Worthington Chauncey Ford : scholar and adventurer /
Louis Leonard Tucker.
Boston : Northeastern University Press, c2001.
xv, 247 p. : ill.
1555534805 (cloth : alk. paper)
More Details
Boston : Northeastern University Press, c2001.
1555534805 (cloth : alk. paper)
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

" As Ye Sow ..."

It is a truism that, to some degree and for good or bad, all children are influenced by their parents. In the case of Worthington Chauncey Ford, the influence of his parents was profound and pervasive. He acquired many of his traits of character and his value structure from them. His inordinate love of books and libraries, American history and literature, and classical music and the performing arts was indisputably the effect of parental influence. Further, a case could be made that his "colossal capacity for work," a trait emphasized by all who knew him, was derived from persistent parental prodding to labor to the outer limits of his physical and mental ability and to give his best effort at all times. When Ford wrote in 1930, at the age of twenty-two, "a busy man cannot rust," he was expressing a maxim of life that had been implanted in him by his parents during his days of childhood. Both parents manifested these qualities to the nth degree and served as ideal role models for Worthington. Only his excessive love of golf, which he exhibited as an adult, was seemingly self-inspired. His parents viewed all athletic activities as trifling and time-wasting. To understand the parents, then, is to understand the child.

    The Fords were an exceptional couple with a common ancestral heritage. Both had deep New England roots extending back to the Pilgrims and the Puritans. Both were the products of a disciplined ancestry. Gordon Lester Ford was born in the "obscure little town" of Lebanon, Connecticut, in 1823, one generation removed from the American Revolution. His paternal ancestry in America began with Andrew Ford, who emigrated from England and settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1623, three years after the Mayflower landed there. On his mother's side, Gordon was descended from Thomas Burnham, one of the pioneer settlers of Hartford, Connecticut. Through the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, Ford's ancestors resided in Massachusetts and Connecticut. They were of the "common sort": farmers, blacksmiths, plain-spoken and plain-mannered people who earned their livelihood by manual labor. Gordon's father was a carpenter. Work was the central ethic of these early New Englanders.

    Imbued with the unbridled optimism that pervaded nineteenth-century America, Gordon Ford aspired for a higher station in life, one undreamed of by his forebears. A self-made man, he became the American Dream incarnate, a quintessential success story. From his youth, he was a tireless worker, filled with enormous energy and a driving desire to excel. When he was eleven years old, his parents sent him to New York City to work for his uncle, a prosperous merchant. Beginning as a lowly office boy, the industrious, purposeful youngster demonstrated a keen aptitude for business and bookkeeping and soon was given broader responsibilities. His only formal education at this time consisted of two terms in a New York City night school.

    The wondrous city astride the Hudson and East Rivers was ripe with opportunity for a bright, ambitious young man, and Gordon Ford capitalized on the situation. He methodically moved up the economic ladder to financial success. Leaving his uncle's firm, he took employment with a larger business organization as an accountant. Next he entered the office of the United States Marshal. Recognizing the importance of the legal profession in the burgeoning metropolis, the perceptive young man began the study of law during evenings. In 1850, he was admitted to the bar of New York.

    Ford opened a law office in New York City, but business, not legal, affairs began to consume the bulk of his workday. He viewed the law as a means to a greater end. In 1852, at the age of twenty-eight, he became president of the New London, Willimantic and Palmer Railroad, a regional rail line. He remained in that position until 1856, when the firm was sold to a larger group as railroad consolidation became the order of the day in the United States. The heroic age of the railroad had begun.

    In 1853, on his thirtieth birthday, the entrepreneurial lawyer-businessman married Emily Ellsworth Fowler; three years later, they took up permanent residence in Brooklyn Heights, a quiet, genteel, fifty-block residential district situated on a promontory overlooking the East River. The neighborhood was opposite lower Manhattan, the financial and commercial center of New York City. His home was within minutes of the great urban goliath to the north by ferry. Peopled by upwardly mobile "gentlemen of solid respectability and well-lived simplicity," the Heights was the emergent "Gold Coast" of Brooklyn, then an oversized, sprawling village but soon to become America's third-largest city. A citadel of gentility, the Heights "was as much a state of mind as a locality," one authority has written. Its insular residents considered it "the center of the world."

