about the war. volunteering, a number of members of congress just quit congress to go fight in the war. that was true of the democratic party and the opposition party. the thing about the war was that, everyone was convinced it would be a really short war.
one mattle -- battle and mexico would roll over and would we be done. mexico would give us everything we wanted. it would be an easy fight. james k. polk,'s brother wrote him and said, can i get a position of an officer in the war? i'm in europe and i'll come home. polk said, don't even bother, the war will be done in three months. little did he know that a year into the war the u.s. would have won a number of battles, securing both texas and california, but the mexicans refused to surrender. so, that was the moment when americans started turning against the war. when reports of casualties started coming back. when a lot of soldiers died. but also when it did not look like the war would end quickly. i would say battle fatigue set in after about a year.
it was a whole another six-month after that, during which time u.s. occupied mexico city. we occupied the neighboring country's capital, mexico still wouldn't surrender. that was when the public turned against the war. by the time the treat they of guadeloupe hildago made it's way from mexico back to polk in the white house, february of 1848, by that point there is a huge upsurge of anti-war sentiment. congress has been taken over by by the whig party, and there are public meetings around the country to bring the war to a close. polk has been forced to accept it treaty and does not get him all that he want because the public turned against the war. brian: if there was no mexican war, what would be different about the united states right now? prof. greenberg: historians
don't like to engage in counterfactual exercises because -- in general. i have thought about this a lot. the first thing you could say we wouldn't have california, right? i couldn't know if this is true. mexico was in pretty bad financial trouble and some say mexico would have been eventually sold. texas might be a different shape. it might be smaller. maybe we would not own new mexico. maybe we would not have arizona. it is hard to imagine. what else would be different? james mcpherson and his battle cry freedom makes a good argument that the civil war happened when it did because the north and the south could not agree over whether slavery should be allowed in the territories taken from mexico. had there been no mexican war, maybe the civil war would not have happened when it did. maybe it would have happened later.
brian: i know james polk was only there for four years. who was president on either side of him? prof. greenberg: the president that was right before him was a guy named john tyler. john tyler became president when william henry harrison, when he died suddenly. john tyler, who was this guy from virginia, and kind of on the ticket to balance the ticket with harrison, tyler became president, and he was the first president who became president because the president had died. when he first became president, everyone called him his accidentcy, because it was an accident that he was president. now we take it for granted that
if a president dies, the vice president is really the president. but at that time no one knew. maybe he should defer to congress. no one really knew. tyler was able to grab the moment and say i am the president. when you speak to me, you refer to me as the president, i will do everything the president does. i will veto as much legislation as i want. even though he was supposedly in the whig party, he vetoed a bunch of whig legislation. he got kicked out of the whig party which was the party he was supposedly in. brian: what about the president that came in after? prof. greenberg: the president after james k. polk was another whig. it was zachary taylor. we have tyler on one side and taylor on the other. the problem with zachary taylor being president after james k. poke, was becausejames k. polk, when he became president he said he would only
serve one term. he stuck to that. it was a lasting and the world he wanted, to hand over power to the opposition party. he did hand it over to a war hero in the war that he started. ironically for polk, because of his war, a general became president and that general was zachary taylor who was a whig. and opposed to polk. brian: the subject of this book is his wife, air ray childers polk. -- sarah childers poke. what would you say about her? prof. greenberg: there is a lot to say about her, i wrote a pretty long book. brian: she is going to be over at the house for dinner, and he wanted to tell your husband or friends, what would you tell them about her. prof. greenberg: we are not going to serve wine because she does not drink. i would say that she is a charming dinner companion. the conversation is going to be wonderful. she is very well read. we can talk about the latest look. -- book. she is going to be a very good
listener. she will probably listen more than she speaks. i think it will be a really fun dinner, but we will not serve her any wine. brian: how educated is she? prof. greenberg: she, for the time and being a woman, is extremely educated. she attended the salem academy, which is in north carolina. at the time was either the first or second best school for women in the entire united states. this is a time period when colleges are not open to women at all. if you wanted to be educated, and your family had the means, your two options were to have a private tutor, or to go to a women's academy. women's academy for a long time were pooh-poohed by historians and scholars because they focused part of the curriculum on things like needlework and piano. stuff that we tend to think of now as not real learning. in addition to learning
