Historical organizations clash over President James K. Polk's remains

The James K. Polk Museum isn't done pushing its efforts to have the president's remains removed from the Tennessee state Capitol and moved to Columbia.

A lawyer for the museum pushed back against the Tennessee Historical Commission's executive director, who wrote in a letter last week that the move would "create a false sense of history."

“Your decision in disseminating the letter is unethical and illegal,” Douglas Jones, the lawyer for the James K. Polk Museum, said in response to E. Patrick McIntyre, the commission's executive director. “It constitutes arbitrary and capricious conduct. It is an abuse of discretion.”

The back-and-forth letters are the latest in a series of public fights between different historic groups over the remains of the 11th president and his wife, Sarah.

The debate over moving the president’s body dates back to the demise of his Nashville estate Polk Place in 1893. Polk died shortly after leaving office in 1849. He was originally buried in a city grave in Nashville, but his remains were then moved to a plot at the family estate downtown as requested in his will. Sarah Polk died in 1891, leaving no direct heirs.

A family disagreement over the estate led Davidson County Chancery Court to dissolve the will, leaving the Tennessee General Assembly in charge to find a “suitable place” for the Polks’ remains. They decided the east side of the Capitol would be best. The Polks have remained there ever since.

But now, a proposal to move the Polks from the Capitol to his presidential museum 50 miles south in Columbia has gathered momentum in the past few months. The General Assembly stepped into the debate after the Senate passed a joint resolution in late March. The resolution marked the first formal steps to move the remains after months of grass-roots organizing by local supporters throughout Middle Tennessee.

At the backing of the James K. Polk Home and Museum in Columbia, Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, sponsored the resolution.

Several days after the resolution passed the Senate, McIntyre sent a scathing letter to the James K. Polk Memorial Association condemning efforts to move Polk's remains, going as far as saying a move would create a “false sense of history.” McIntyre concludes that the historical commission will continue to oppose the project and recommends the Polk association suspend its efforts.

“We reject your argument that moving the tomb would contribute to a ‘false sense of history,' ” Jones wrote in his letter. “The Polk tomb currently is not in its original location.”

Not only are historic organizations battling over what a "suitable place" means for Polk, but distant descendants find themselves on different sides of the debate.

"Every step they take is one step toward grave robbery,” Teresa Elam, a seventh-generation niece of Polk from Wilson County, said last month. “It would be like taking someone out of Arlington (National Cemetery) and taking them to the family farm and putting them behind the barn."

“The only home that he lived in that’s still standing is his home in Columbia," said Polk's fourth great-nephew James K. Polk Van Zandt. "Except the White House, and I don’t think they’ll want him there.”

This is the first major test of the 2016 Tennessee Heritage Protection Act. Passed last year, the act added more hurdles to any potential changes to historic landmarks or historically named public buildings, streets or bridges in Tennessee. Critics argued that the legislation was an effort to make it more difficult to remove controversial Confederate memorials. To move Polk's remains, supporters would need to petition the 29-person historical commission, which would then issue a decision.

Jones in his letter said that taking a position now — before the full historical commission can hear arguments in favor of a move — is a legal violation of the Heritage Protection Act.

McIntyre disputed those claims in an email response to The Tennessean on Monday, differentiating between the appointed Tennessee Historical Commission and his duties with the State Historic Preservation Office.

"Nothing in our agency's correspondence of April 3, 2017 is meant to construe the position of the appointed Tennessee Historical Commission, and our agency’s position would not preclude this matter from being heard as a waiver request should a public entity make such a request," he said. "No public entity has submitted a request at this time."

The Tennessee Historical Commission has not received a petition from the Polk Museum, according to McIntyre. The James K. Polk Memorial Association, which operates the Polk Home and Museum State Historic Site, operates under a trust through the Tennessee Historical Commission.

Jake Lowary contributed to this report.

Reach Kirk A. Bado on Twitter at @kirk_bado.

This story originally appeared on The Tennessean’s website.

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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