Abigail Fillmore is one of those early First Ladies who has faded into oblivion. She needs to be re-explored.
Miss Powers, Teacher
Abigail Powers (1798-1852) was only two when her father died. She later claimed to have inherited two important things from the father she never knew: his love of reading, and his vast (for upstate New York in 1800) library.
By the time she was sixteen, she was the local “school marm,” credited as being the first First Lady to work outside the home.
One of the few stories known about Abigail Fillmore, was that she taught Millard Fillmore, (1800-1874) a husky farm boy her own age who wanted to learn. The usual image is of a young woman teaching a big fellow his A-B-C’s.
Yes, but not quite. Millard Fillmore knew his letters and numbers and basics, but his education fell far short of his ambition: not being a farm boy. A neighbor offered him a chance to read law, a then-acceptable means to become an attorney – but only if young Fillmore could improve his basic education. Friends suggested that Miss Powers, the local teacher, might tutor him.
Abigail was happy to oblige, and in the process, the farm boy and the school marm fell in love. It would be a long courtship, while Fillmore continued his education, and his fiancee continued to educate others.
Some years later, when Fillmore passed the New York bar the couple married and began their life together.
Abigail Fillmore: Wife, Mother, Librarian
Once Abigail Fillmore was a lawyer’s wife and mother of two she “retired” from teaching, since Millard Fillmore could support his family very nicely. He was not only a practicing lawyer, but eventually was elected to Congress as a Whig.
Once her children were school-aged, Abigail had some time on her hands, and needed an outlet for her energies and intellect. The Buffalo suburb of Aurora, New York, where the Fillmores made their home, had grown sufficiently to begin its own lending library, and Mrs. Fillmore became one of its earliest supporters.
Some of the extant letters between Abigail and Millard Fillmore contain lists of books she wished for him to purchase for the library. En route to Washington, Congressman Fillmore had to pass through New York City and Philadelphia, where book stores were numerous.
Congressman and VP Fillmore and Family
Millard Fillmore’s career was somewhat spotty. He won some elections and lost some elections; his law practice was mediocre. Certainly nothing to make him any more than middle-class, and certainly nothing to qualify him for his future role.
Abigail had spent some time with him in Washington – and did not like it. She missed her children (still in school), her six-room house (boarding in Washington was cramped) and her activities in Aurora. She also came to dislike social Washington. She was a bookish woman, and believed the women she met were superficial.
The Unexpected POTUS & FLOTUS
No one ever expected Millard Fillmore to be elected Vice President in 1848, let alone President. He was barely known outside of upstate New York and in small Washington circles. He had never made a big impression, and was certainly not anyone’s idea of a presidential candidate. To balance the Whig ticket, the politicians needed not only an Easterner, but a Northerner, since General Zachary Taylor, the hero-of-the-day, was Virginia born, everywhere-bred, and currently a Louisiana resident.
Fillmore’s views on slavery, which was quickly moving to the top of the political hot-potato list, were moderate. This meant he would be acceptable in the South.
The Whigs were successful. Millard Fillmore was now Vice President.
No one ever expected President Zachary Taylor to die a year and a half into his term either. But he did. Mediocre Millard Fillmore was now President. Middle-class teacher-librarian Abigail Fillmore was now First Lady – a position she did not relish at all.
The thought of receiving lines and entertaining the “superficial” women she thoroughly disdained was unappealing. Several months earlier, she had broken her ankle. It had been a bad break, poorly set and poorly healed. It gave her chronic discomfort, plus a ready (and acceptable) excuse to avoid the receptions; she was happy to dispatch her now twenty-year-old daughter as a willing and able substitute.
But when they moved into the White House, Abigail Fillmore discovered there wasn’t a book in the entire place – not even a Bible. For a studious and scholarly woman by nature, this was unacceptable. She asked her husband to lobby Congress to provide funds for a permanent White House library – a place where the President, the Presidential family, and Presidential secretaries and aides could research whatever information they required – or even find an hour’s respite from their daily duties.
Fillmore obliged. Congress, as is their wont and privilege, dickered and dithered. Fillmore was not the most popular fellow ever elected. A “generous” budget for books was duly whittled down to a modest sum of around $500 (depending on which source you espouse).
But it was the great contribution of the Fillmore Administration, and certainly the most lasting. First Lady Abigail F. was well qualified to manage the appropriation, select the books to be purchased, and to handle them with care and diligence. She arranged for the White House maintenance carpenters to build bookshelves, and prepared long lists of requested volumes.
One could easily picture the former teacher-librarian spending many happy hours when her requests were delivered, unpacking the books, organizing and cataloging them properly and placing them on the shelves. It was the job she was meant to do.
Anthony, Carl Sferrazza –First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990
Caroli, Betty Boyd – First Ladies – Oxford University Press, 1995