Abigail Powers Fillmore life and biography

Abigail Powers Fillmore  picture, image, poster

Abigail Powers Fillmore biography

Date of birth : 1798-03-17
Date of death : 1853-03-30
Birthplace : Stillwater, New York, U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Sports
Last modified : 2010-08-10
Credited as : First lady of the United States, teacher, wife os US President Millard Fillmore

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Abigail Powers Fillmore, also known as Mrs. Millard Fillmore born March 17, 1798 in Stillwater, New York, United States - died March 30, 1853 in Washington, District of Columbia, United States was the First Lady of the United States and teacher.

Perhaps more than any other First Lady, Abigail Powers Fillmore groomed her husband for the Presidency. She educated him, introduced him to the arts, encouraged his aspirations and, most importantly, spurred him to act on those ambitions. Though Millard Fillmore is remembered as a conciliatory President who was able to stave off the Civil War during the time he was in office, the First Lady's legacy would prove far more long-lasting.

The Two-Dollar Education

Abigail Powers was born in 1798 in Stillwater, New York, in the southern Adirondacks. After her father, Lemuel Powers, an admired Baptist preacher, died two years after Abigail's birth, Abigail's mother picked up the household, which included Abigail's brother, and moved westward, to the Finger Lakes, which was at the time still considered the frontier. Mrs. Powers surmised that life would be less costly in a less populated environment. Though their new home was in an area still largely unsettled, Abigail was ably educated by her mother, thanks to her father's versatile library. She completed her education at New Hope Academy, where upon her graduation at age sixteen she took a position as teacher, helping to support her widowed mother.

While teaching at New Hope she befriended a student two years her junior, named Millard Fillmore. Born into extreme poverty on a hardscrabble farm near Syracuse in Cayuga County, Fillmore had been apprenticed to a clothmaker, but finding the work dull and his employer abusive, he returned home. With his sights on becoming a farmer or tradesman, his parents sent him to school in a neighboring town, where Abigail was employed. Abigail encouraged him in his studies, challenged him intellectually, and urged him to expand his dreams. Fillmore wrote many years later that Abigail Powers "unconsciously stimulated" him intellectually, causing him to spend the precious two dollars that would gain him membership in the town library. It was the beginning of his rise in the world.

Impressed with this young man's dedication to his studies and his newfound ambition, Abigail Powers accepted Fillmore's offer of engagement in 1819. Fillmore was accepted by the New York State Bar in 1823 and the two married three years later, as Fillmore's law practice in East Aurora, New York, began to prosper. Though they were married, Mrs. Fillmore continued teaching an unusual step for a woman to take at that time. But then again, it had been unusual to educate women as thoroughly as Abigail Powers had been educated by both her mother and the academy. A son, Millard Powers, was born to the Fillmores in 1828. (He would eventually become a lawyer and serve as his father's private Presidential secretary.) The Fillmores, now quite successful, purchased a six-room house in Buffalo, where their daughter Mary Abigail was born in 1832.

Having won a good deal of influence as a lawyer, Fillmore was elected to the state assembly in 1829, where he served three terms. His most successful enterprise in the assembly was to help abolish the current law demanding that debtors be imprisoned. The abject poverty of his own upbringing had influenced him in this matter, which was extremely popular with upstate voters. His stand on the matter helped him win the 1832 election to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Invalid or Recluse?

Fillmore's career was accelerating, and he must have been pleased. Here was a man, a United States Congressman, who in his youth had to buy his way out of an apprenticeship and then walk the hundred miles home to his family. But Mrs. Fillmore, whom her husband consulted on every matter, must have been apprehensive. Time for her two greatest pleasures, reading and gardening, were being whittled away by her responsibilities as a politician's wife. She had enjoyed keeping her Buffalo home as the site of literary meetings with a small group of acquaintances, but with her husband's rise to power, she was having to learn how to enter "society." Things would only get worse for her.

In 1847 Fillmore was elected state comptroller, and the family moved to the state capital at Albany, placing the children in boarding school. Two years later, Fillmore won the nomination for Vice President on the Whig ticket with Zachary Taylor, and the family relocated to Washington, D.C., a city surrounded by pestilential swamps and mosquitoes bearing malaria and other diseases. After only sixteen months in office, on July 9, 1850, Zachary Taylor died suddenly, most likely of cholera he contracted by consuming contaminated iced beverages or cherries during a sweltering July fourth celebration on the White House lawn. The next day, Millard Fillmore was sworn in as the thirteenth President and the Fillmores moved into the White House.

For a woman of wit, intellectual hunger, and political knowledge, being relegated to the traditional chores of the first lady, such as seeing to seating arrangements and keeping the White House in order, must have caused some resentment, noted historian Betty Boyd Caroli in First Ladies. As a result, Mrs. Fillmore opted out of much of the fanfare, complaining of ill health and a weak ankle, which kept her off of endless receiving lines and away from polite small talk. Her young daughter merrily stepped into the position.

Far from being awkward or lacking grace, Mrs. Fillmore was described by a Washington reporter as "tall, spare, and graceful with auburn hair, light blue eyes, a fair complexion remarkably well-informed." But she preferred the company of books and often retreated to the Yellow Oval Room on the second floor, where she kept her piano, harp, and guitar. It was in this subdued environment where Abigail Powers Fillmore conceived her greatest contribution as First Lady. Unable to help but notice there was no library in the presidential home not even a dictionary or Bible she boldly approached and won from Congress an appropriation to select books to initiate a White House library, which she installed in the oval room upstairs. Though some historians suggest a disinclination toward participating in Washington's social life may have been the result of frail health, some also ascribe it to her temperament and intellectual interests.

Throughout her service as First Lady, Mrs. Fillmore remained dedicated to improving literacy and argued for the establishment of circulating public library system and cultural enrichment. It was she who invited the renown soprano Jenny Lind, the "Swedish Nightingale," to White House. She also brought contemporary writers including Washington Irving and English authors Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray to the White House for roundtable discussions. Mrs. Fillmore also is credited with installing the first kitchen stove in the White House.

First Lady as Consultant

Abigail was also part of the nuts and bolts of the political process. The President "used her counsel to a tremendous extent in his legal and political careers," found researchers for the 2000 Public Broadcasting System series and Web site on the Presidents. "Letters survive that depict a well-informed, politically astute woman, freely advising her husband in a time that saw few women openly doing so." Throughout her life, Abigail Powers Fillmore paid close attention to political debate of the day. "She has a thorough understanding of pending legislation and could knowledgeably discuss current affairs," wrote historian Caroli. "Millard's respect for her opinions is well-documented."

There was, however, one piece of legislation upon which they disagreed: the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which legislated the forcible return of escaped slaves and the punishment of those who assisted in such escapes. It also allowed the federal government to force citizens to assist in the capture of runaway slaves, and permitted the arrest and trial of African Americans without due process (meaning without a jury or being allowed to testify in their own behalf), regardless of whether or not they were slaves. Mrs. Fillmore strongly opposed signing this act, and urged the President not to endorse it, even though she knew it might mean the end of his career in politics. Fillmore, however, signed the act into law.

Fillmore lost his party's nomination for a second term, and his party suffered a crushing defeat. The weather during the inauguration of President Franklin Pierce was bitter cold. Shortly after, Mrs. Fillmore developed pneumonia and died in Washington's Willard Hotel on March 30, 1853. Much admired and respected, the House of Representatives, the Senate, and other government offices shut down in mourning, as her body was taken back to Buffalo to be buried.

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