    The core of the Heights's population was a contingent of Congregational New Englanders, as represented by the Fords and the Henry Ward Beecher family, who settled there in midcentury. With the arrival of the New Englanders, the Heights assumed the character of a Yankee village. This group became affiliated with Beecher's Plymouth Church, making it the largest and most influential religious denomination in the Heights. "It seems almost," wrote one chronicler of Brooklyn's past, "as if a New England town had been transplanted bodily to the western end of Long Island, there to maintain the culture and sedate atmosphere of the old Bay State in the heart of the greatest financial and commercial center of the world."

    Ford erected a five-story, forty-nine-room urban mansion, not a conspicuous structure for this fashionable district. The stately brick house was framed by an attractive iron fence. Ford's granddaughter described the building as a "house of many back halls, stairs, and angles--a house to arouse the imagination and curiosity of any child." Despite its large size, it was a comfortable home, filled with furniture of New England mahogany and Victorian rosewood.

    In short order, Gordon Ford became one of Brooklyn's "first-known citizens," a prime member of the city's incipient economic, social, and intellectual aristocracy. In the post-Civil War era, when Brooklyn came of age as a major American city, he took a leading role in the founding of a host of civic and cultural institutions aiming at the promotion of the intellectual and artistic progress of the city: the Brooklyn Art Association; the Academy of Music; the Brooklyn Library; the Long Island Historical Society; and the Hamilton Club, organized in 1882 to replace the Hamilton Literary Association of Brooklyn. He was a charter member of a kitchen cabinet of Brooklyn civic leaders who cross-pollinated the governing boards of the city's major cultural institutions. Attesting to his prominence in New York City was his appointment to the committee that organized the construction of the massive arch in Washington Park in Greenwich Village.

    Ford also became active in politics, on both the local and national levels. Prior to the Civil War, as an ardent abolitionist, he had allied himself with the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln. A political idealist in this era of excessively corrupt urban politics, he held strong liberal views and was committed to the concept of "good government." While serving as president of the Republican First Ward Association of Brooklyn, he vigorously opposed Republican nominees for office who he believed were unqualified for the positions they were seeking. While accepting the principle of political patronage, he insisted upon candidates who were talented and competent.

    Political contacts, combined with talent and competence, led to Gordon Ford's appointment as United States collector of internal revenue for the third collection district in 1869. Because he refused to allow political assessments for campaign purposes, however, his less idealistic Republican Party superiors, who did not equate morality with politics, ousted him from his position in 1872. Outraged by this action, Ford joined the reformist Liberal Republicans and served as a Brooklyn delegate at the Cincinnati convention of 1873, at which Horace Greeley was nominated for the presidency. Ford cast his vote for Charles Francis Adams of Boston, the son and grandson of two former presidents, and also a "good government" advocate. The son of this Adams would later play a crucial role in furthering the career of Gordon's son Worthington.

    In subsequent years, in addition to maintaining a low-profile law practice in New York City, Ford served as business manager of the New York Tribune (1873-1881) and president of the Brooklyn, Flatbush, and Coney Island Railroad (1883). Concurrently, he devoted considerable time to his expansive financial, commercial, and real-estate interests, much of which were centered in fast-growing Brooklyn. He amassed a sizable estate in his lifetime.

    There were other sides to Ford, the businessman, lawyer, cultural leader, and civic servant. He was also an avid bookman and bibliophile, a serious student of American history and political economy, and an assiduous collector of Americana. At the age of fourteen he began to collect autographs of famous Americans. Like Isaiah Thomas, the founder of the American Antiquarian Society and an avid collector, Ford also was "touched early by the gentlest of infirmities, bibliomania." As an adult, and as his wealth increased, he expanded his collecting to books and manuscripts, in particular, but also purchased pamphlets, prints, maps, and historical artifacts, like swords owned by famous American military leaders, and paintings. After nearly fifty years of collecting, he amassed about 100,000 books and pamphlets and over 60,000 manuscripts, a large corpus of Americana for a private collection. Displaying a discriminating taste as a collector, he focused upon the late colonial era, the Revolutionary War era, and the early national period to 1850. Contemporary bibliophiles regarded his collection as the finest private Americana library in the United States, if not the world. A modern authority has called Gordon Ford "one of the greatest book collectors of his time." "Historical writers" from all parts of the United States sought information from his library, and Ford freely provided it. He viewed his library as a "great public institution."

    The centerpiece of the Ford home was Gordon's capacious library, located at the rear of the main building. The room was "immense in my childish eyes," wrote his granddaughter. Fifty feet square and twenty-five feet in height, "it was such a room as [Thomas] Carlyle dreamed of," wrote a contemporary reporter. Lindsay Swift of Boston, a close friend of Gordon's son Paul, who was an accomplished historical novelist, editor, and bibliographer, provided a detailed description of the library, stressing the point that it was a workplace for scholarly activity, not the showcase of a bibliophile.

