William Maxwell

H-SC President, 1838-1845

William Maxwell William Maxwell, Yale class of 1802, had been well known to Hampden-Sydney since the 1820s, when he participated in Cushing's Literary and Philosophical Society, which evolved into the Virginia Historical Society; he was the principal speaker in 1826, and the address was published and widely distributed. A prominent Norfolk lawyer, businessman, editor, ex-legislator, philanthropist, and active Presbyterian layman, in 1836 he was elected to the Board and given an LL.D. (only the third LL.D. the College had awarded). Financially ruined in the 1837 Panic, he was more than willing to leave Norfolk, and with his talents and accomplishments he seemed a natural for President. He arrived with a sweepingly ambitious program of academic and physical changes, including the College's first master plan for real landscaping (which was largely ignored). Most of his agenda came to naught for lack of money, and continuing doctrinal strife in the Presbyterian Church caught Hampden-Sydney in a crossfire. As if all that were not enough, Maxwell had failed from the start to win over the students, who regarded the learned, spell-binding, pious orator as a sanctimonious old bore; in his first year the student Philanthropic Literary Society embarrassed him by rejecting a proposal to invite him to speak at its Fourth of July gala. After six years of seething, the situation boiled up in the summer of 1844, and Maxwell, though supported by the Board, resigned in a huff. He moved to Richmond and spent most of the rest of his embittered life as Corresponding Secretary and Librarian of the Virginia Historical Society and Editor of the Virginia Historical Register.