Biographies John G. Stephenson (1828-1883)

5th Librarian of Congress 1861-1864

John G. Stephenson

John Gould Stephenson served as the fifth Librarian of Congress from May 21, 1861, until his resignation, which was effective December 31, 1864.  A political appointee of President Abraham Lincoln, Stephenson was a physician and Republican partisan from Terre Haute, Indiana.  As Librarian of Congress, Stephenson apparently spent as much time serving as a physician for the Union Army as he did supervising the Library.  He could do so because in September 1861, he had hired Cincinnati bookseller and journalist Ainsworth Rand Spofford as his assistant librarian.  For all practical purposes the eager and well-qualified Spofford ran the Library during the rest of Stephenson’s term of office, and on December 31, 1864, Lincoln appointed Spofford as Librarian.  Stephenson’s appointment by Lincoln in 1861 appears to be the most blatantly political appointment of a Librarian of Congress ever made by a president.  Nevertheless, there is truth in the conclusion by Library of Congress historian David C. Mearns that on the whole John G. Stephenson "did the Library of Congress neither harm nor good during his administration,"  It also is clear, however, that Stephenson’s single most important accomplishment was hiring Spofford as his assistant.

John Gould Stephenson was born in Lancaster, New Hampshire, on March 1, 1828, the sixth child of Reuben and Mary King Stephenson.  Reuben Stephenson was a prominent Lancaster citizen and one of the incorporators of the Lancaster Academy, where John attended school.  From the Academy, Stephenson went to the New Hampshire Medical Institution and then to Castleton Medical College, where he received a doctorate in medicine on November 23, 1849.

About 1851, the young Dr. Stephenson migrated west to Terre Haute and, a few years later, became active in the newly formed Republican Party.  He was one of Lincoln’s earliest supporters for the presidential nomination, and after Lincoln’s nomination and election, Stephenson launched a determined campaign to become Librarian of Congress.  Why he chose this particular job to pursue is unclear, but one can speculate that he knew about libraries because his brother, Reuben had served as head of the Cincinnati Mercantile Library since the 1850’s—where, in fact, he was a close friend of Ainsworth Spofford.

Stephenson obtained the political support he needed, particularly from Indiana Senator Henry S. Smith and the soon-to-be-Secretary of the Interior Caleb B. Smith.  On May 7, 1861, the candidate himself was in Washington and wrote to Lincoln, reminding the President that he had been "an earnest and continuous supporter in the Cause that triumphed in your election."  After listing his political endorsements, Stephenson noted that his "pecuniary condition" would be "greatly relieved by you granting the application."  A letter from Indiana Republican leader William P. Dole to a friend in Washington, dated May 14, 1861, says that Lincoln is about to appoint Stephenson, which suited Dole just fine even though "the Dr. is not heavy mettal," because "he has worked hard for us & is poor and can hand down books from a shelf to (Members of Congress) as well & as gracefully as any one."  Moreover, Dole concluded "he is a Wabash man & I am for home." Lincoln made the appointment a week after the letter was written.

Stephenson hired Spofford in September 1861 and then left the Library for three weeks to serve on the battlefield.  Describing Stephenson to a friend in May 1862, Spofford characterized the Librarian as "a thorough good fellow, liberal, high-minded, & active, but with no special knowledge of books."  By September 1862, however, relations between the two men had fractured.  Upset by the Librarian’s dismissal of another assistant, Spofford threatened to quit unless he received a promise of full support from Stephenson for the future.  As Spofford described the situation to his friend Henry B. Blackwell: "I have made it a condition of retaining my post that I am to be subjected to no hasty deprivation of support…his readiness to repair the past by doing whatever I should advise, leaves me willing to continue association with him." 

The headstrong assistant librarian was responsible for the major accomplishments of the Library of Congress during Stephenson’s term of office.  These included: the compilation of two lengthy manuscript reports critical of the Library’s condition and urging Congress to authorize funds for improvements; successful lobbying for a $160,000 appropriation to expand the Library’s room in the Capitol; the inauguration of more comprehensive and efficient book-buying procedures; and, in September 1864, publication of the 1,200 Alphabetical Catalogue of the Library of Congress: Authors, the first complete author catalog in the Library’s history.  Stephenson, however, lent his support and approval to Spofford’s efforts.

There is still much to be learned about the motives and the career of John G. Stephenson as Librarian of Congress.  In the summer of 1861, shortly after assuming the post, he served as a volunteer surgeon for members of the 19th Indiana Regiment, who were in a temporary hospital set up in the Patent Office Building.  For the rest of his Civil War military career, however, his jobs apparently were more political than medical in their nature.  According to his own account, in 1863 he served with the Army of the Potomac, not as a surgeon, but "as a volunteer aide de camp with my militia rank of Colonel, participating in the battles of Fitzhugh Crossing, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg.  He received a commendation for his performance at Gettysburg.

Nor are the circumstances surrounding Stephenson’s resignation  fully known.  In his History of the Library of Congress 1800-1864 (1904), William Dawson Johnston implies that Stephenson left the Library under a cloud because of his involvement in "speculations created by the war.”  He cites as evidence a June 8, 1872 congressional resolution paying the Library’s London book agent $1,480 "of which sum he was unjustly defrauded by the conduct of the Librarian in 1863."  Despite the harsh wording of the resolution, it is not clear whether war speculations or technical problems involving methods of payment prompted the congressional action.

Following his resignation as Librarian on December 31, 1864, Stephenson kept his legal residence in Washington and apparently held several political jobs.  On November 16, 1881, nearly seventeen years after he left the Library, he was appointed as a medical reviewer at the Pension Office.  At the age of 55, on November 11, 1883, he died.  He is buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. (JYC)


Carter, Constance.  "John Gould Stephenson: Largely Known and Much Liked."  The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 33 (April 1976): 71-91.

Selected Works at the Library of Congress