The floor is covered in part by large rugs; the walls and ceilings are of serious tint; a fireplace is opposite the entrance; while sofas of most dissimilar pattern and meant seemingly to hold any burden but a human one, are placed "disposedly" about; chairs, easy but not seductive, are in plenty, but like the sofas give notice that here is a government not of men but of books--here there is no library built for the lust of the flesh and pride of the eye, but for books and for those who use them. I cannot suppose that those smitten of bibliophily would thrill over the Ford Library, since it exists for the practical and virile, although it is, in parts, exceedingly choice. Roughly classified to suit the easy memories of the owners, it presents an appearance urbane and unprecise rather than military and commanding. At irregular intervals loom huge masses of books, pamphlets, papers, proof-sheets and engravings in cataclysmic disorder and apparently suspended in mid air like the coffin of the False Prophet, but in fact resting on tables well hidden by the superincumbent piles. In this room the father slowly accumulated this priceless treasure mostly illustrative of American history and its adjuncts, thereby gratifying his own accurate tastes and hoping, as we may suppose, that his children would ultimately profit by his foresight.

    In addition to books and manuscripts, the library also contained an assortment of artifacts and historical bric-a-brac: busts, statues, swords, pistols, Tiffany lamps, an American flag, a rocking chair, an Empire lounge, and portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Two of the Ford children, Paul and Emily, used their father's library as a playroom, as the locale for parties for the entertainment of their young nieces and nephews. In later years, one of the nieces recalled a memorable gathering when "a large quantity of bright new pennies, a few nickels, four bright dimes, and one bright quarter, had been hidden among the books, under the rugs, in the upholstery, on the desks, and anywhere that a fertile mind could imagine, the coins tucked away, and we cousins vied with each other to find the largest number of coins; the youngest finding the least, of course.... Can you imagine the control our grandfather [Gordon Ford] showed while witnessing his treasured Americana being mauled by vandal hands."

    After a few years of residence in his new home, Ford completely filled the library. With books and artifacts scattered about, the room presented the appearance of incessant dishevelment. As Ford continued to collect, his historical treasures spilled over to other rooms in the house. Eventually, there were books in every one of the forty-nine rooms. Ford ran out of space and was forced to build a second library in the backyard.

    Ford's wife, née Emily Ellsworth Fowler, shared her husband's passion for books, but her major interests were literature and poetry rather than American history. Learning was also embedded in her marrow. Her lineage was more distinguished than that of her husband. Born in Greenfield, Massachusetts, in 1826, she was a direct descendant of Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony and President Charles Chauncey of Harvard College, and the granddaughter of Noah Webster, the eminent lexicographer. Her father, a graduate of Yale College, was trained as a minister and served a church in Greenfield for a brief period. He then became an academic, holding the positions of professor of chemistry at Middlebury College for eleven years and professor of rhetoric and oratory and English literature at Amherst College for five years. He was also deeply interested in philology and genealogy.

    The future Mrs. Ford attended Amherst Female Academy, where she began to display poetic and literary talents. In the course of her life, she published two volumes of her poetry and a number of poems and essays in such national journals as Putnam's, Harper's , and the Atlantic . Her granddaughter recalled seeing her walking about the lawn of their country home in Turner Falls, New York, "reciting Greek poetry to herself, and digging plantains." Mrs. Ford spent a number of years compiling the letters and quotations of Noah Webster, hoping to produce a publication that would counter an unflattering biography of her grandfather by Horace E. Scudder in the American Men of Letters series. She deemed it her duty to "defend his character, to justify his aims, and to bring the facts of his life against the one-sided judgment of his latest biographer." The two-volume work was completed and published after her death by her daughter Emily Ellsworth Ford Skeel, with editorial assistance provided by her son Worthington.

    While residing in the academic community of Amherst as a teenager, Emily Fowler became a close friend and spiritual soulmate of Emily Dickinson. Both young ladies had attended Amherst Female Academy and had similar poetic and literary interests. In later years, when the reclusive "Belle of Amherst" had achieved a measure of fame as a poet, Mrs. Ford reminisced about their warm relationship at Amherst, in the process revealing much about her own intellectual interests and development during this critical formative stage of her life:

Our parents were friends, and we knew each other from childhood, but she [Dickinson] was several years younger and how and when we drew together I cannot recall, but I think the friendship was based on certain sympathies and mutual admirations of beauty in nature and ideas. She loved the great aspects of nature, and yet was full of interest and affection for its smaller details. We often walked together over the lovely hills of Amherst....

