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  • Debra Scala Giokas

Abigail Fillmore and The First White House Library

Abigail Powers Fillmore grew up poor but had thousands of books she inherited when her father, a Baptist minister, died when she was only two. Taught by her mother and her older brother, she became a teacher. She taught and studied with her student, a poor farm boy named Millard who was two years younger than her. They fell in love with books and each other. He always carried a dictionary and read all the time to work his way out of poverty. Millard became a lawyer, Abigail’s husband and eventually the 13th President of the United States.

President Fillmore knew how much Abigail loved books. When they moved into the White House upon the sudden death of President Zachary Taylor, he made sure his wife would have a library. Congress gave them $2,000 to purchase history books, geography books, and the classics and then an extra $250 for Abigail to fill those shelves with works by Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Washington Irving.

Used with permission of Aurora Historical Society, East Aurora, New York

This turned the oval parlor room into the White House’s first library in 1852. Prior to that, presidents would bring their own books and take them home, never even leaving a dictionary or a Bible.

Now there was a mahogany bookcase that Abigail selected herself. Great literary works lined the shelves behind the glass enclosure and included Shakespeare’s plays, Robert Burns’s poetry, Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, and other works by the founding fathers. Abigail also had many books of geography filled with maps that opened up the world to readers. There was a dictionary for learning new words and a Bible for strengthening faith.

Inspired by her new role and room, Abigail started sending the invitations to authors. She even invited her favorite author, William Makepeace Thackeray. The bookish teacher Abigail couldn’t wait to meet him! Thackeray, the journalist turned novelist who wrote “Vanity Fair,” was coming all the way from England.

Even though she had a bad ankle and couldn’t stand for long hours, entertaining authors and even opera singers were more to Abigail’s liking. On Friday evenings, the first lady gave the task of greeting hundreds and hundreds of White House guests on long receiving lines for hours and hours to her daughter. Mary “Abby” Abigail was beautiful, highly educated, and musically talented. Standing and small chat was not Abigail Fillmore’s thing. She would much rather read. But she would never miss an opportunity to talk to her beloved writers in the library.

This has been excerpted from my book, LADIES, FIRST; COMMON THREADS.

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