College president, minister. Maxcy was born in Attleboro, Massachusetts, on September 2, 1768, the eldest son of Levi Maxcy and Ruth Newell. Prepared at Wrentham Academy, he graduated with highest honors in 1787 from Rhode Island College (later Brown University). Baptized in 1789, Maxcy studied for the ministry and was licensed to preach the following year. Jonathan Trumbull painted his portrait (1793) as “preacher of the First Baptist Society of Providence,” a position he assumed on September 8, 1791. Maxcy married Susannah Hopkins, daughter of Commodore Esek Hopkins of Providence, on August 22, 1791. Six of their ten children survived infancy. He was elected president pro tempore of Rhode Island College on September 7, 1792, and the youthful Maxcy formally became the school’s second president in 1797. Harvard College awarded him the doctor of sacred theology in 1801.
From 1802 to 1804 Maxcy served as the third president of Union College in Schenectady, New York. In 1804, drawn to a warmer climate by chronic health problems, he accepted the $2,500-a-year offer to become the first president of South Carolina College in Columbia. The college opened in January 1805 with nine students and two professors. Maxcy, professor of belles lettres, criticism, and metaphysics, also served on the board of trustees. In 1810 the trustees required the president to submit semiannual reports on the courses offered and student progress, and in 1813 they insisted that juniors and seniors study theology.
The constant problem of disciplining intoxicated and unruly students seriously threatened Maxcy’s position from 1813 to 1815 and undoubtedly undermined his health. The faculty tried to gain control over students by imposing suspensions, but the trustees seldom mandated expulsions. When Maxcy’s chapel speeches failed to tame students, the trustees’ investigating committee charged him, on April 21, 1813, with “many and great derelictions of duty.” Experiencing what he described as “the most painful occurrence of my life,” Maxcy defended himself (April 24, 1813), but the trustees required the faculty to submit weekly reports to their standing committee. On February 8, 1814, the town militia had to subdue a student rebellion against the disciplinarian professor George Blackburn. The trustees expelled student ringleaders and forced Blackburn to resign. In November 1815 Maxcy’s ill health resulted in a trustee resolution for his dismissal, but he successfully defended his presidency. During that time faculty raised academic standards and the college expanded to seven buildings.
Of the three colleges that he presided over, Maxcy made his greatest impact on South Carolina College. Recognized as a teacher more than a scholar, Maxcy emphasized, in Principles of Rhetorick and Criticism (1817), “how ‘rhetoric’ was to contribute to the general collegiate curriculum.” Deeply committed to the principle of religious toleration, Maxcy believed that neither civil harmony nor salvation required doctrinal consensus. He died on June 4, 1820, and was buried in the cemetery of the First Presbyterian Church, Columbia. The Maxcy Monument, an obelisk designed by Robert Mills, was dedicated on campus on December 15, 1827, by the student Clariosophic Society, of which Maxcy was a founder and the first honorary member.
Hollis, Daniel Walker. University of South Carolina. 2 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1951–1956.
Maxcy, Jonathan. Papers. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.
Scott, Patrick Greig. “Jonathan Maxcy and the Aims of Early Nineteenth-Century Rhetorical Teaching.” College English 4 (January 1983): 21–30.