In what is likely the last letter he wrote in private hands, he shows that even at the end, he retained his public-spirited nature.
On March 5, 1849, Zachary Taylor was inaugurated as the 12th President of the United States, and Polk began a goodwill tour of the South that would eventually end in Tennessee. But there was cholera on his boat and in New Orleans along the way, and by his arrival in Tennessee in...
On March 5, 1849, Zachary Taylor was inaugurated as the 12th President of the United States, and Polk began a goodwill tour of the South that would eventually end in Tennessee. But there was cholera on his boat and in New Orleans along the way, and by his arrival in Tennessee in early April, he was already ill. After visiting his mother, on April 24 he returned to Nashville to his new home, Polk Place, near Capitol Hill, only to find cholera in that city as well. He and his wife Sarah set about moving in, and he was looking forward to starting his new life as a private citizen. He was also thinking of his place in history and how his presidential papers ought to be handled, writing on May 9 to his former Secretary of War William Marcy that the acts of their administration were now “a part of the public history…”
Though his health was poor even as he pondered this, his public-spirited nature was as strong as ever. When one of Nashville's Capitol Hill fire companies elected their new neighbor an honorary member in May, Polk not only accepted but made it clear that he was not just pleased with his election, but that he would role up his sleeves and man the pumps with the rest of the men.
Autograph Letter Signed, Nashville, May 28, 1849, to to W.C. Dibrell, Secretary of the Capital Hill Fire Company No. 4, accepting honorary membership, and volunteering to become a working member. "I have received your note of the 17th instant, notifying me that I had been ‘elected as an honorary member of Capital Hill Fire Company No. 4,’ of this city. Having recently become a citizen of that part of the City in which your Company is organized, it gives me pleasure to accept the honor conferred; and should the occasion for it occur, it will give me equal pleasure to be a working, as well as an honorary member of the Company." Dibrell’s letter notifying Polk is in the Library of Congress.
Polk made his last entry in his diary on June 2, and was fatally stricken on June 4. The exact cause of death is unknown, but it is believed that he had contracted cholera and could not survive its ravishes. He died on June 15, having been a former president for just 112 days, the shortest period of any president. His last words illustrate his devotion to his wife: "I love you, Sarah. For all eternity, I love you."
The Polk Papers project states that the last letter written by Polk was dated May 29, 1849, and it is now held by Harvard University. On May 28 he is known to have written nine letters, of which one is owned by the Illinois State Historical Library. Seven others are known because they appear in Polk’s retained correspondence book, and the Polk Papers is not aware of any mailed originals that may have survived. Moreover, research has shown that not one of these other letters of Polk from May 28, 1849 has reached the public market in at least 40 years, nor do we recall having seen one before now. So this letter, previously unknown and unpublished, is the last Polk letter definitively known to be in private hands. As for the Nashville Capital Hill Fire Company No. 4, it lost a friend, neighbor and member, but he was not forgotten. In 1860 its new fire engine was called the James K. Polk.
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