The last of the first ladies born in the 18th century, Abigail Powers was the youngest of seven children of Abigail Newland and Baptist minister Lemuel Leland Powers. She spent her early years in Stillwater, New York, before her father’s death triggered the family’s cross-state move to the town of Sempronius. Abigail received a solid education in spite of financial hardship, as her school lessons were supplemented by her father’s vast collection of books. However, the lack of stable family income meant she had to contribute when old enough, leading to the start of her teaching career at age 16.
Abigail was employed at a private academy in New Hope, New York, when Fillmore became her student in 1819. Like his teacher, Fillmore possessed a zest for learning despite his humble origins, and they grew closer during their time spent studying together. The future president moved to Buffalo to pursue a law career, but despite their lengthy separation and skepticism from Abigail’s family regarding his suitability as a husband, the relationship survived via frequent correspondence. They were married at her oldest brother’s house in Moravia, New York, on February 5, 1826.
Abigail continued to teach for more than a year after the wedding, but after becoming pregnant with the first of two children, she turned her focus to her husband’s career. A valuable advisor during his time as a U.S. congressman from 1836-42, she kept abreast of the important issues of the day by reading newspapers and listening to debates, and left her calling card with government officials and foreign ministers to forge connections. Abigail also boosted her husband’s profile through her public appearances, though she far preferred attending art galleries and lectures over glitzy social events.
Due in part to a lingering foot injury that made it difficult to stand, Abigail passed the social responsibilities of first lady to her daughter Mary Abigail when possible. She was far more enthusiastic about hosting some of the era’s renowned artists, including writers Washington Irving and Charles Dickens and opera singer Jenny Lind. She remained an important advisor during her husband’s tenure as president, although his failure to heed her suggestion to veto the Fugitive Slave Act likely doomed his chances of earning the Whig Party’s re-nomination in 1852.
Set to embark on a tour of the Southern states at the end of the administration, the Fillmores abruptly canceled those plans when Abigail fell ill from overexposure during the inauguration of successor Franklin Pierce. She was moved to the nearby Willard Hotel for care, but succumbed to bronchial pneumonia just 26 days after leaving the White House, the shortest span of any former first lady. Her death was commemorated by the adjourning of Congress and the closing of the capital’s public offices for a day, she was buried at the Forest Lawn Cemetery near an old family home in Buffalo.
Access hundreds of hours of historical video, commercial free, with HISTORY Vault. Start your free trial today.