Abigail Powers Fillmore, as engraved by John Chester Buttre in 1886; Courtesy the Library of Congress.
Abigail Powers was born in 1798, the youngest of a Baptist minister's seven children. At the age of 12, Abigail lost her father and her family lost its sole means of support. After his death, their mother moved the family to upstate New York, where Abigail was educated in a one-room schoolhouse. Her education was supplemented by the large collection of books left by her father, helping her become proficient in literature, math, government, history, philosophy, and geography.
In 1814, Abigail became a teacher. After several years of teaching, Abigail was offered an invitation to open a private school in Broome County, due to her reputation as a highly educated lady. In 1819, Abigail met Millard Fillmore when he attended her classes at New Hope Academy to finish his education. With Abigail’s help, Millard became a prominent lawyer in New York, and they married in 1826.
Abigail continued to work as a public school teacher, but also supported her husband in his bid for the state legislature and then for Congress. She also continued her own education–while raising two children–learning French, piano, and scientific horticulture. Eventually, Millard became Vice President under Zachary Taylor; Abigail’s role was primarily to deliver public speeches or review federal job requests. However, in 1850, President Taylor died and Millard became President of the United States.
Abigail had become the first First Lady to rise from a lower-economic class to the female figurehead of a nation. During her three years as First Lady, Abigail used her power to help others. She helped local citizens, such as a young dressmaker who under her patronage became a prominent Washington designer. She also attended public functions, including being the only woman in a treaty-signing delegation with the Sioux. She is also credited with establishing the first library at the White House.
Abigail died in 1853, shortly after her husband left office. Yet her legacy lived on: in the students she taught, the libraries she established in New York and Washington, and in her legacy as a First Lady who put the citizens' needs–from education to economic empowerment–first.