Abigail Powers Fillmore
Literary First Lady
By Anne Adams
Her husband has
been not been considered a memorable president, and she is perhaps
best known as the First Lady who created the first White House
library. Yet no matter her husband’s presidential record, when
Abigail Powers Fillmore set up that library she was merely
following a lifelong love of literature and books.
Born in March, 1798 in New York State, Abigail was the daughter of
a Baptist pastor and from early childhood absorbed her family’s
love of their faith and education. Rev. Powers died when Abigail
was still young and her mother and siblings moved to the country
to stretch their limited funds. However, though her father had not
left much in financial resources, he had left his family a large
library of books. It was this resource as well as her mother's
intense dedication to providing her children the best education
possible that helped Abigail and her older brother achieve
With this background as inspiration, Abigail entered a New Hope,
NY academy to prepare to become a teacher. As she continued her
education and then began to teach, she also had a new admirer in
fellow student and then her own pupil, Millard Fillmore.
His father a tenant farmer, Fillmore had come from a background of
poverty. However, the elder Mr. Fillmore urged his son to attend
the academy to gain an education that would give him a better
life. At the time, Millard was working in a factory and could
attend school because it was a slack time.
As he and Abigail began to consider marriage that winter of 1819,
Fillmore grew in confidence with Abigail’s encouragement. He also
received a chance to study law when his father's landlord, a local
judge, agreed to have Millard come work in his office. However,
such an opportunity meant Fillmore would have to leave the academy
and then be separated from Abigail so he could work to save money
for them to marry. It would be several years before that
However, Fillmore found the judge was a hard man to work for and
after two years, he was ready to move on even though he had not
made enough money to marry Abigail. Still wanting to become a
lawyer, he moved to Buffalo and there found a position with a law
firm and shortly after, with assistance from his co-workers, he
was admitted to the bar. However, his old lack of confidence
caused him to leave Buffalo to practice in a smaller town where he
finally became financially in a position to be married. With her
decision that she would assist with family finances by continuing
to teach, they were married in February, 1826. As a biographer put
it: "The marriage was eminently successful, for though Abigail had
a resolute faith in plain and temperate living, combined with high
principles, and Millard found the luxuries and style of wealth
seductive, their tastes overlapped sufficiently to give them
Abigail continued to teach for another two years- unusual
for a married woman at the time- while Fillmore studied more law
and was soon admitted to practice before the New York Supreme
Court. In addition, though a Buffalo attorney offered him a
partnership, he did not feel he should leave their smaller town.
In 1828, Abigail gave birth to their first child Millard and that
same year Fillmore was elected to the New York State Assembly. He
spent the next three years traveling from his home to Albany and
back. At the same time, he became acquainted with a Buffalo
newspaper editor and area political leader who encouraged the
young attorney to get into politics.
In 1830, Fillmore decided it was time to move his family to
Buffalo, which pleased Abigail since it meant more social and
educational opportunities. Now the young couple had a chance now
to make new friends, and become involved socially and culturally
in their new community. They also added to their growing private
library. The young city was growing and developing an active
social scene and Abigail's friendly warmth assured her popularity.
When their daughter Mary Abigail was born early in 1832, Fillmore
had been elected to Congress. In 1836 when Fillmore was
reelected, Abigail accompanied him to Washington, leaving the
children with relatives in Buffalo. It was a difficult separation
but Abigail coped by throwing herself into the Washington scene,
attentively listening to her husband’s concerns and offering
useful advice. However, in 1842 he decided not to run for
Congress again because he wanted to try for the Senate in 1844 but
then his local political adviser suggested Fillmore should run for
governor of New York. Though he was defeated - the first time that
had happened- it meant he could spend more time with his family.
Then in 1847, Fillmore served as New York State Comptroller but
when Abigail again became active in the Albany political and
social scene, she found the ceremonial and social life a chore.
She had two great loves – her husband and her books, so she was
happiest when occupied in those areas.
However, Fillmore became politically active again when he allowed
his name to be added to the 848 Whig presidential ticket as Vice
President with Zachary Taylor as President.
After their move to Washington, Fillmore found because of
political jealousies he lacked influence and so he was often
limited to just presiding over the Senate where the slavery
question caused heated discussions. In addition, though Abigail
did not relish a return to Washington because it meant returning
to the social and political activities she disliked, she proceeded
with moving the family possessions, including their many books.
Anticipating the move was debilitating and she began to experience
health problems that had been developing over the years. Bronchial
problems and headaches caused her to eventually return to Buffalo
and in 1850, she was there when her husband became president as
President Taylor died on July 9.
As Abigail and her daughter returned to Washington, Fillmore began
his new duties. As often as her health permitted Abigail served as
official hostess, and daughter Mary Abigail filled in when her
mother could not. One reason Abigail found the official receptions
difficult was because an 1842 ankle injury that had healed
improperly and prevented her standing for long periods for
receptions. Because of she limited her social appearances Abigail
did not make a memorable impression on social commentators of her
time. Some even felt she was not of their level and one even
mentioned, "It is not good form to be motherly to her guests."
Instead, she was content to spend her time in the White House
library, receiving intellectual visitors and playing the piano.
During their married life, the Fillmores had acquired a library of
more than 4000 books, an unusually large number for the time and
Abigail found immense pleasure in any addition to the collection.
Therefore, she was shocked upon entering the White House that
there were no books in the presidential mansion- not even a Bible.
With a congressional appropriation, Abigail began purchasing
volumes for the first White House library, including maps,
reference books, books or history and a few novels. She
established the library in a second floor sitting room. It was a
room where she could find refuge from her reoccurring pains and
the pressures of her position.
Other improvements were a cast iron cooking stove to replace the
open fireplace previously in use, as well as the first
For Fillmore as president it was a difficult political time with
slavery as a very divisive issue and so any decisions the
president made would be unpopular on one side or the other.
Besides Mary Abigail serving as hostess, their son Millard Powers,
an attorney in his own right, became the president's private
As his presidential term ended,
Fillmore decided to return to Buffalo to return to his law
practice. With a new president to take office a month later, in
February, 1853 Abigail finished packing their belongings to be
forwarded to Buffalo. The plan was that after the Pierce inaugural
she and Fillmore would join a party of friends on a tour of the
South. She was also pleased because she was escorted to the
Pierce inaugural by two favorite authors – Washington Irving and
William Makepeace Thackery.
At the inaugural on March 4, 1853,
Fillmore, Abigail and the other guests stood in a raw cold wind.
As the wet snow accumulated on the Capitol steps the officials
that gathered for the ceremony. Abigail's feet were soaked and she
developed a cold and then pneumonia. Within three weeks, she was
gone, leaving a grieving and lonely Fillmore to return to their
Buffalo home alone. Mary Abigail accompanied him but she herself
died in a few years. However, within a few years Fillmore had
A native of Kansas City, Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern
Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College,
Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State
University , Warrensburg , Missouri (1968).