First of the 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: an 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, died shortly thereafter. Her mother courageously moved on westward, thinking her scanty funds would go further in a less settled region. She ably educated her small son and daughter beyond the usual frontier level with the help of her late husband's library.
Abigail Powers met Millard Fillmore when they were both students at a recently opened academy in the village of New Hope. His struggle to make his way as a lawyer was so long and ill paid that they were not wed until February 1826. She resumed teaching school after the marriage. Their only son, Millard Powers, was born in 1828.
Attaining prosperity at last, Fillmore bought his family a house in Buffalo. Abigail learned the ways of society as a congressman's wife. She cultivated a noted flower garden, but much of her time, as always, was spent reading. A daughter, little Mary Abigail was born in 1832. In 1849, the family went to Washington when Millard became vice president. Then, after Zachary Taylor's death at a height of sectional crisis, the Fillmores moved into the White House.
The new first lady presided with grace at state dinners and receptions; but a permanent injury to her ankle made Friday levees an ordeal - two hours of standing at her husband's side to greet the public. She preferred reading or music in private. Pleading 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.
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. She developed pneumonia and died 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.
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