needlework and piano, the girls at the salem academy learned science, political philosophy, mathematics, they were reading the same books that men were reading in men's colleges in the same time period. brian: how many children did they have? prof. greenberg: sarah and james polk had no children. the reason for that, everybody is pretty sure, is because when james was a teenager he had crippling bladder stones. there was no known treatment for this at the time. is father heard about a doctor and took james over 100 miles to meet this doctor. the doctor did surgery on james to remove the bladder stone. it is pretty clear that the surgery left james unable to father children. so, he and sarah never had
kids. one thing i would love to know, but they left no letters about this, is whether, when sarah agreed to marry james she knew they would not have any children. having looked at all of their correspondent -- and all of tence, the correspondentence who knew them best, i have seen no evidence that they missed having children, or that they wanted to have children, or that they felt sad about not having children. one thing is for sure is that, the fact that sarah polk had no children is what allowed her to flour into a political partner for james, and really the most powerful political person at the time period. everybody else, other women, james' own sister gave birth over 10 times. most women's lives were taken up with childbearing. they did not have that thing to
worry about. brian: the word pie yet -- piety you referred to her. why? prof. greenberg: she was extremely religious. she was raised presbyterian. a kind that was going out of style at the time. that was almost a cal vannist presbyterian. she believed, like her mother, and like what were called old-school presbyterians, that god had basically determined whether or not you were going to heaven or hell at ahead of time. od was maybe unknowable. certainly that you cannot ensure your un-salvation. -- your own salvation. which is what a lot of religions in these faiths announced. one reason why it even came popular is because they said to people, talking about baptist, methodist, and presbyterians, they said that god is knowable.
if you look into your heart and you find the lord, the lord will lead you to salvation. sarah did not believe that. she believed in hierarchy, and tradition, and the catechism, so it is a very, very traditional view of the world in which men were put on the top of the ladder, white men, and women were below them, and slaves were below white people, and this was all ordained by god. she took the sabbath extremely seriously. the only time i ever found her to deny james anything was one sunday that he asked her to do some work for him. political work, and she said she would not do it. she did not work on sunday. she did not allow business to be done on sunday. she did not drink, she did not dance, she did not play cards.
this raised some eyebrows. washington, d.c. at the time when she moved there was a freewheeling city. people drank a lot. cards were extremely popular. everyone loved going to the theater. she did not do any of that stuff. brian: putting james polk in perspective, i wrote that he was in a house from 1825 to 1839, was speaker. the only time anybody has gone to the presidency from the speakership in 1835 to 1839. he was governor of the state of tennessee 1839 to 1841. why did he run twice and lose after he was governor? prof. greenberg: maybe the better question is, why did he leave washington, d.c. where he had become speaker of the house, he had a great reputation, his wife was extremely happy. she was a very successful political woman. they just both loved it there, so why did he leave? the reason he left is because the opposition party, the whigs,
they were taking the southwest by storm. kentucky was firmly in the hands of the whigs, and tennessee look like it would fall into their hands. the reason everybody liked this whig program is because the whigs were interested and willing to put serious money into improving roads and bridges and canals in the west. everybody in the west wants to be able to get their crops to market, they want to be more connected financially with the east coast. they feel like farmers east of of the am latch chans have an -- am latchans have an unfair advantage because there is no good roads and no good shipping. they are all falling for this big government whigs platforms. polk said, i will go to tennessee, run for governor, because i am basically the only democrat and the entire state of tennessee who is beloved enough o win. the fact of the matter is that
he does not have a successful two years. he ultimately cannot stop the slide of the party into the hands of the whigs. 1841 to get re-elected that's the first time he was ever lost any race in his life, and it comes with a huge shock. i do not think sarah after that expected him to run again, or wanted him to run again. it made sense to stay in tennessee, deal with business and wait for a call to come from ashington. either he could be a senator, or he could return to the house. she did not see the appeal of staying in tennessee. he wanted to give it another try so he ran again and lost again. brian: you say in your book that she helped him pass the gag rule. what was the gag rule and how did she help? prof. greenberg: the gag rule is
