Thursday, January 22, 2009

Mary Abigail Fillmore

To follow up on my guessing game (thanks to everyone who participated!) from last week, here is some information on Mary Abigail Fillmore.

Abigail Fillmore (Mrs. Millard Fillmore) was not in the best of health and not interested in social details, so her daughter helped her out as White House hostess:
Of major concern to Abigail were her social duties. She was not overly enthusiastic about the enormous social dimension of her role and was concerned that Washington society would find her boring. She reduced the burden by limiting the regular social calendar and asking her daughter, Mary Abigail Fillmore, to hostess events when she was ill. Still, Abigail's social obligations were demanding. She held morning receptions on Tuesdays, hostessed large dinners on Thursdays, greeted visitors at evening levees on Fridays, and welcomed guests to smaller dinners on Saturdays. Because evening receptions -- especially the levees -- required hours of standing, Abigail would often spend the entire day in bed to rest her bad ankle.

Because her role in the White House, I’d like to take the time to introduce Mary Abigail to you:
Mary Abigail "Abbie" Fillmore frequently appeared at public events with her mother, serving as a supplemental hostess. Neither woman, however, had any intention or perception of it as a matter of "First Daughter" substituting for "First Lady." In one documented instance, a late February 1851 dinner, Abbie Fillmore acted substituted as official hostess, her mother absent due to her sister Mary's death in Ohio. Senator Edward Everett described Miss Fillmore in this role as "a pretty modest, unaffected girl of about twenty, as much at ease at the head of the presidential table as if she had been born a princess." Signing her name as "Abbie," the Fillmore daughter spoke French, German, Italian and Spanish. She was equally versatile as a musician, frequently performing in the White House library for her mother's pleasure or to entertain special guests, whether on her harp or guitar or the First Lady's piano.

Abbie Fillmore was only six when she was separated from her parents who went to live in Washington with her father's election to Congress. She was cared for by her maternal aunt Mary while her parents were in Washington. When her daughter expressed a longing to be united with her parents and brother, Abigail Fillmore advised her to use the time to focus on her education: "I know your fondness for study and anxiety to obtain knowledge and this will absorb your mind that you will have less time to dwell on home." Abigail Fillmore consciously sought to balance her parental advice with an enlightened sense of respect for her daughter as a young woman: "I shall be very happy to do anything for you that I can to give you a perfect education, and adorn you with every grace that the best teachers and the best society can confer for I love my little daughter very much and am very anxious to gratify her in everything that is proper, presuming that she will ask for nothing less." She was early on an expert at geography, encouraged by books and maps sent by her parents. She was also an accomplished and fearless horsewoman, often going for lengthy, vigorous rides in the countryside. Abigail Fillmore encouraged her daughter's love of literature and music, but never at the expense of a thorough intellectual education. Abbie Fillmore left the Lenox Institute for Girls in Massachusetts in the fall of 1848. The following year, uninfluenced by even her father's anti-Catholic sentiments, Abbie Fillmore joined seventeen students at the new "Buffalo Academy for Young Ladies." Established at the Sherwood House on Lake Erie by the city's first Roman Catholic Bishop under the aegis of the Vincentian order, the instructors were nuns of the Sacred Heart School in Manhattanville, New York. The Vice President's daughter, one of the four students to board there, and one of eight who were non-Catholic attended religious services every morning in the makeshift chapel. Her mother soon after arranged for her to attend the state Normal School first as a sort of graduate student after and then to teach there "for a living." As Mrs. Fillmore wrote Abbie, "I am glad to see young girls think they can be useful." She had planned to share a room with two roommates but took her mother’s advice to board in a private home in a room by herself, and put up a screen in front of her desk so she could remain undistracted in her studies. Those plans were cut short when her father unexpectedly became President and she moved to the White House in October of 1850.

Upon leaving the White House and her mother's death, Abbie Fillmore assumed responsibility for her father's household at their Buffalo home on Franklin Street. She became his companion at the few public events he attended in Buffalo, but her most famous appearance was during the "Grand Excursion" of June 1854. Organized to publicize newly created transportation links between railway and steam boat travel, she was among several hundred prominent citizens in business, academia, politics, the clergy and the arts to go from Chicago to Rock Island, Illinois by rail, then to St. Paul, Minnesota Territory and back by steamboat. Along the way were tours of lead mines and endless speeches with former President Fillmore as the lead figure. Covered by large eastern newspapers, the event especially celebrated the natural beauty of the upper-Midwest. The scenic wonder was captured in June 7 accounts from Trempealeau, Wisconsin where Abbie Fillmore made a dramatic and swift climb to a bluff on horseback, the very image of a healthy and adventurous American girl. Only seven weeks later, while visiting her grandfather in East Aurora, Abbie Fillmore contracted cholera and died in one day. The loneliness caused by her death was cited as a reason Fillmore returned to politics and remarried.

I hope you enjoyed both this post and last week's game!

2 comments:

Greg said...

I like the guessing game...especially when a) It's someone obscure and b) if you follow it up with a lengthy post about that person. A good learning tool for us History Buff wanna-bes.

Brian said...

Wonderful information! I really enjo learning about those people that don't necessarily make the front page of the history books.