John G. Stephenson, M.D. (1828-1883), the fifth Librarian of Congress, served from 1861 to 1864. He hired the man who would succeed him in office, Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1825-1908) as an assistant so he could free up his time to serve in the Union Army.
Born in Lancaster, New Hampshire, on March 1, 1828, John Gould Stephenson was the sixth child of Reuben and Mary King Stephenson. His father was a prominent resident of Lancaster and had been one of the incorporators of the Lancaster Academy, a school which John Stephenson later attended.
He studied medicine at the New Hampshire Medical Institution and Castleton Medical College, where he earned his doctorate in medicine in 1849. Within two years, he moved to Terre Haute, Indiana, where he became active in the new Republican Party.
Dr. Stephenson was one of the first men to support Abraham Lincoln’s presidential nomination in 1860. Once Lincoln was elected president, Dr. Stephenson actively campaigned to be appointed Librarian of Congress.
He may have asked for this post because his brother Rueben had headed the Cincinnati Mercantile Library for several years. It was Reuben who befriended Ainsworth Rand Spofford, a bookseller and journalist.
Dr. Stephenson enjoyed the patronage of Indiana political boss William P. Dole. He also had the support of Senator Henry S. Smith of Indiana and the soon-to-be-Secretary of the Interior Caleb B. Smith (1808-1864), who served in the Lincoln Administration as U.S. Secretary of the Interior from March of 1861 to December of 1862.
Having received letters from Dr. Stephenson listing his endorsements, Lincoln appointed him Librarian of Congress in May of 1861. Despite the effort he had put into becoming Librarian of Congress, in the following summer Dr. Stephenson became a volunteer surgeon for the 19th Indiana Regiment, which had set up a hospital in the Patent Office.
In September of 1861, Dr. Stephenson hired Spofford as his assistant and spent the next three weeks in the field. At first, they had friendly relations, but by September their relationship began to fray when Dr. Stephenson fired another assistant.
Spofford insisted he would only stay on if Dr. Stephenson gave Spofford his whole support. Dr. Stephenson would spend much of 1863 in the field, not as an army surgeon, but as soldier with the Indiana Militia rank of colonel, which would be a political appointment.
Col. Stephenson served with the Army of the Potomac as an aid-de-camp. He fought in the Battles of Fitzhugh Crossing, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, and received a commendation for his performance in the Battle of Gettysburg.
John Y. Cole points out in his biography of Stephenson that in his History of the Library of Congress 1800-1864, published in 1904, William Dawson Johnston implied “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.’”
Unless those congressmen were time-travelers, I think someone flipped the years. In any case, Dr. Stephenson remained in office until the end of 1864, so it seems unlikely he was engulfed in scandal for more than a year before his resignation.
Dr. Stephenson resigned on December 22, 1864, effective December 31, 1864, and continued to reside in Washington for the rest of his life, holding other patronage jobs. In 1881, he became a medical review for the Pension Office.
Dr. Stephenson died on November 12, 1882, in Washington, D.C. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Washington's Congressional Cemetery, which is not controlled by Congress.