james' signature victory as speaker of the house of representatives. the gag rule was a rule that tabled, without discussion, any petitions that came to congress that dealt with slavery. the right to petition is enshrined in the constitution. it's not something everyone talks about now or cares about, but in the 19th century it was a huge deal. in a time before there are telephones, when travel is difficult, petitioning was one of the main ways that people could communicate with ongress. a group of like-minded people would get together and write a petition and send it to congress. starting in the early 1830's, groups of anti-slavery americans, particularly, or notably women would get together and write a petition and send it to congress. the petition would say something like, we petition congress that
slavery be made illegal. this is never going to happen, but the very fact that these petitions were being read out loud in congress was so upsetting to southerners that they were able to convince the american public, and the house of representatives that one of the main rights in the constitution should be a bridge, -- constitution should be abridged so that they and their sentiments were not offended. slavery was seen as so sensitive that you just cannot talk about it. to suggest that slavery was wrong was so unacceptable that southerners could not have it. so poke who was a southerner and slave owner, managed to get this through congress. it was shocking. it was a shocking thing, particularly for northern's. john quincy adams, who had been
president years before, a one term president, he went to congress as a representative for massachusetts and he made it his main work to bring up slavery as much as possible in response to the gag rule. soy he would not be gagged. he was constantly being called to order because he would talk about slavery. brian: how did she do as a health worker? prof. greenberg: james, not naturally good at convincing people to do things, not a good communicator, not necessarily a persuasive person. sarah opened up rooms in the boarding house that she lived in. particularly to entertain. she held biweekly or triweekly dinner parties where she would invite members of congress to come and talk. they would talk over issues. she would lobby them carefully,
always saying, the speaker of the house thinks this, or the speaker of the house thinks that. brian: was he there? prof. greenberg: sometimes. often times he was not. he loved to work, so many times he would work and leave it to sarah to do the negotiating. brian: you talk about how sick he was and that he died three months after he left the presidency at age 53. one of the notes i wrote down was that, at james polk's death, sarah had 56 slaves. how did that come about? and what about the mississippi plantation? prof. greenberg: this book that i wrote is a biography of sarah polk, but it is about all the people she owned. there were a lot of people and it is about slavery. slavery was central to the polk presidency and central to sarah's life. one of the reasons that sarah
was such an eligible marriage prospect was that upon her father's death she inherited eight or nine slaves. those slaves were valuable human property. men were lining up to meet her. she was wealthy, and a lot her wealth was based on slaves. both her family and james family got rich off of slavery, growing cotton with slaves. slavery was part of their family akeup. james started out as a lawyer, but he did not make a lot of money. it did not seem like he cared about money that much. he was not a rich man. he bought his first plantation when he was in congress. he bought it in tennessee. he just hoped to make money with it. this required buying slaves to staff the plantation. he eventually sold that plantation and bought a whole bunch of land in mississippi
that the choctaw indians had been pushed off of. this is another big story of the book. the way in which indians are pushed off of land that they own so that slave owners can move in and use african american people to grow cotton and make money. that is kind of how western expansion happens in the southwest. porlinge is not only driving that with his legislation and presidency, but he's also making money off of that. he buys a plantation in mississippi and he tells sarah that he intends to make more money or lose more money. this is the only time in his life that i see him really gambling. he says, look, we need to make a gamble on this plantation and try and make some money. he moves the slaves from the tennessee plantation there, and he also moved some of sarah's family slaves. some slaves that she inherited from her father. slaves that had been living with
them in tennessee, but then he starts buying slaves because the mortality rate on this plantation and in the mississippi valley plantations is really terrible. the work is unrelenting. there is a lot of malaria. the disease climate is terrible. young people moved. african-americans are sold to mississippi and they die. this is one reason for african-american slaves, who live on the east coast, being sold to mississippi, as one of the worst states that anyone can imagine. it was basically a death sentence. they have to keep buying more young people to send to the plan tastes to work the cotton because they keep dying. while he's president, so this is kind of one of the things about this time period, is that southerners are insisting that slavery is fine, natural, even god's plan.
