Abigail Powers was born in Saratoga County, New York, on March 13, 1798, while it was still a frontier out-post. Her father, a locally prominent Baptist preacher named Lemuel Powers, died shortly thereafter. Courageously, her mother, Abigail, 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 met Millard Fillmore, while she was his teacher at a recently opened academy in the village of New Hope, New York. 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 5, 1826. She resumed teaching school after the marriage, becoming the first president’s wife to work outside the home following her marriage.
Attaining property at last, Fillmore bought his family a six-room house in Buffalo. Abigail gave birth to two children; a boy and a girl. 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 in 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 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.
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 for burial.
You Might Also Like
Podcast U.S. First Ladies: Making History and Leaving Legacies
Since the founding of America, spouses and relatives have served as White House hostess, public servant, and unofficial presidential adviser....
Collection Presidential and First Lady Portraits
Since 1965, the White House Historical Association has been proud to fund the official portraits of our presidents and first ladies,...
Podcast Conversations from History Happy Hour
In this first episode of 2021, White House Historical Association President Stewart D. McLaurin introduces the Association’s popular virtual program Hi...
Podcast Fearless Leadership: A Conversation with Jean Case
Fearless leaders have walked the halls of White House for centuries. In this episode, White House Historical Association President Stewart...
Collection The White House Behind the Scenes
While the presidency is often in the eye of the public, those who ensure operations at the White House run...
Podcast Entertaining at the White House
From diplomatic dinners to holiday gatherings, the White House has always played a central role in the nation’s official en...
Collection Women and the White House
While there has yet to be a female president, women have played an integral role in shaping the White House...
Collection Cherry Blossoms
Since the first cherry blossom planting in 1912 by First Lady Helen Herron Taft, Washingtonians have celebrated the scenic beauty and...
Collection The Presidents
Biographies & Portraits
Collection The First Ladies
Biographies & Portraits
Collection Animal Ambassadors
Animals, whether pampered household pets, working livestock, birds, squirrels, or strays, have long been a major part of White House...
2023 Presidential Sites Summit Schedule
Monday, September 25 12:00pm: Registration at the Mayflower Hotel 4:00 PM – 6:00 PM: White House Reception Please join us for a White House Re...