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History of the St Andrew's Society of the State of New York
Biographies: Hugh Maxwell

Twenty-second President

The Maxwells formed a powerful border family in the south of Scotland and at one time claimed to be the Earls of Nithsdale, having obtained the title for adherence to the cause of the Stuarts in 1716.

Hugh Maxwell was the son of William Maxwell and was born in 1787 at Paisley, Scotland. He died on the 31st March, 1873, at his residence, No. 14 St. Marks Place, in New York City, at the advanced age of eighty-six years.

His father, William Maxwell, came to this country in 1790, bringing with him his small family and his son Hugh, then three years of age. Hugh Maxwell received a sound education in the public school and entered Columbia College, whence he graduated in 1808.

Gulian C. Verplanck was one of his classmates and an intimate friend, and was associated with him in a curious affair which created great excitement and comment at the time. At the class commencement day, one of the graduates, in the course of his oration, expressed political sentiments in opposition to those held by the faculty. That august body thereupon peremptorily refused the young orator his degree and the usual college honors. Both Mr. Verplanck and Mr. Maxwell roundly denounced such action as arbitrary and unjust— sentiments which a number of their fellow-students sustained—and the affair rapidly took an important turn. The young men were indicted for inciting a riot, and Mr. DeWitt Clinton, the then Mayor of New York, in his charge to the jury, vehemently denounced the conduct of the students. Public sentiment, however, was aroused and the newspapers declared in favor of the accused and severely criticized the Columbia College faculty for their illiberal views and arbitrary action, stating that a university should advocate and favor no particular political creed. Eventually the matter was settled by fining the principals, among whom Messrs. Verplanck and Maxwell ranked as the leaders.

Mr. Maxwell immediately thereafter took up the study of law, was admitted to the bar and began practice in 1808. He soon built up a lucrative practice, but shortly after the outbreak of the War of 1812 with Great Britain he entered the United States Army in his first public position as Assistant Junior Advocate General in 1814.

At the close of the war he identified himself with politics and in 1819 was elected District Attorney for the City of New York. He held this office, which afforded him every opportunity of displaying his brilliant powers of argument and oratory, by successive reelections until 1829. Among the most celebrated of the cases tried bv him was the so-called "Conspiracy Trial” in 1823, in which Jacob Varker, a well-known Quaker banker, Henry Eckford, a prominent ship-builder, and several others were charged with conspiring to defraud certain insurance companies. Notwithstanding the strong array of legal talent retained for the defense, Mr. Maxwell succeeded in securing the conviction of a majority of the accused. During these trials he distinguished himself and increased his reputation as a clear, erudite and powerful public speaker.

Fitzgreen Halleck, the poet, however, wrote several stanzas upon these trials in which he severely censured the course of “MacSurll,” the pseudonym for Mr. Maxwell.

In appreciation of his valued services as District Attorney the merchants of the city presented him with a costly silver vase, which Mr. Maxwell in his will bequeathed to the New York Law Institute, where it may now be seen.

After his term of office had expired Mr. Maxwell again took up the private practice of law and for twenty years occupied a prominent position at the bar of this State. He also became an active and ardent Whig, and was of great use to his political party. His political services were such that President Taylor appointed him as Collector of the Port of New York, and he held this position from 1849 to 1852, through the administrations of Presidents Taylor and Fillmore. Soon after this last date Mr. Maxwell retired from active life and occupied himself with literary and kindred pursuits until his death. He had a great love for classic literature and his library contained one of the best private collections in the city. It was there he passed the autumn of his life, surrounded by his old friends, among whom were numbered Thurlow Weed, William C. Rhinelander and James Lenox.

He was a member of the New York Historical Society and was elected a member of Saint Andrew’s Society on 30th November, 1811. He served as a Manager from 1826-1828; as Second Vice-President, 1828-1832; as First Vice-President from 1832-1835, and as President from 1835-1837. Thereafter he served on the Standing Committee in 1845 and 1850 and the Committee of Installment in 1848 and 1849.

It was during his term as President in 1835 that he found in a New York junk shop the marble slab belonging to the monument erected to Alexander Hamilton by the Society, and which he purchased and sent to James Gore King, the then owner of the Weehawken property where the monument stood. This slab was eventually purchased by the New York Historical Society, where it can now be seen.

He married in New York City Agnes Stevenson, and had issue, all born in New York City: (1) Hugh; (2) John Stevenson; (3) Ann Eliza; (4) Agnes.

His portrait is reproduced from an oil painting now in the possession of his daughter-in-law, Mrs. Hugh Maxwell.

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