some southerners are claiming slavery is less exploitative than working in a factory for an immigrant. they have a lot of crazy arguments like this. but that said, a man could not, in 1844, run for president and have it be known that he was uying and selling slaves . that he was involved in any way of the ugly dirty business of slave sales. polk had his friends say, the only time he ever bought or sold slaves was to keep families together. this is what you had to say. to make it look like you cared about your slaves. in fact, even as he was saying that, he was buying more laves. once he he was president, he couldn't be involved in these deals.
he had sarah work as the middleman or middle woman in between himself and the people he was buying the slaves from so it was up to her to take the money to hand over for the slaves to be purchased and sent to the mississippi plantation. now, all that said, i don't think sarah was particularly involved in this plantation. they had an overseer that was there. she didn't deal with the day-to-day business until james left her a widow, when he died in 1853. and, yeah. 1849, when he died in 1849. brian: he was 53. >> he was 53. at that point she inherited this plantation and all of its occupants. his forced her to face the reality of owning a plantation, which is, as much as southerners, especially southern
white women might like to think that they were good to their slaves, growing cotton on a plantation was a money-making venture and ultimately making money meant forcing the slaves to work oftentimes beyond their capacity. so she was thrust into, for her, a difficult position. of course, nowhere near as difficult as the position of all the men and women that she owned growing cotton, of running a plantation, and she did so up until the civil war. brian: you say she was alive 42 years after he died? professor greenberg: yes. the longest term that anyone is aware of. brian: she got a privilege, to be able to send mail. how did that happen? professor greenberg: the franking privilege is interesting. it was an honor that was given to her after james' death.
this right to send letters, and it was a right that was also given to former presidents and former first ladies at that point. but she lost it again around the civil war. they took it away from people. but she didn't make much use of it. she didn't write a lot. brian: one of the interesting things about the slave business, she bought paul jennings from dolley madison. professor greenberg: yes. brian: for what purpose? professor greenberg: she bought paul jennings from dolly madison to help dolly madison out. dodd little madison was destitute. she had a son who gambled and basically gambled away all of their money, and she was basically broke. she was living in washington, d.c., as this figure beloved by everybody, but she was for all intents and purposes, broke. so by buying paul jennings from dolley madison, sarah was able
to give money to dolley. but in point of fact she only rented paul jennings from dolley. so she employed jennings and elped her out. brian: have you ever read the memoir on jennings? >> yes. i have. it's amazing. he was a remarkable figure. brian: why? >> he was really smart. he was very-- he saw a lot of stuff. i think the auto biography is amazing, and he was very dedicated to the madisons, who treated him extremely badly. especially dolley, i think. brian: it's not a small item, but not earth shattering. what role did she play in raising money for the washington monument? professor greenberg: it's very funny as you say that. as i was driving into d.c. today with my 12 year old
daughter, she said, look, there is the washington monument. i said, did you know that james polk laid the first stone of that monument, and do you know who raised the money? she said, sarah polk? i said yes, that's right. because i trained her well. dolley madison had this dream for a monument, father of the country, george washington. and she convinced sarah to help with the fundraising effort and to reach out to all of her rich friends to build this monument to george washington and sarah got on top of it and together they raised the money for the monument, not for the entire monument but laying the cornerstone of the monument and that's the origins of the washington monument. james laid the first stone, i believe, on the fourth of july. brian: you mentioned your daughter. can i mention her name? professor greenberg: violet. brian: violet. how old is violet? >> 12. brian: how many children do you have? >> i have two. brian: how many months did you spend working on sarah polk?
