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Mr. Spofford Goes to Washington

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Spofford seated at desk in library
Ainsworth Rand Spofford, c.1900. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

This guest post is by Manuscript Division historian and Library of Congress Archives specialist Cheryl Fox.

Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1825-1908) was one of the longest-serving Librarians of Congress. He started at the Library in 1864, just prior to the end of the Civil War, and retired in 1897, when the new Library of Congress building he had championed for nearly 30 years finally opened. Spofford vastly increased the size of the Library, especially by making it the nation’s copyright repository and acquiring the J. M. Toner and Peter Force collections documenting America’s Revolutionary War era. These collections elevated the Library of Congress to the top ranks of American history repositories and attracted numerous donations. Today, Spofford’s own papers are held at the Library as well, in the Manuscript Division.

Spofford was born in 1825 in New Hampshire. As a young man, he moved west seeking employment opportunities in the booming city of Cincinnati, Ohio. He was able to develop his great interest in books and learning there, first as an assistant and later as a part owner of a bookstore and publishing company. Spofford also became involved in literary activities, which appealed to his love of books and provided a way to increase his knowledge of literature. Heavily influenced by Cincinnati’s abolitionist movement, Spofford became progressive in his political views. He met longtime friend Henry Browne Blackwell (1825-1909) there and became a supporter of women’s suffrage. He also cofounded the Cincinnati Literary Club, which focused on transcendentalism and once hosted Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In the late 1850s, Spofford turned to journalism as a possible career opportunity. He initially traveled from Cincinnati to Washington, D.C., at the beginning of the Civil War to report on the Ohio congressional delegation for the Cincinnati Commercial newspaper. He found unpaved streets flooded with soldiers and job seekers; many former rural residents crowded into flimsy buildings in the alleys. Preparations for war were everywhere. Engineers built numerous forts along the boundaries of the District of Columbia, while military camps sprang up whenever and wherever needed. Troops constantly paraded up and down the city’s streets.

During this time, Spofford wrote many letters home to his wife, Sarah Partridge Spofford, that contain interesting details of his early experiences in Washington. Researchers can find them in the Ainsworth Rand Spofford Papers.

Spofford later became a notable figure in Washington life and culture, and member of many clubs, including the Literary Society and the Columbia Historical Society. But in 1861, he was uncertain about Washington, wondering if he could find a job that paid enough to live in the expensive, bustling city. That uncertainty was short-lived. Spofford soon became convinced that he wanted to stay in Washington, and to work at the Library of Congress.

Spofford family posing outdoors
Photo of the Blackwell and Spofford families about 1890, Left to right: Dr. Emily Blackwell, Ainsworth Spofford, Alice Stone Blackwell, Lucy Stone, Henry Browne Blackwell (seated), Florence Spofford, and Sarah Partridge Spofford. This photograph was taken at the Blackwell family home. The Spoffords and Blackwells were friends from Cincinnati. Box 48, Blackwell Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

His letters home tell the tale. On May 16, 1861, Spofford wrote his wife that he survived the long train trip. Apparently he had spent most of the trip on a hard bench. He described his condition: “I am tossed and shaken up till my joints are loose, not having found sleeping cars on the road as I expected.”[1]

Spofford made himself as comfortable as possible in “the city of mud and politicians.” He roomed near the Ohio delegation in one of the boarding houses on Pennsylvania Avenue. “I am well accommodated,” Spofford wrote his wife, having found a rooming house across the street from the National Hotel. Like most boarders, Spofford took his meals there as well.

He also described his typical day:

“My day in Washington is about as follows: I get up at 8 to 9 and dress and go out to a coffee house for my breakfast. Then write a letter to the Commercial and read the morning papers, by which time the hour for organizing Congress (12 o’clock) approaches, and I walk up to the Capitol. Here I stay in House or Senate, till the adjournment, at about 5 p.m. Then I go and get a dinner, and prepare my telegraphic dispatches and send them off. Then I walk up to Willard’s Hotel, about a mile . . . get my mail from home and eat apples and drink catawba . . . With talk and newspaper reading the evening wears rapidly away and when I get back to my room I generally feel pretty well tired out and ripe for bed.”

Drawing of street scene
Pennsylvania Avenue looking toward unfinished Capitol, ca. 1860, with the National Hotel and telegraph office on the left. A. Meyer, 1860. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Spofford’s newspaper assignment changed drastically when the armies of the North and South declared war. He became a war correspondent. In order to go behind military lines, he obtained a pass in July 1861.

Spofford wrote his wife on July 23, 1861, describing his observation and accidental participation in the First Battle of Bull Run. “I have been to the wars for 5 days and now on my return safe and sound, from the terrible battle and disaster at Bull Run.”

At first Spofford, like many other observers of the battle, was confident that the Union Army would win. “[T]he early success [of the GAR] troops in driving the rebels before them was very inspiring.” Their mood turned dark, however, with “the turn of the tide a few hours later.” Confederate reinforcements arrived by train, overwhelming the Union ranks and pushing their line back almost to Washington.

Spofford described being swept up by the retreating Union Army, finding himself “on the battlefield and … having to lie flat on the ground to let the common shot and bomb-shells fly over my head safely for half an hour.”

After Bull Run, Spofford began to reconsider his career in journalism. Spofford knew that he might find work at the Library of Congress. His friend Reuben Stephenson, director of the Cincinnati Mercantile Library, was the brother of John G. Stephenson, the new Librarian of Congress. Reuben Stephenson likely recommended Spofford to his brother as someone capable of library work.

Spofford did have relevant experience from his work in the Cincinnati bookstore, but more importantly, he had fallen in love with the Library. He told his wife that he spent his two or three hours of free time there each day. Spofford wrote, “You know my passion for books. Dr. Stephenson gives me full range, and has even intimated a desire that I should consider the offer of a position as assistant Librarian.” The salary of $1800 a year was good, but Spofford worried that, since the position of Librarian of Congress was a political appointment, he could be replaced if a Democrat was elected President.

Spofford wrote his wife again on August 5, 1861, to let her know he had been formally offered the position. He wrote that his “friend Dr. Stephenson has again been broaching the subject and has made me a formal tender of the place.” While still concerned about future change in political party, Spofford wrote, “[t]here has been no change on account of political revolutions for 30 years, until Mr. Lincoln appointed Dr. Stephenson in place of a very ancient fossil who had held the sinecure for that length of time.” (The ancient fossil was John Silva Meehan, Librarian of Congress from 1829 until 1861.)

Spofford sent his wife a list of seventeen reasons for taking the job as Librarian Stephenson’s assistant, including “A congenial intellectual occupation, keeping mind alert without severely taxing the power” and “Escape from disagreeables of a coal-smoked city.” He found only nine against, including “A Change of Profession – usually an evil” and “Possibly More Unfavorable Climate.” Having convinced himself to take the job, Spofford began his long career at the Library. He succeeded Stephenson as Librarian of Congress in 1864 and retired in 1897. Even in retirement, Spofford continued his diligent work as Librarian Emeritus or Chief Assistant to the Librarian of Congress until his death in 1908.

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[1] Ainsworth Rand Spofford to Sarah Partridge Spofford, May 16, 1861. Reel 1. Ainsworth Rand Spofford Papers. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. All subsequent quotations are drawn from the same collection and reel.


Comments (3)

  1. Wonderful piece, Cheryl!

  2. Very cool! I wonder how many staff the Library had in 1861.

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