A Reference Resource
Books were important to Abigail Powers Fillmore. As a girl, her father's library fostered a love of learning she sought to share with others. She helped establish a lending library in the frontier town where she spent her childhood, and as a teacher, she passed on her zeal for learning and books to her students. One former student, Millard Fillmore, shared his teacher's love of books and learning. Two years Abigail's junior, Fillmore was intent on a career in law -- and intent on courting Abigail Powers. As he pursued his legal studies and Abigail continued her teaching, the two became intellectual partners as well as husband and wife.
After a brief stint in the New York state legislature, Millard Fillmore began his law practice in Buffalo. There the couple started a family, helped to create a lending library, and worked to promote public education. During this time, Abigail read widely, studied French, and practiced the piano. In 1836, Abigail left her children in Buffalo to accompany Fillmore to the nation's capital for his second congressional term. In Washington, Abigail applied her intellectual energy to politics. She listened to Senate and House debates, read newspapers, and discussed the political issues of the day. She became an adviser to her husband, who acknowledged and appreciated her insight and advice. She also performed the social duties incumbent on a congressman's wife interested in furthering her husband's political career, attending important social events and leaving her calling cards at the households of various government officials.
Although she preferred to be out of the public eye, Abigail enjoyed life in Washington. She attended church, concerts, and lectures; shopped; and even went to the races. All this ended when Fillmore left Congress in 1842. As her husband pursued various offices in the years to come, Abigail would suffer the effects of a severe foot injury and various illnesses which limited her involvement in and enjoyment of Fillmore's political success. Indeed, when Millard Fillmore was nominated as the Whig vice-presidential candidate in 1848, Abigail spent the campaign often confined to her room, having to endure headaches and back and hip ailments. When the ticket of Taylor and Fillmore won the
Abigail Powers Fillmore, first wife of President Millard Fillmore, 1830s. (portrait)
election in 1848, Abigail's ill health kept her in New York.
With her husband in Washington and her children away at school, Abigail sought solace in books. She also read newspapers to keep apprised of political developments in the capital. Despite the distance, she continued to serve as her husband's political adviser. But Abigail Powers Fillmore was about to assume an even greater role in her husband's political life. When Zachary Taylor died suddenly in July 1850, Millard Fillmore became President, and Abigail Fillmore prepared to assume the responsibilities of the President's wife.
Of major concern to Abigail were her social duties. She was not overly enthusiastic about the enormous social dimension of her role and was concerned that Washington society would find her boring. She reduced the burden by limiting the regular social calendar and asking her daughter, Mary Abigail Fillmore, to hostess events when she was ill. Still, Abigail's social obligations were demanding. She held morning receptions on Tuesdays, hostessed large dinners on Thursdays, greeted visitors at evening levees on Fridays, and welcomed guests to smaller dinners on Saturdays. Because evening receptions -- especially the levees -- required hours of standing, Abigail would often spend the entire day in bed to rest her bad ankle.
Although her social obligations were often fatiguing, other aspects of her role were inspiring. When Abigail took up residence in the presidential mansion, she discovered that the White House lacked a library. She sought to address the oversight and urged her husband to get congressional approval for funds to establish a White House library. Fillmore succeeded and Abigail spent months selecting several hundred volumes for the upstairs oval room. The library became not only a repository for books but also a place for small musical gatherings and vigorous political discussions among the Fillmores and various statesmen and authors. Mrs. Fillmore made further cultural contributions to life in the White House as she invited prominent lecturers and performers to enlighten and entertain guests at the presidential mansion.
While Abigail was an important cultural and intellectual presence in her husband's administration, her political influence was also significant. She seems to have convinced the President to end the practice of flogging in the Navy and tried to convince him to veto the Fugitive Slave Bill. Perhaps if Millard Fillmore had listened, he might have been elected President in his own right. Instead, he was defeated for the Whig presidential nomination of 1852.
Since Abigail Fillmore spent only two years in the White House, she, like her husband, is often relegated to the footnotes of presidential history. Yet her accomplishments bear remembering: she founded the White House Library and focused attention on arts and learning -- concerns more often associated with the twentieth-century tenure of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy than with the nineteenth-century first ladyship of Abigail Powers Fillmore.