professor greenberg: i think she's very proud of her mother. a little befuddled. she and her brother, a freshman now in college, yeah, they think it's good. brian: the reason i ask, why should people care about this, you started out by saying james polk lied, we have heard that word a lot in the last several years. have politicians all lied? >> i think james was the first president that i have seen lie. before the middle of the 19th century, a man's honor was so important that politicians couldn't be known to lie. actually, there is plenty of evidence that alexander hamilton lied. i mean, politicians did lie but you had to lie in a way that you
had plausible deniability. you couldn't lie in a way that you could be caught because that would be dishonorable. this honor culture lasted up to about polk. the reason i wrote this book is that, when i was researching the last book, "a wicked war," i was so as astounded by all the stuff that sarah polk did and the way she exercised power. she wrote letters to a supreme court justice and members of ongress that were completely confident, 100% about politics, and were not noticeably different from a letter than a man would write. and they wrote back to her in the same vain. no speaking down to her. her brother as well. she had a brother named john. he would write her and say what's going on with the circular or can you tell me what's happening with this election? i assume no one knows as well as you do.
so in her circle it was obvious to me that she was treated, i can't say necessarily as an equal, but in a way that made no sense to me given the way that we talk about women's roles in this time period. and it struck me that the narrative that we have of women gaining power when they gain the vote, and of course, we've got the anniversary of women winning the right to vote coming up next year, that the narrative, where political powers stems from the franchise, struck me as in no way representative of what i saw going on with sarah polk, and the more research i did on women that she knew, women in washington, women who were married to politicians, or children of politicians but who lived in a political world, i saw more and more of this. women who were not being treated as mentally inferior or unable to operate politically that they were being treated as political
actors. in fact, they weren't political actors. they couldn't vote, but they were influencing legislation. they were clearly expressing their opinions about things, and i thought sarah polk was the key to telling that story. of an alternative political world in which just because women couldn't vote didn't mean that they didn't have political power. brian: on page 117 you refer to james polk's inaugural address. so you sent me there and i read it, and i have it in front of me. the reason i want to read this, though, this is what he said back in 1845 or 1846, whenever he gave his speech. i just want to ask you about this because at the time-- blacks weren't american citizens? >> no. brian: women couldn't vote. did men have to have property back then? >> no. thanks to andrew jackson you did not have to have property to vote. brian: here's one line from the speech.
all citizens, whether native or adopted, are placed upon terms of precise equality. >> yes. brian: all are entitled to equal rights and equal protection. he said that in his speech. >> yep. brian: did everybody go yes? >> that was the democratic belief, yeah. the democratic party grew to power because andrew jackson came into office and he said, look, all white men should be equal. we're all equals here. no more hierarchy based on money, or based on rank. we're doing away with rank. this is the united states. white men are all equal. we're all equal to each other and the way he interpreted that is that no group should have any special privileges or special opportunities that a poor white man didn't have. so it wasn't saying everybody needs to have the same amount of money. but that everybody had the right to become as rich as they could, and nothing should stand in your way.
if you were an uneducated farmer, nothing should keep you from having the same opportunities that the well-born son of a banker in boston had. this was the big appeal of the democratic line. andrew jackson said it and everyone who followed him and emulated him and no one loved and emulated jackson more than young james polk. they said the same thing and they believed it. it's not a coincidence that blacks can't vote. this is part of it, right? because if all white men are equal, that means everybody else is unequal. right? brian: got to go back to the speech. this is another paragraph. it is a source of deep regret that in some sections of our country misguided persons have occasionally indulged in schemes and agitations whose object is the destruction of domestic institutions existing in other sections. institutions which existed at the adoption of the constitution and were recognized and protected by it.
james k. polk, his inauguration speech. >> yeah. what do we think that institution is? slavery. so here we have mr. gag rule speaking up and saying, north, stay out of the south's business. it's none of your business. brian: we need no national banks or other extraneous institutions planted around the government to control or strengthen it in opposition to the will of its authors. same thing that andrew jackson said. >> exactly. brian: i love the part about, he talked about national debt has become almost an institution of european monarchies and he goes on, i went back and looked at the budgets. in 1845 it was $16 million. >> yeah. brian: 1946, 15.5 million, but in 1947, $38 million and $47 million. and in 1849, $63 million.
