Abigail Fillmore Biography

Educator, U.S. First Lady (1798–1853)
Abigail Fillmore was an American first lady from 1850 to 1853. She was the wife of Millard Fillmore, the 13th president of the United States.


Abigail Fillmore was born on March 13, 1798, in Stillwater, New York. By age 16, she was teaching at a school in New York, where Millard Fillmore was one of her students. They married on February 5, 1826. By the time Millard became vice president in 1849, Abigail's health had deteriorated. After he became president, she and their children moved to Washington, where she died of pneumonia in 1853.

Early Life

Abigail Fillmore was born Abigail Powers on March 13, 1798, in Stillwater, New York, the youngest of seven children. Her father, Reverend Lemuel Powers, died shortly after her birth, and her mother, Abigail Newland Powers, bravely moved the family westward to Cayuga County, New York. The elder Abigail educated her daughter with the help of her late husband's personal library, one of the few possessions she was able to retain. Books and reading became a passion for Abigail, and she developed a lifelong love of learning.

The unassuming Abigail Powers might have been unknown to history had she not met and fallen in love with the young and ambitious Millard Fillmore. In 1819, Powers took a teaching job at the New Hope Academy, in New York, where the 19-year-old Fillmore was her eldest pupil. Their passion for knowledge gradually drew the two of them into a romantic attachment. However, the couple were unable to consecrate their relationship until Fillmore finished his education and had gainful employment.

Marriage and Life in Politics

On February 5, 1826, the couple wed and settled in East Aurora, New York. Abigail continued to teach until the birth of her first child, Millard. In 1831, the couple moved to Buffalo, New York, where they founded a lending library and promoted education. Millard Fillmore entered politics and in 1832 was elected to the House of Representatives. In 1836, Abigail was able to leave her children to join him.

Applying her strong intellect to politics, Abigail became Fillmore's chief adviser and political ally. The couple left the nation's capital in 1842, when Fillmore made an unsuccessful bid for governor of New York. That same year, Abigail badly broke her ankle, which failed to heal properly. From this point on, her overall health began to deteriorate.

Life in the White House

In 1848, Millard Fillmore was nominated vice president, as Zachary Taylor's running mate. During the campaign, Abigail was confined to bed with excruciating back and hip pain. When Taylor and Fillmore were elected in November, she had to remain in New York. Taylor died suddenly in 1850, and Abigail had to assume the role of first lady in Washington, D.C. In spite of her ailments, she kept up with the demanding schedule of hosting receptions and dinners, and welcoming guests to the White House.

Abigail found life in the nation's capital inspiring, and was a cultural and intellectual presence in her husband's administration, exerting significant political influence. She sought and obtained funds to establish a White House library and spent months selecting several hundred volumes to fill its shelves. The library became a place for small musical gatherings and vigorous political discussions. Abigail was also instrumental in convincing President Fillmore to ban flogging in the U.S. Navy and tried, without success, to convince him to veto the Fugitive Slave Law. President Fillmore fell out of favor among Whig political operatives for signing the law and was not re-nominated for president by the party in 1852.

After Democrat Franklin Pierce won the election, Abigail and Millard Fillmore planned an extensive trip through the South. At the outdoor inauguration of the new president, Abigail contracted pneumonia. After weeks of struggle, she died on March 30, 1853, in Washington, D.C. Her death was widely reported, along with praise for her contributions to the White House. Both Congress and the president's Cabinet adjourned in mourning.

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