Abigail Powers Fillmore had first met husband President Millard Fillmore when he was her student, and as a teacher she had been the first First Lady to have held a job after marriage. During her time as a First Lady (1850-1853), she made certain the White House had a music room and three pianos, and she further made additions to the White House library.
First of First Ladies to hold a job after marriage, Abigail Fillmore was helping her husband’s career. She was also revealing her most striking personal characteristic: eagerness to learn and pleasure in teaching others.
She was born in Saratoga County, New York, in 1798, while it was still on the fringe of civilization. Her father, a locally prominent Baptist preacher named Lemuel Powers, died shortly thereafter. Courageously, her mother moved on westward, thinking her scanty funds would go further in a less settled region, and ably educated her small son and daughter beyond the usual frontier level with the help of her husband’s library.
Shared eagerness for schooling formed a bond when Abigail Powers at 21 met Millard Fillmore at 19, both students at a recently opened academy in the village of New Hope. Although she soon became young Fillmore’s inspiration, his struggle to make his way as a lawyer was so long and ill paid that they were not married until February 1826. She even resumed teaching school after the marriage. And then her only son, Millard Powers, was born in 1828.
Attaining prosperity at last, Fillmore bought his family a six-room house in Buffalo, where little Mary Abigail was born in 1832. Enjoying comparative luxury, Abigail learned the ways of society as the wife of a Congressman. She cultivated a noted flower garden; but much of her time, as always, she spent reading. In 1847, Fillmore was elected state comptroller; with the children away in boarding school and college, the parents moved temporarily to Albany.
In 1849, Abigail Fillmore came to Washington as wife of the Vice President; 16 months later, after Zachary Taylor’s death at a height of sectional crisis, the Fillmores moved into the White House.
Even after the period of official mourning the social life of the Fillmore administration remained subdued. The First Lady presided with grace at state dinners and receptions; but a permanently injured ankle made her Friday-evening levees an ordeal–two hours of standing at her husband’s side to greet the public. In any case, she preferred reading or music in private. Pleading her delicate health, she entrusted many routine social duties to her attractive daughter, “Abby.” With a special appropriation from Congress, she spent contented hours selecting books for a White House library and arranging them in the oval room upstairs, where Abby had her piano, harp, and guitar. Here, wrote a friend, Mrs. Fillmore “could enjoy the music she so much loved, and the conversation of…cultivated society….”
Despite chronic poor health, Mrs. Fillmore stayed near her husband through the outdoor ceremonies of President Pierce’s inauguration while a raw northeast wind whipped snow over the crowd. Returning chilled to the Willard Hotel, she developed pneumonia; she died there on March 30, 1853. The House of Representatives and the Senate adjourned, and public offices closed in respect, as her family took her body home to Buffalo for burial.
The biographies of the First Ladies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The First Ladies of the United States of America,” by Allida Black. Copyright 2009 by the White House Historical Association.
Learn more about Abigail Powers Fillmore’s spouse, Millard Fillmore.