Fillmore, Abigail Powers (1798–1853)

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Fillmore, Abigail Powers (1798–1853)

American first lady who established the White House library. Born on March 13, 1798, in Stillwater, New York; died on March 30, 1853, in Washington, D.C.; only daughter of Lemual (a Baptist minister) and Abigail (Newland) Powers; married Millard Fillmore, on February 5, 1826, in Moravia, New York; children: Millard Powers Fillmore (1828–1889, a lawyer); Mary Abigail Fillmore (1832–1854, often served as White House host).

Abigail Powers Fillmore was born on March 13, 1798, in Stillwater, New York, the only daughter of Lemual Powers, a Baptist minister, and Abigail Newland Powers . She spent her girlhood in Cayuga County, New York, with her widowed mother and younger brother. Her father's death had left the family with limited funds but an extensive library, which Abigail used to educate herself. At age 16, with hopes of earning enough money to further her formal education, she began teaching school. In 1819, when Abigail was 21, Millard Fillmore, only slightly younger, appeared in her classroom. A "schoolbook romance" ensued and lasted for seven years, during which time Millard advanced steadily and began law studies. After the couple married in February 1826, Abigail continued to teach while her husband built his law practice. The couple began a family in 1828 with the birth of a son, Millard Powers Fillmore. A daughter, Mary Abigail Fillmore , followed in 1832.

Fillmore's political career rose steadily from congressman to state comptroller. By the time he was elected vice president in 1849, Abigail's health was beginning to fail, and she spent as little time in Washington as possible. She was at home in Buffalo when she received the news of her husband's succession to the presidency following the death of Zachary Taylor just 16 months after taking office. Joining her husband in the White House, or as Millard dubbed it, "the temple of inconveniences," Abigail delegated many of the social duties to her daughter. Among the first tasks she chose for herself was overseeing the installation of water pipes and the first White House bathtub. She also upgraded the kitchen, replacing the open fireplace with an iron range.

More appalling to Abigail than the absence of running water was the lack of books in the mansion. She took immediate steps to have Congress appropriate modest funds for a library, which she established in the Oval Room. With her books, and the addition of a harp and piano, this became the most inviting room in the family quarters. On the social front, Abigail did make an effort to preside over Tuesday and Friday receptions, although a leg injury made it difficult for her to stand for long periods of time.

The signing of the Fugitive Slave Act proved to be Millard Fillmore's downfall, and he was not renominated by the Whigs in 1852. With plans to travel to Europe after they left Washington, the Fillmores attended inaugural ceremonies for Franklin Pierce. The foul weather that day is thought to have caused the bronchial pneumonia that took Abigail's life a few weeks later, at age 55. Millard Fillmore married Caroline C. McIntosh , in 1858.


Healy, Diana Dixon. America's First Ladies: Private Lives of the Presidential Wives. NY: Atheneum, 1988.

Melick, Arden David. Wives of the Presidents. Maple-wood, NJ: Hammond, 1977.

Paletta, LuAnn. The World Almanac of First Ladies. NY: World Almanac, 1990.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Fillmore, Abigail Powers (1798–1853)

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