Spaulding was born on February 24, 1809 in Summer Hill, New York, the first of nine children of Edward Spaulding (1764–1845) and Mehitable Goodridge (1770–1838). In 1829, he began the study of law in the office of Fitch & Dibble at Batavia, New York. During this time he served as recording clerk in the county clerk's office to meet his expenses. In 1832, he completed his studies in Attica, New York with Harvey Putnam. Later that year he was admitted to the bar in Genesee County, New York. In 1834, he moved to Buffalo, and became a clerk in the office of "Potter & Babcock," leading attorneys in the city.
Spaulding's paternal grandfather was Levi Spaulding (1737–1825), a member of the 3rd New Hampshire Regiment that saw action during the Revolutionary War at the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Battles of Saratoga, and the Battle of Newtown. In addition, the 3rd participated in or was present at the Siege of Boston, the Invasion of Canada, Valley Forge, and Sullivan's Expedition. His maternal grandfather was the Rev. Sewall Goodridge (1747–1809), the son of Capt. Benjamin Goodridge, Sr. (1701–1773), an attorney in Lunenburg, Massachusetts who was appointed commissioner of the peace in the 1769 under Sir Francis Bernard, 1st Baronet (1712–1779), the Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay from 1760 to 1769.
In March 1836, he was appointed City Clerk of Buffalo. In 1841, Spaulding was elected Alderman of the Third Ward, and served as Chairman of the Executive Committee. He became the Mayor of Buffalo in 1847 and was a member of the New York State Assembly (Erie Co., 1st D.) in 1848. While in the Assembly, he secured passage of a law authorizing the formation of gas light corporations in the State. The Buffalo Gas Light Company was the first such created, and he became a director and stockholder of it.
Spaulding was elected as a Whig to the 31st United States Congress, serving from 1849 to 1851 as the representative for New York's 32nd congressional district, a district created on March 4, 1833 for the eventual 13th President of the United States Millard Fillmore. Spaulding served for one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1854, he became the New York State Treasurer, serving until 1855. He was elected again to the House of Representatives as a Republican, serving in the 36th and 37th United States Congresses from 1859 to 1863. In 1860, Spaulding delivered a speech denouncing the Democratic Party and its pro-slavery views, and urging Republicans to support Abraham Lincoln for the U.S. presidency.
It was said that Spaulding was the one who figured out that the American government needed to print money to pay for the Civil War. At the time, it was regarded as economic heresy, but today many believe that the country would not have survived without it. Such an idea was then dismissed by some as “fiat money,” money that is money not because it is backed by gold or silver, but because some government says it is money. He was Chairman of a House Ways and Means Subcommittee when the government was in danger of running out of money to pay for the war. He wrote a law that allowed the government to print money and declare it had to be accepted as legal tender.
In a biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, titled The First Tycoon, T. J. Stiles wrote that Spaulding “performed a true miracle: he conjured money out of nothing, and so contributed more toward the Union victory (and the future of New York’s financial sector) than any single battlefield victory.” Stiles continued, “If Wall Street had saints, then the college of financial cardinals would surely canonize Elbridge G. Spaulding.”
In 1862, he drafted the Legal Tender Act, and the National Currency Bank Bill. At the time, the only circulating paper money was notes issued by banks. Those notes were supposed to be convertible into gold, although the banks had been forced to suspend such conversions at the end of 1861. There was no central bank. The bill passed Congress not because it was thought to be good policy absent a crisis, but because it was necessary. "It was at once a loan to the government without interest and a national currency, which was so much needed for disbursement in small sums during the pressing exigencies of the war," Spaulding wrote years later in his book, History of the Legal Tender Paper Money.
On September 5, 1837, he married Antoinette Rich (1818–1841), daughter of Gaius Basset Rich and Aphia Salisbury Rich. Antoinette died in 1841 without bearing any children.
On September 5, 1842, he married Nancy Selden Strong (1824–1852), the daughter of Samuel Strong and Delia Selden Strong of Windsor, Connecticut. Together with Nancy, he had three children before her death in 1852. They were:Charlotte Spaulding (1843–1934), who married Franklin Sidway (1834–1920)
Edward Rich Spaulding (1845–1908), who married Mary Tenney Blanchard (1851–1923)
Samuel Strong Spaulding (1849–1939), who married Annie Margaret Watson (1852–1924)
On May 2, 1864, after Nancy's death in 1852, he married Delia Strong (1812–1895), Nancy's sister. Spaulding's marriage with Delia lasted over 40 years until her death in 1895, however, they did not have any children together.
Spaulding died on May 5, 1897 in Buffalo, New York and is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo. In his will, Spaulding indicated that at his death, the house at 775 Main Street was to be demolished. Therefore, in 1897 the house was torn down. Later the "Spaulding Building," built in 1906 at 763 Main St. by Edward Rich Spaulding, and the "Sidway Building," built in 1907 at 775 -783 Main St. by Franklin Sidway and Charlotte Spaulding Sidway, were both built on the property.
Around 1850, Spaulding bought the "Hollister Mansion" at 775 Main Street in Buffalo, the house in which Delia and Spaulding lived for their entire married lives. The property had earlier been part of the farm of Deacon Jabez Goodell, who in 1830 sold it to William Hollister and George Palmer jointly, each of whom planned to build their residences on the property. Hollister chose the western part, on Main Street, and Palmer the quieter and more rural eastern part, on Washington Street. Hollister built his house in 1835–1836 (on the southeast corner of Main and Goodell) and lived there until it was sold to Spaulding in 1850, who made extensive alterations. Spaulding's daughter, Charlotte, married Franklin Sidway in the house in 1866.
Around 1870, Spaulding built a Victorian era Stick Style home as his summer retreat on Grand Island named "River Lawn." He owned a half mile of river front that encompassed 350 acres of broad woodlands and cultivated fields. There, Spaulding indulged his hobby of raising some of the finest cattle in the nation. Lewis F. Allen, uncle of Grover Cleveland, was the first of the so-called society of the day to build a house on the island, and Spaulding was the second. After that, it became a fashionable mecca, and numerous other houses were built. In 1879, the socially prominent Falconwood Club, formed in 1858, built its clubhouse adjacent to the Spaulding property.
The boathouse he constructed on his "River Lawn" estate, known as the Spaulding-Sidway Boathouse, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. Much later in 1935, the boathouse was floated up river to its present site by Franklin St. John Sidway (Spaulding's grandson).
In 1846, Spaulding was one of the original founders that helped to get the University at Buffalo established. He was a member of the original council of the University, and remained a member until his death in 1897. Today, there is an undergraduate dormitory, as well as academic and administrative offices, named for him at the University.
During the 1930s, Spaulding's "River Lawn" estate later was donated to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, by his heirs, and became the basis for present day Beaver Island State Park.1869 – History of the Legal Tender Paper Money Issued During the Great Rebellion
1875 – Legal Tender Act"
1876 – Centennial: One Hundred Years of Progress in the Business of Banking