Later we met to discuss books. The Atlantic Monthly was a youngster then, and our joy over a new poem by Lowell, Longfellow, and Whittier, our puzzles over Emerson's "If the red slayer think he slays," our laughter at Oliver Wendell Holmes, were full and satisfying. Lowell was especially dear to us, and once I saw a passionate fit of crying brought on, when a tutor of the College ... told us from his eight years of seniority, that "Byron had a much better style," and advised us "to leave Lowell, Motherwell and Emerson alone." Like other young creatures, we were ardent partisans....

There was a fine circle of young people in Amherst, and we influenced each other strongly. We were in the adoring mood, and I am glad to say that many of those idols of our girlhood have proved themselves golden. The eight girls who composed this group had talent enough for twice their number, and in their respective spheres of mothers, authors, or women, have been noteworthy and admirable....

We had a Shakespeare Club--a rare thing in those days,--and one of the tutors proposed to take all the copies of all the members and mark out the questionable passages. This plan was negatived at the first meeting, as far as "the girls" spoke, who said they did not want the strange things emphasized, nor their books spoiled with marks. Finally we told the men to do as they liked--"we shall read everything." I remember the lofty air with which Emily [Dickinson] took her departure, saying, "There's nothing wicked in Shakespeare, and if there is I don't want to know it." The men read for perhaps three meetings from their expurgated editions, and then gave up their plan, and the whole text was read out boldly.

Emily was part and parcel of all these gatherings, and there were no signs, in her life and character, of the future recluse. As a prophetic hint, she once asked me if it did not make me shiver to hear a great many people talk--they took "all the clothes off their souls"--and we discussed this matter.

    Raised in a strict Christian household, Emily Fowler was devoutly religious and highly principled, a lady of saintly rectitude. She lived her life by iron rules. She revealed her profound religious and ethical values in an episode involving her future husband in 1852. She had heard reports, transmitted by her father, who had spoken with business associates of Gordon Ford, that he had become involved in unethical, if not illegal, business transactions while serving as president of the New London, Willimantic and Palmer Railroad. The firm had been experiencing serious financial losses, and Gordon, who had a heavy personal investment in the line, had assumed the presidency and was wrestling with the dilemma.

    Emily Fowler was disturbed by these alleged improprieties. In an emotional letter to Gordon, she sternly lectured him on the need to be ethical]y upstanding in his business dealings, regardless of the financial consequences to him. "I don't want a breath of suspicion to your honor," she wrote. She was equally upset by reports that Gordon "never went to church at N. L. [New London] and when at L. [Lebanon] or other places contrived not to go." She wrote: "An open Sabbath breaker--one who does not acknowledge his relations to God in any way. Can he be faithful to his earthly relations?" Gordon's apparent lack of interest in religious matters, she warned, threatened their impending marriage. She exhorted him to adhere to Christian values and become a man of principle:

I feel perfectly perplexed and unhappy and only hope that you can persuade me that this is wholly in the past and that a new life and better purposes possess and will maintain possession of your soul. Did I think the future was to be such with you--Did I suppose that you really had only low and worldly interests and that you could be only lifted out of them for a time and then the natural instincts would take you, I should stop right here. Examine your momentary pain in addition to my own disappointments, take remorse onto my heart--and prepare for a life of misery at home rather than peril my soul. I should save your infinite jarring and discomfort. It would be the only right way. Tell me that I have read you better. Tell me that you are facile and yielding to circumstances but that you have love and depth enough for principles. Tell me that holiness and truth and virtue and elevation of character are delightful to you[,] that you crave and desire them--that you will strive for them. Tell me that you have power to be firm in temptation--that you would guide me and shield me from sin--strengthen me in what is right and help me to walk well the Christian course. Oh Gordon. I do feel so perplexed and distressed. I must say it all. You will feel hurt by it ... I'm sure and you will tell me the truth and set me right.

She concluded her letter with a terse postscript: "Are you going to ch[urch] today?"

    The two lovers apparently weathered these difficulties, for they married and subsequently produced eight children, five girls and three boys. Their first child, a girl, died less than a month after her birth, a severe blow to the young couple. Worthington, born on February 16, 1858, was their third child and first boy. The Fords were devoted parents who took an intense interest in all aspects of their children's lives. They sought to mold their characters, guide their education, and instill in them a love of learning and "things of the mind." They were simultaneously a moral force and nurturing parents.

