Abigail Powers Fillmore
Biography: 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
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