The First White House Library: A History and Annotated Catalogue

Edited by Catherine M. Parisian. University Park, Penn.: Penn State University Press, 2010. 416 pp. $55 (cloth). ISBN 978-0-271-03713-4.

After much contestation and anti-Whig sentiment, the U.S. Congress finally allowed the thirteenth president, Millard Fillmore, to have a library budget for the White House. All previous presidents had been of that early-American upper crust, bringing their own massive and private libraries to the White House upon inauguration. This edited volume by Catherine M. Parisian notes that Fillmore was the United States’ first middle-class head of state, the first log-cabin president. Although Fillmore bore little resemblance to Lincoln in the contemporary public consciousness, his devotion to education, music, and self-improvement was comparable. The First White House Library details a collection determined to be comprehensive but not exhaustive, in accordance with the wide interests and reading habits of the Fillmore family and the monetary constrictions placed on them by a limited source of funds from Congress.

This volume presents many fascinating anecdotes about the Fillmore family and their need to reshape the White House, particularly the library, into a comfortable place for family- and public gatherings. Abigail Powers Fillmore played a tremendous role in influencing her husband’s intellectual life, perhaps even comparable to the intimate epistolary relationship between the second president, John Adams, and his wife, Abigail.

The primary goal of this book, however, does not necessarily seem to be a detailed description of the intellectual interests of the Fillmores. Instead the chief utility rests in how it documents a collection that attempted to address nearly all areas of knowledge of contemporaneous interest for a president in the nineteenth century who also loved to read. The First White House Library delivers a snapshot of a parsimonious collection that encompassed both the interests of 1850s intellectuals and the reference resources of a politician and policy maker. As a result, the volume is an occasion to investigate intellectual history and scholarship in the middle of nineteenth-century America. The Fillmore story serves as prefatory material for the real essence of the project, a transportative catalogue of each of the 195 items purchased for the White House Library. Through emphasizing the middle-class nature of the Fillmore family and subsequent administrations, the authors document a transition that further solidifies the representative quality of the White House Library as the kind of library that any family in America would be proud to own. Although this was not the Fillmores’ original intent, such a collection brings to mind similar twentieth-century projects as Mortimer J Adler’s Great Books or the Library of America series, which the modern White House Library has more recently contained. Perhaps the book’s true value is in its role as a starting-off point for defining an emerging class of American citizen, capable of holding the highest office, while also possessed of the ability to hold a conversation on nearly any subject. Instead of containing a heavy amount of works in the Western classics, such as Plato and Aristotle, the collection contains a more pragmatic, perhaps more stereotypically American oeuvre, looking more toward the biographies and the ideas of model examples of great individuals, to serve as a starting point for anyone trying to create their own American story.

Wade Garrison, University of Kansas