Abigail Fillmore Juvenile/Educational Biography

Abigail Powers Fillmore
(March 13, 1798 - March 30, 1853)
            The first of the First Ladies to hold a job after marriage, Abigail Fillmore showed the independence of spirit and love of learning that characterized her activities throughout her entire life.  Few primary source materials about Abigail Fillmore remain, making this extremely private First Lady even more of an enigma.  Because her son ordered the burning of all her papers at the time of her death, what we do know about her comes through the eyes of others--their letters from her, their remembrances of what she was like, their calendars of events at which she was present, as well as legal records and newspaper artifacts. 
Birth, Youth, and Marriage
            Abigail Powers was born in Stillwater in Saratoga County, New York, on March 13, 1798, the seventh child and second daughter of Lemuel and Abigail (Newland) Powers.  Her father was a locally prominent Baptist preacher who had moved to the New York wilderness from Massachusetts in the late 1780s.  His death just months after Abigail’s birth was a serious economic blow for the family.  Nothing is known of Abigail’s  childhood; however, in 1808 Mrs. Powers joined several of her relatives in moving to the frontier village of Sempronius near Moravia, NY, in the Finger Lakes region.  She was convinced that her meager means would go further in a less settled region.  Because schools were scarce and good schools nonexistent, she ably educated her youngest son and daughter beyond the usual frontier school level with the help of her husband’s personal library.  
            Abigail began teaching in a one-room school when she was sixteen (1814).  She later continued her own education by attending a local academy in New Hope, NY, and teaching there as well.  Late in the winter of 1818, she met Millard Fillmore.  It is unclear whether they were both students at the academy or, as some sources maintain, she was Millard’s teacher.   What is known is that Millard was no usual frontier lout, and by 1819 he and Abigail were “keeping company” and became engaged. 
            Although dirt poor, Millard was determined to become a lawyer.  He was apprenticed to a clothmaker who permitted him leave to attend school.  His father was entitled to his earning as apprentice but chose not to collect them.  These two unusual circumstances permitted Millard to study law for two months with a county judge where he demonstrated unusual ability.  He became a teacher himself to increase his earnings and, after two years, was able to purchase his indenture.  He became a full-time clerk to Judge Walter Wood in Montville, NY, the usual way a young man learned the law.  During one three-year span, he and Abigail were not able to see each other, but they wrote frequently.  None of these letters remain.  The couple was finally married on February 5, 1826, in her brother’s Moravia home by the local Episcopal clergyman, after a six-year engagement. 
Home and Family
            Home for the young couple was in East Aurora, NY, where Abigail continued to teach school, becoming the first First Lady to have a job outside the home after marriage.  In this way, the couple was able to eke out a living while Millard established his law practice.  Their son, Millard Powers Fillmore, was born April 25, 1828, and their daughter, Mary Abigail, was born March 27, 1832.  The birth of the children effectively ended Abigail’s teaching career, but not her love of books.  It is estimated that during their marriage, she and Millard collected over 4,000 books in their personal library, many coming as gifts from Millard after absences for political reasons or while practicing law and traveling the court circuit.
            Long separations between Abigail and Millard were the norm.  He had been elected to the state legislature in 1828 and the couple moved to Buffalo in the spring of 1830.  Here, Millard continued his law practice and changed political parties, becoming a Whig.  His steady political climb--he was elected to the first of four Congressional terms in 1832--and his increasing affluence opened to Abigail a new world of formal dinners, recitals, dances, lectures, and plays.  She was not entirely at ease in this environment and frequently escaped to the security of her library.  She and her husband joined the Unitarian Church and, it is believed, she helped to set up a lending library.  Although a generous and warm-hearted person, Abigail tended toward throughtful introspection rather than vivacity.
            From 1836 until 1842, Abigail lived in Washington, DC, while Millard served as a Congressman.  The children remained in New York State with relatives.  In letters to her children, she is shown as a stern but loving mother who believed strongly in self-improvement.  She also corrected the spelling and grammar in her children’s letters.  Although she missed her children, Abigail found much to do in Washington.  Like many political wives, she often attended sessions of Congress and listened to the debates.  She also attended receptions with her husband and was a frequent visitor at galleries and the theatre. 
            At some point in 1842, Abigail slipped on an uneven sidewalk and her ankle turned inward, resulting in great pain and swelling.  This injury became a chronic problem that plagued her for the rest of her life.  Treatment of injuries of this sort (probably a broken bone in the ankle) was quite primitive--warm compresses and rest.  By walking on the injured ankle too soon, Abigail aggravated the problem and this resulted in the need for her to use crutches for two years.  Although she visited spas that helped alleviate the pain temporarily, she would have periods of great pain for the rest of her life.  As time passed, her health was slowly undermined by her inability to move about freely. 