why did it jump? >> the war with mexico. it's amazing that you brought up the debt line in there because no one cares about that line normally but it's fantastic, right? what the u.s.mexican war does is it forces the u.s. to borrow all of this money from european bankers. we have to start paying off all of that debt. brian: i've got to read that, just given today, we're at $22 trillion in debt. the national debt has become almost an institution. it is viewed in some of them as on essential prop to existing governments. melancholy is the condition of people whose government can be sustained only by a system which periodically transfers large amounts from the labor of the many to the coffers of the few. what's the story around that back in those days? professor greenberg: the story here is that, like i said, the whigs are really the party of
big government, and they are willing to use debt in order to build infrastructure. and the democrats are terrified of debt. they don't believe in debt. they don't believe in expending federal money for anything except the protection of the country. brian: anybody like that today? [laughter] professor greenberg: i think there must be somebody like that today. brian: but you can't name him off the top of your head? ofessor greenberg: i am -- i tell all my students if p it happened after 1899 i can't say off the top of my head. brian: here's some more from the speech. it's confidently believed that our system may safely-- may be safely extended to the utmost pounds of territorial limits. it shall be extended, bonds of our union, so far, from being weakened, it will become stronger.
>> that didn't work out, did it? what that is in response to is again the whig party where they really didn't think that we should be spending all of our money in energy. taking territories way out to the west, where no one lived. what we should be doing is strengthening the economy where the people did live so that meant build factories, improve ports, extend credit so that young men who didn't have any money could take out some loans and start a business. so they really believed in economic development, where as the democrats just believed in territorial expansion, and the reason for that is that democrats thought the most virtuous and best way to live in the united states was to be a farmer. to be an independent land holding farmer. don't live in the city. grow your crop.
participate in your community, and own your own land. in order to do that, we needed to get more land. so it's two very different views of how the united states should develop. brian: you write in your book about the manifest destiny. what is it and who invented the term? professor greenberg: john sullivan, who was a journalist. he joined the term. but the idea goes back almost to the founding of the united states, or perhaps even earlier. and this is the idea that the american experiment, the movement of europeans to this new continent, and especially anglo europeans, that it was destined to be the greatest civilization in the history of the world and that god had singled out this european people who moved to the americas and formed this amazing country, the
first democracy with the first constitution, and political freedom, that this experiment, the united states, would expand, maybe indefinitely, over all of the territory anywhere near it because of its superiority to all other governmental forms. i think it was a deeply, deeply held belief. even among whigs. they didn't agree with the u.s.mexican war. they didn't think we should go to war in order to claim territory. they thought it would be a natural process, that anybody, canadians, mexicans, anyone living near the united states would look at the united states and say, wow, everything is a lot better there. let's join in. brian: what was your key to getting new information? i mean, you mentioned earlier about people that she wrote to the supreme court, john, who was on the supreme court and also
aaron brown, who was a law partner of james polk. >> yes. brian: you seem to have a lot of letters. where did you find them and had they ever been published before? >> so before i wrote this book, there had been no scholarly biography ever of sarah polk. there was one short biography written by a doctor some time ago that had some very good nformation in it but also used some sources that professional historians don't accept as legitimate because they are fictional, and that was about it. so putting together, trying to write sarah polk's story required building an archive of all of her correspondence. a lot of politicians and first ladies left ample amount of correspondence and diaries. sarah polk didn't do that.
there have been a number of biographies recently that have come out about louise adams, john quincy adams' wife, and i'm so envious of those scholars because she loved to write letters and she kept a diary and kept a remarkable correspondentence with her father-in-law and there is all this material and sarah polk had very little material. so what i started out with is i collected all the letters that i could find and then i wrote to archivists. they put me in touch with people who owned letters that hadn't been published. the editor of the polk papers, michael david cohen, he was so remarkably helpful. any time they came across any letter that had anything to do with sarah, he would forward it to me. so people, a lot of people all around the country helped me out. brian: i can't let you pass without mentioning what you mentioned in your acknowledgements, that he shared
was the only known example of james polk laughing. what was it? >> he found a letter where james was looking at the plans for this remarkable house he hoped to build in nashville, which he did end up building, and there was a joke about maybe one room would be the ballroom for dancing, and the reason that this was a joke was because james and sarah didn't dance at all. it wasn't a particularly funny joke, but it was a joke. yeah. he didn't joke at all. he had no sense of humor. brian: before we end this i want to make sure i ask you, how long have you been at penn state? >> 24 years. brian: what do you teach? >> american history, 19th century history. i teach a course on the early american republic which goes from the constitution to the u.s./mexico war. one of my favorite classes.
