Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Abigail Fillmore

In my bedroom at home I have two big bookcases filled with all my books. There are some history, some great children’s literature, some Biblical and theological books, some cookbooks, and, of course, a growing shelf of First Ladies’ biographies. I love lying in bed at night while I’m trying to fall asleep and glance at each title remembering how I felt as I read each book or think to myself “I really want to read that one soon. I’d better move it to the top of my pile.”  I feel comforted and spurred on being surrounded by books. I imagine that’s how Abigail Fillmore felt in her White House library.

Abigail Powers grew up very poor in New York. She was the daughter of a minister who died when Abigail was only two. The father left the family not much money, but lots of books. As a teen Abigail needed to work for a living and did so as a teacher. When she was teaching at the academy in New Hope, New York, she had a Millard Fillmore in her class.

Millard Fillmore also grew up very poor. He grew up in a home that only had a hymnal, a Bible, and an almanac. He worked hard to educate himself and pull himself out of poverty through education and hard work. He married Abigail after a lengthy engagement allowing Millard time to gain enough law business to support her. Even after they were married, Abigail continued to work as a teacher making her the first First Lady to work outside the home for pay after marriage.

Having met in a classroom, Millard and Abigail’s relationship from the very beginning was centered on education and learning. And it continued to be so. Wherever Millard would travel he would be sure to bring back some new books for Abigail. In their surviving letters from their times apart, there are many mentions of what they were reading and studying. Abigail even says “your society is all that I have thought of-have finished studying the maps of ancient geography. O, that you could have been here to have studied with me.” She also says how she misses their evenings together when she would sew and he would read aloud to her.

The Fillmores show us the Era of the Common Man and the emerging middle class in Victorian America. One mark of this time in history is the home as a place where you could be sheltered from the outside world and could better yourself through gaining knowledge. A library became a popular thing in the average home.

After Zachary Taylor’s death, vice-president Millard Fillmore became president in 1850. When Abigail and Millard came to the White House there was not a single book, not even a Bible. All the previous presidents had brought their personal books to use at the White House and brought them home after their term was up. Millard Fillmore changed this by asking Congress to appropriate funds for establishing a permanent White House library.

The library was placed between the family’s living quarters and the cabinet member’s offices so that it could be used for both work and pleasure.  Most of the library was history and law books, but it also contained popular and classic works deemed necessary for a library at the time.

The earliest photo of the White House library, 1870.

Abigail used the room like we would use a family room today. She spent time there herself but also to informally entertain. She left the official hostessing responsibilities to her daughter, but Abigail did entertain select guests in her library. There also was a harp and piano in the room for entertaining of guests. (I am totally picturing a Jane Austen movie here!)

Since there is no published biography on Abigail Fillmore, I choose to read Catherine Parisian’s The First White House Library: A History and Annotated Catalogue. Only the first hundred pages or so are devoted to the Fillmores including an excellent essay on Abigail by Elizabeth Thacker-Estrada. But the rest of the book has a list of the titles included in the original library the Fillmores created. As I flipped through the catalogue, I imagined I was skimming the shelves while I visited with Abigail. Which of the one-hundred and ninety-five titles would I pull off the shelf and sit and discuss with her?

The Memoirs of Aaron Burr  (yes. What WAS he THINKING?!!)

The Federalist Papers by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison

Memories of a Hungarian Lady by Theresa Pulsyky, a woman of non-titled nobility who dined with the president after the failed 1848 revolution. She has sketches of Hungary’s social life. Interesting. I know nothing about Hungary.

The American Loyalist or Biographical Sketches of Adherents to the British Crown by Lorenzo Sabine who lived in Maine near Canada during the revolution and captured well- researched, unbiased accounts of his neighbors who were Loyalist.

The Adventures of Gil Blas of Sallentine by Alain Rene Le Sage in 1715. One of the first realistic novels written. About the adventures of a young valet as he goes from master to master. Apparently John Quincy Adams read this book once a year.  I’d love to know why and what did he gain by it.

The Waverly Novels by Sir Walter Scott who created the genre of the historical novel (thank you, Sir Walter!!)

Para or Scenes and Adventures on the Banks of the Amazon by John Esais Warren. Millard commissioned an exploratory trip along the Amazon thinking he could send freed slaves to settle there. Thankfully, he changed his mind about the idea.

There are lots of other books in the library, but mostly law and histories pertinent to the president and his cabinet in their work.

Sadly, Abigail died three weeks after Millard left office in 1853 because she caught pneumonia while standing in the rain listening to Franklin Pierces’ inauguration. But she left a legacy of the importance of study and learning and culture both through her own story and the White House library.

1 comment:

  1. I LOVED this post! Like you, friend, I am tremendously comforted by books and I just loved reading about the establishment of the White House library! I had no idea! The titles you chose to list were so fascinating.