The White House Years
            After Millard’s election to the office of State Comptroller in 1847, Abigail moved with him to Albany, New York.  Because her health had not improved, they lived quietly in a boarding house.  In many ways, Abigail was glad that her children were now away at school because she feared the distractions of Albany society on their schoolwork.  Her letters to her daughter make evident her belief that women should work as hard as men to cultivate their minds.  She herself relished intellectual conversations, which she labeled “mental treats.” 
            In 1848, Millard’s name was placed in nomination as vice president along with that of Zachary Taylor as president.  During the ensuing campaign, Abigail played no role because of the continual pain in her ankle.  After Millard became vice president, Abigail stayed on in Buffalo while her husband was in Washington, DC.  In very low spirits, Abigail commented that her birthday had passed and that she had a feeling she would not see many more.  She noted that she was surprised by the number of office seekers who came to speak to her, and she spoke on behalf of a number of them to her husband.  After a short visit to Washington, Abigail returned to their home in Buffalo in April 1850.  Her desire to be with her husband was unexpectedly answered when Zachary Taylor died on July 9, 1850.  Abigail and the two children were visiting a seaside resort in New Jersey at the time.  The new President joined them and escorted them to their new home, the White House. 
            Abigail often found the social expectations of the role of First Lady more than she could physically fulfill; as a result, she turned to her outgoing, talented daughter Abby to take over some of the duties.  When she was well, Abigail often attended events without her husband or another escort, actions that were condemned by some newspaper editors.  The concert by Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” was one event she attended unescorted.  Later, the family entertained Miss Lind in the White House.  The singer found the family intelligent and unpretentious.  In 1851, Lajos Kossuth, the Hungarian patriot freed from a Turkish prison, was entertained at dinner by the Secretary of State.  Millard was unable to attend, but Abigail went with Abby. 
            The White House was not known for its comfort or for erudition.  In fact, Abigail was appalled to find no books in the building, not even a Bible or a dictionary.  Through a special appropriations bill requested by Millard, Congress approved the purchase of a number of books to be selected by Abigail.  She moved her piano and harp into the Oval Room on the second floor of the White House and had bookcases constructed to hold the several hundred volumes purchased.  She chose works by Shakespeare, Dickens, Thackeray, and Burns, travel books, biographies, histories, law books, religious works and novels.  This was the beginnings of the White House library.  In addition, Abigail entertained not only the American writer Washington Irving, but also her two personal idols, Dickens and Thackeray.  And to make the house more livable, she enlarged the heating system, repapered the walls of the public rooms, and added an iron range to the kitchen. 
            Millard’s support of the Compromise of 1850 and the accompanying Fugitive Slave Act proved to be a political disaster.    In a misguided attempt to appease the South, Millard signed the Act.  Although it cannot be verified, it is believed that Abigail, a well-informed, politically astute woman, warned him of the political danger of his position.  She feared that it would end his political career.  And indeed it did.  The Whigs, meeting in convention in 1852, nominated Winfield Scott rather than Millard.  Scott and his running mate were soundly defeated by Franklin Pierce. 
            Abigail learned of the tragic death of Pierce’s youngest and last surviving son in January 1853.  She made a point of greeting the new president-elect when he arrived in Washington late in February.  On February 28, 1853, the Fillmores entertained both Irving and Thackeray at a reception for Franklin Pierce.  And on March 4, 1853, Abigail insisted on standing near both her husband and the grieving Pierce, whose wife refused to leave their home in Baltimore, for the inauguration.  Abigail had already packed up and had the family’s things moved out of the White House and shipped to their home in Buffalo.  She and Millard decided to remain in Washington at the Willard Hotel for several weeks before returning home.  They received many well-wishers.  Although Abigail did leave the hotel to go shopping, she found that the cold she had had all winter lingered on, especially after standing without shelter during the long proceedings of Pierce’s inauguration.  After she collapsed at the hotel, she was diagnosed with bronchial pneumonia.  Millard grew alarmed as his wife’s condition worsened.  On March 30, 1853, Abigail Fillmore died.  President Pierce made a formal visit to Millard, while his Cabinet and the Congress formally adjourned in Abigail’s memory.  Her body was returned to Buffalo, New York, for burial.
            Although a quiet, introspective, and conventional woman of her time, Abigail Powers Fillmore was the first First Lady to have a job outside the home after marriage.  Her intelligence made clear that a woman’s mind was just as capable of being molded and shaped as a man’s.  Her intellectual interests led her to found the White House Library and to receive the political, literary, and musical figures of the day.  Her views were enlightened for the time and, because she did not threaten the male-dominated world of the nation’s capitol, she proved an asset to her husband.  She clearly had the ability, the intelligence, and the vision to contribute much to American life.  It is regrettable that her opportunity to do so was so abbreviated.