Abigail Fillmore was not your typical first lady. She was the first one to work outside of the home as a teacher, and she met her husband Millard Fillmore when he was her student at a school in New York. She was also a book lover who created the first White House library and hosted some of the era’s renowned artists in it.
Abigail Fillmore was born in 1798 in Saratoga County, New York, to a Baptist minister named Lemuel Powers. She inherited her father’s love of books and education, and started teaching at the age of 16. She taught Millard Fillmore, who was two years younger than her, and they fell in love. They married in 1826 and moved to Buffalo, where Millard pursued his law and political career.
Abigail Fillmore supported her husband’s career and advised him on state affairs, but she was not very active as a social hostess due to her poor health and a foot injury that limited her mobility. She delegated many of her duties to her daughter Mary Abigail, who also shared her mother’s passion for music and literature. Abigail Fillmore preferred attending art galleries and lectures over glitzy social events.Embed from Getty Images
She became the first lady in 1850 after President Zachary Taylor died and Millard Fillmore succeeded him. She remained an important advisor to her husband, although he did not follow her suggestion to veto the Fugitive Slave Act, which angered many abolitionists and hurt his chances of re-election.
Abigail Fillmore’s most notable achievement as first lady was the establishment of the first White House library. She secured a special appropriation from Congress to buy books for the library and arranged them in an oval room upstairs, where Mary Abigail had her piano, harp, and guitar. The library became a popular reception room and a literary salon, where Abigail Fillmore could enjoy the music she so much loved, and the conversation of…cultivated society….
She also invited some of the famous writers of the time to visit the library, such as Washington Irving and Charles Dickens. She had a lively correspondence with them and other literary figures, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Abigail Fillmore died of pneumonia shortly after leaving the White House in 1853. She was the last of the first ladies born in the 18th century. She left behind a legacy of books and culture that enriched the lives of many Americans. She also had a dark secret that tarnished her father’s reputation: he was accused of misconduct or unchastity by his church members, which led to their dispersion.
Abigail Fillmore was a remarkable woman who defied the norms of her time and turned the White House into a literary salon. She was a teacher, a reader, a writer, and a lover of books. She was not your typical first lady.
– Abigail Fillmore – HISTORY, History.com, August 21, 2018
– Abigail Fillmore Biography :: National First Ladies’ Library, archive.firstladies.org
– Abigail Powers Fillmore | The White House, whitehouse.gov
– ‘One of Your Own in the White House’: A History of Teacher First Ladies …, Education Week, November 18, 2020
– First Ladies Trivia: Surprising Facts about First Ladies – Reader’s Digest, Reader’s Digest