i teach grad seminars on 19th century. i teach the u.s. and latin america. i have a class that i teach called "sex and violence" in 19th century america which i do to attract students to the class. i figured if they had sex and violence in it, they would come. >> did it work? > yes, it did. brian: have you taught sarah polk to your students? >> very little, not yet. brian: when do you think they will get interested? you gave it away with sex and violence but was there much sex nd violence -- >> there was plenty of sex an violence but she had no part in hat. there were brothels. yeah, i talked about, there were a lot of brothels in cities. sarah, of course, did not go near those places. boxing was an incredible popular sport. brian: was she a gossip?
you say in the book that he wasn't. professor greenberg: to be fair, i think she was a gossip. if you look at the letters she wrote, they were clearly gossip. brian: what was her relation ship with aaron brown? >> i believe they were friends. just straight up political friends who would rather talk to each other about politics than anybody else, because they both say that about her. brian: she lived 42 years, as we talked about, after he died. how sick was he? >> he never had a strong constitution. i think he just was never a particularly healthy person. he didn't like eating. i don't think he ate very much. brian: was he smaller than her? >> well, the people have talked about her being tall but when you look at her dresses, they are tiny, like she was no more than a hundred pounds and at the
most 5'3". she had a size 2 foot. she was a tiny woman, but he was small. i think he was 5'6", 5'7", very skinny, compared to him he looked tall. brian: did she wear black for the rest of her life? >> she did every day. brian: she was out among the public? >> she was out among the public. her black clothes were well trimmed, well turned out. they were well tailored. but yeah, she never stopped wearing black. she really embraced the role of polk's widow. she saw it as her job in the last decades of her life to convince the american public that polk had been a great president, because by the time the civil war is over, the reputation of the mexican war is really not high in the united states. the republican party has taken over the government and the republican party basically emerged out of the whig party. it really came out of a lot of
different forces but the republicans really looked to the whig party as their forebearers and they thought the democratic party was the bad party because it had been during the civil war, and certainly it was problematic before the war. so basically nobody had anything to say about the u.s.-mexican war or about polk. so sarah made it her business to say i am mrs. james k. poke. i'm james' widow and i'm going to talk whenever possible about what a great president he was and what a great war the war was, and she made that her mission. brian: how many letters did you end up collecting? >> over a hundred, less than 200. brian: what are you going to do ith those? >> oh, they are all on my computer. brian: are you going to put them in a library where everybody can get to them eventually? >> that's a great idea. yeah, i should do that. brian: did you get another book out of this time you spend with sarah polk? >> is there something else you want to write about because of what you saw here?
>> i have been thinking about writing a book about the polk plantation in mississippi because, like i said, i got interested in the people that lived there. some of the people who were owned by the polks and lived on that plantation, ended up fighting in the civil war on the union side, and then went on and had lives. thanks to pension records, after the civil war, you can kind of trace what happened to some of these people. i'm thinking about writing more about the polk plantation. brian: last question. if you got a chance to-- meet sarah polk, do you think you ould like her? >> i think i would like her more than james but there would be definitely things we would not talk about. couldn't talk about. brian: like? >> like slavery, which she thought was right and i'm actually not a huge fan of the democratic political platform either. i think roads and bridges are great. rian: the cover with her
portrait is from where, and was it your idea? >> oh, that's great. the cover has a portrait that was written when she was in the white house, a portrait that was painted when she was in the white house, which is a really nice portrait of her, and what the design people did, this was not my idea at all, i don't tell what the design people to do because they have better ideas than me, is they took one of james' campaign ribbons and the design on the campaign ribbon and put it behind her, so it's as if she were running for president. i think it's very effective and i was really impressed. brian: the name of the book is "lady first, the world of first lady sarah polk," and our guest has been amy greenburg. thank you very much. >> for free transcripts or to give us your comments about this program, visit us at q&a.org. programs are also available at c-span podcast.
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