    The mother's influence was most potent in the building of character. While only four feet, eleven inches tall, she was a towering presence for her children. She provided a stern and moral upbringing for her brood, constantly exhorting them to lead exemplary lives, to be pious, and to perform good deeds. In a letter to her "dear children," who were at summer camp, she counseled them to "make as little trouble as you can for all your kind friends and be very kind to each other and all the little children you are with. Do this for Jesus' sake."

    When she was away from her children on trips, Mrs. Ford made it a point to write to them individually and urge them to improve themselves in every way and live moral, righteous lives. She wrote to five-year-old Worthington in 1863, "I must write you to be brave and try not to stammer. Wear your shoes always when you are going far from home among stones and stubble for they will hurt your feet and make you cry, and you know I don't want my boys to be cry babies."

    In 1871, thirteen-year-old Worthington informed his mother that he had seen a play on the life of Rip Van Winkle. Mrs. Ford responded with a critique of Van Winkle's life, in which she presented moral lessons for her son: "It is the best picture of an idle drunken loafer, full of good nature, because he does not care enough about anything to be cross or unhappy, a `neer do well' as the Scotch say, his own worst enemy and his poor wife's, who does all the work, and all the fighting to keep the wolf from the door. No wonder she is so bitter and hateful. It is a very [?] picture of what indiscriminate good nature, idleness and drink will bring any one to." She concluded her letter "with one word to you--to be a good steady sober trusty boy ...."

    That same year, Worthington informed his mother that he was having difficulty learning the "rules of arithmetic" in his schoolwork. Writing from Washington, D.C., Mrs. Ford assured her son that he could master these rules by painstaking study: "To fail in them, is like your failing in spelling--the result of carelessness, and you know I think carelessness is a great sin, as well as a great misfortune."

    Mrs. Ford's intense interest in the educational training of her children is revealed in an incident that occurred in 1875. Worthington, then seventeen years of age, accompanied his father to the New York Academy one evening to hear some speakers in an "Intercollegiate Contest." They returned home at a late hour. The next morning, Mrs. Ford sent a letter to the school, delivered by Worthington, in which she noted his evening outing with his father and solicited his teachers' indulgence "if he is not quite as good as usual in his lessons this morning." She assured the school official that Worthington would do extra work that weekend to make up any "deficiency."


Copyright © 2001 Louis Leonard Tucker. All rights reserved.

This item was reviewed in:
Reference & Research Book News, November 2001
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Main Description
Worthington Chauncey Ford (1858-1941) was descended from a long line of intellectuals, including Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony, President Charles Chauncey of Harvard College, and the eminent lexicographer Noah Webster, so it was not surprising that he chose a career dedicated to historical investigation and learning. A pioneer in the acquisition of American historical documents, Ford was also the most prolific historian-editor in American history, publishing over 260 articles, essays, and books in his lengthy career. A college dropout, he became one of the nation's most distinguished historians and was elected president of the American Historical Association in 1917. Ford's significance as a major figure in American historical scholarship has been too long neglected. His achievements are now examined in this illuminating biography. Louis Leonard Tucker begins by describing how Ford's parents inspired his love of books and passion for American history. He then traces Ford's early career to his appointment to a positionas in the Department of State, where he launched an ambitious plan to publish and disseminate the agency's vast and significant holdings of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historical manuscripts. Tucker describes Ford's subsequent successful tenures at the Boston Public Library and Library of Congress, and his twenty-year career as the de facto director of the Massachusetts Historical Society. He also recounts the sensational and tragic fratricide-suicide of Ford's noted two brothers: Paul, one of America's outstanding historian-novelists, and Malcolm, the nation's leading track star of the 1880s. An invaluable reference for historians, documentary editors, librarians, archivists, and researchers, this sprightly, well-crafted recounts the considerable contributions of the "Prince of Editors."
Publisher Fact Sheet
Restores to history the considerable contributions of this pioneer in the acquisition & publication of historical documents.
Table of Contents
Illustrationsp. ix
Prefacep. xiii
"As Ye Sow..."p. 1
Beginning the "Battle of Life"p. 27
Boston to Washington to Bostonp. 52
Charles Francis Adams and "Greenism"p. 81
Ford versus Greenp. 100
The Era of "Fordism"p. 126
Finale in Francep. 160
Worthington Chauncey Ford's Publicationsp. 187
Notesp. 197
Indexp. 239
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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