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Abigail Fillmore, the Under-Rated First Lady

People | June 5, 2019

Abigail Fillmore, wife of Millard Fillmore. Source: (gettyimages.com)

When it comes to First Ladies of the United States, some presidents’ wives stand out from the crowd for their style, grace, and advocacy work. And some former first ladies fly under the radar. One of these is Abigail Fillmore, the wife of Millard Fillmore, the 13th president of the United States. Let’s learn about this under-rated first lady and her contributions to her husband’s presidency. 

Abigail Fillmore. Source: (uspresidentialhistory.com)

Raised by a Strong Woman

Born Abigail Powers in 1798, Abigail Fillmore’s father, a Baptist preacher, died while she was still young. Her mother, who was also named Abigail, thought that she could make her meager savings last longer by moving to the unsettled frontier with her two children, Abigail, and her brother. They settled in western New York state. There, Abigail’s mother used books from her husband’s impressive library to homeschool her children. She instilled in Abigail a lifelong love of learning, reading, and teaching. 

A young Millard Fillmore. Source: (history.com)

Abigail Married Her Student

Abigail Powers started teaching at a new school that was built in nearby New Hope, New York. In 1819, when she was 21 years old, she caught the eye of one of her students, 19-year-old Millard Fillmore. Fillmore aspired of becoming a lawyer, but financial setbacks took their toll. He waited until he finally became a lawyer, in 1826, before he asked Abigail to marry him. Even after they married, money was tight, so Abigail continued to teach school to help with the family finances. In fact, Abigail Fillmore has the distinction of being the first first lady to hold a job as a married woman, making her a trailblazer for working women. 

President Zachary Taylor. Source: (politico.com)

The Wife of a Politician

As her husband built his political career, he relied on Abigail to help him. She penned letters for him and wrote his speeches. She remained an avid and voracious reader and stayed abreast of events happening in Europe. She learned how to entertain and be the charming wife of a Congressman. In part because of Abigail’s help, Millard Fillmore became the vice president of the United States, under Zachary Taylor, in 1849. The Fillmores moved to Washington D.C.

How the White House looked when the Fillmores moved in. Source: (whitehousemuseum.org)

Move to the Library-Less White House

A little more than a year into his presidency, Zachary Taylor died, and Millard Fillmore became the 13th president of the United States. The Fillmores moved into the White House. To Abigail’s dismay, she discovered that the White House did not have a library. Reportedly, Congress believed that having a library at his disposal would make a sitting president too knowledgeable and powerful. Abigail Fillmore protested and finally secured funds from Congress to create a White House library. To her utter delight, she was tasked with purchasing books for the new library. She acquired works of Shakespeare and the ancient Greek philosophers, as well as history, military, and geography books. She even purchased a piano for the space. 

The White House Library today. Source: (flickr.com)

Was Abigail the Brains Behind the Presidency?

Abigail Fillmore was easily one of the most intelligent, well-read, and educated of all the first ladies of the 1800s. Millard Fillmore recognized this and relied heavily on his wife’s opinion and suggestions. It was said that he never made an important political decision without first consulting her. Even when he was away from Washington, he wrote letters to Abigail asking for her advice. And she happily gave it. 

Political cartoon about Millard Fillmore and the Fugitive Slave Act. Source: (djheidler.com)

Millard Fillmore Ignored Abigail’s Advice…and it was Political Suicide

According to historians, Abigail Fillmore strongly advised her husband against signing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Fillmore, however, was being pressured to sign it into law. In the end, he ignored Abigail and signed the law. The Fugitive Slave Law was one of the biggest contributing factors to the start of the Civil War. Just as Abigail feared, signing this controversial law was political suicide for her husband. Fillmore was not elected to a second term as president. 

Abigail Fillmore. Source: (history.com)

Death and Legacy

Abigail and Millard Fillmore attended the inauguration ceremony for President Franklin Pierce on a bitter January day. Abigail caught a cold which turned into bronchitis and pneumonia. Less than a month after her husband left office, Abigail Fillmore died. She left behind the legacy of the White House library and its ever-growing collection. Additionally, she showcased the importance of education for women and the role of working women in society. She may not have had the glamour of Jackie Kennedy, the social conviction of Eleanor Roosevelt, or the bubbly personality of Dolley Madison, but Abigail Fillmore was one of the most influential of our early first ladies. 

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.