Capitol Commission: Not so fast on Polk move

Gov. Bill Haslam attends a ceremony at the James K. Polk tomb in Nashville on Nov. 2, 2012. (Image credit: Gov. Bill Haslam’s office)

(A report from on our James K. Polk correspondent J.R. Lind)

The Capitol Commission, the obscure hodgepodge body charged with maintenance of the state Capitol grounds, will wait just a bit longer to decide whether to give its imprimatur to the effort to relocate the tomb of President James K. Polk and his wife, Sarah.

The commission heard arguments from both sides Friday, but opted to delay a vote to some unspecified future date on the advice of chairman Larry Martin, the commissioner of Finance and Administration.

Spearheaded by Maury County legislators led by Republican Sen. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald, the movement to exhume the Polks from their tomb on the Capitol grounds and move them to the Polk Ancestral Home in Columbia has wound through the legislature for nearly two years.

Polk is the only president buried on the grounds of a state Capitol and a 1981 law — passed to flummox an effort from Nashville to move the tomb to Centennial Park — required the legislature to approve the removal of his tomb. Though it took two votes in the House, the necessary resolution passed in April, despite opposition from numerous legislators of both parties (several of whom changed their positions on successive votes), preservationists, and historians.

The 2016 Tennessee Heritage Protection Act, however, makes things more complicated, requiring the consent of the Capitol Commission, the State Building Commission and a two-thirds vote of the Tennessee Historical Commission. Even if both of those bodies give the OK, a chancery court challenge is likely, as Polk’s numerous collateral descendants — James and Sarah had no children — are split on the matter. To further complicate things, the state attorney general opined in 1980 that the remains of the Polks are not state property and thus cannot be conveyed by the state.

The Tennessee Historical Commission’s executive director, Patrick McIntyre, called the proposal “inappropriate” and “ahistorical” in a 2017 letter to the James K. Polk Memorial Association, saying “our agency will continue to oppose it.” Dan Brown, THC’s historic sites director, reiterated organization’s opposition Friday, saying that altering a historic site risks its federal designation, putting the designation of both the state Capitol and the Polk Ancestral Home in danger.

Brown also noted that Sarah Polk had “plenty of time” to change her will to be buried where she wished if it wasn’t in Nashville.

“This is considered a tragedy” by preservationists and historians across the country, Brown said.

The President and Mrs. Polk never lived at the home in Columbia, which was built by the president’s father while James was in law school in North Carolina. John Summers, an Historic Nashville board member, did note Polk did live there “intermittently” while serving as clerk to the Tennessee House, at the time meeting in Murfreesboro, and as a legal assistant to Felix Grundy in Nashville.

Polk’s will specifically said he and his wife wished to be buried in Nashville at Polk Place, which was razed in 1893, two years after Sarah’s death, at which time the Polks were relocated to Capitol Hill.

9 Responses to Capitol Commission: Not so fast on Polk move

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    Donna Locke says:

    J.R. Lind continues to shop inaccuracies about James K. Polk and his house in Columbia. What is the reason for that?

    This home in Columbia, where Polk most certainly did live and is near where he had a law office, is where Polk’s history and that of his wife Sarah has been lovingly preserved. No doubt Polk expressed a wish to be buried at his home in Nashville because his wife was there and living at the time. Well, Sarah is dead and that Nashville house is gone.

    Polk lived part of his childhood in Maury County and lived in other houses in Columbia. No one knows what he would want now. He is most certainly not buried at home as he requested.

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    Cannoneer2 says:

    We need to deal with 21st Century problems before we dig up additional problems from the 19th Century. This is a waste of time and money.

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    James White says:

    Leave the Memorials alone.

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      Donna Locke says:

      The way Nashville is going with the behavior of the left, I expect Polk’s grave there will eventually be trashed.

      Many people are onboard for moving the Polks’ graves to Columbia. I don’t feel as strongly as some about it–I would like to have a sense of what the Polks would want–but I can see good reasons for it. My main purpose in commenting has been to point out inaccuracies and lies (since the perpetrators don’t correct after being corrected, it is intentional disregard for facts), and all or most of these inaccuracies have come from current and former SouthComm writers. They are not actual journalists. They don’t meet the standard, frankly.

      Decisions like this should be made after considering all relevant FACTS.

      I live in Columbia. I grew up here and know, have always known, how the Polks’ history and legacy have been preserved here. By the way, some furniture and other stuff from the Polks’ destroyed Nashville house is in the Polk Home in Columbia. And, something I think is important is that Polk’s parents are buried not far from this Columbia Polk Home, in our old Greenwood Cemetery.

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    David Sowell says:

    President Polk was a competent attorney. Originally, if he had wanted for his wife and himself to be buried in Columbia, he would have specified that in his will. He didn’t. He stated “Nashville.” Case closed.

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      Donna Locke says:

      His wife was alive and living there at the time. Surely that figured into his decision. His home there no longer exists, so no one can say what he would want now. I certainly have no idea.

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    Catherine Harris says:

    I am a collateral descendant of the Harrises and Polks who signed the Mecklenberg Declaration in NC. I came late to my family’s history, being a California native now living in SC – in part, because of more reverence of our State’s history. After more than a decade rectifying my knowledge of history, I just want to add… Politically, now is not the time to be making ANY decisions about changing monuments. The ideologues who seek to divorce today’s and future generations from our collective American past want to gut the efforts of preservationists. This, to me, is argument enough to leave things alone. Of course, the devotion of Columbia residents to the Polk’s legacy is a powerful argument. But there is another – Polk’s legacy today is all out of proportion to the reality of his dominance in the American story. He was Andrew Jackson’s hand-picked heir in terms of policy. As I read the original sources and stories of men and women, he and his wife deserve a place on center stage – more argument for leaving things alone as they are. We can continue to work and pray for an American Renaissance, for ALL Americans, of reverence for our national builders and the truths of history.

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    Edward P. Fleet (Ned) says:

    I believe there is a dispute as to whether President Polk descended from the Somerset Co. MD Polks or another line. If a DNA test could be done when and if he is moved, it could resolve this issue. My Y DNA is a match with the Somerset Co. Polks, while at least one or more descendants of General Thomas Polk are not. How important would it be to historians to find out for sure whether General Thomas Polk and President Polk’s grandfather Ezekial Polk were brothers or not?

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