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Remembering the Days — Carolina’s first president and the monument that bears his name

Remembering the Days - episode 84

Jonathan Maxcy was Carolina's first and longest-serving president and the only former president to have his own monument on campus. Maxcy's leadership helped lay the foundation for South Carolina's flagship university. 


There is so much to take in when you stand on the University of South Carolina’s historic Horseshoe. Majestic oak trees, some more than a hundred years old, throw a green canopy over the crisscrossing brick pathways. Eleven charming buildings, some of them more than 200 years old, stand sentinel along the north and south sides of the original campus.

And nestled near the center of it all is an obelisk made of granite block and Italian marble, a monument that memorializes Carolina’s first and longest-serving president, Jonathan Maxcy.

Maxcy Monument

The Maxcy Monument on the historic Horseshoe pays tribute to Jonathan Maxcy, Carolina's first and longest-serving president. 

I’m Chris Horn, your host for Remembering the Days, and today we’re taking a closer look at the first president and what he meant to Carolina and why students personally paid for what became known as the Maxcy Monument. We’ll also have a conversation with USC’s 30th president, Michael Amiridis, on the challenges that likely faced Carolina’s first president.

When the state of South Carolina set about establishing South Carolina College in 1801, everything had to be made from scratch. Land had to be acquired for a campus, the first building, Rutledge, had to be built to accommodate everything: student lodging, classrooms, a chapel, all under one roof. Professors had to be hired to teach ancient languages, rhetoric, mathematics and science. An academic curriculum had to be established. And someone was needed to be in charge of it all on a day-to-day basis — a college president.

There were fewer than 40 colleges and universities in the United States in 1800, so there wasn’t a big pool of academics with college presidential experience. But the folks searching for South Carolina College’s first president hit the jackpot in that regard.

A native of Massachusetts, Jonathan Maxcy was only 36 years old when he was named president of South Carolina, but he had already served as president of Brown University and Union College.

Elizabeth West: “I think the attraction was his experience as the president of two different colleges already in his young age. At the age of 24, he became president of Brown and then a few years later, of Union. And so had that type of experience dealing with students and the curriculum that the trustees were importing as part of the South Carolina College curriculum.”

That’s Elizabeth West, USC’s archivist, who says Maxcy had to wear more than one hat as the college’s president.

Elizabeth West: “Maxcy, as president, was expected to teach, as were all of the antebellum presidents. And that was just part of the job. What they taught varied according to their particular interests. He taught metaphysics, criticism, and belles lettres, which are not common today in the colleges and universities.”

Maxcy was also an ordained Baptist minister, and it’s said that his sermons were read alongside those of well-known theologians such as Jonathan Edwards. At Carolina, Maxcy no longer preached, but he did sometimes preside over the students’ mandatory gatherings in the chapel.

As president and professor, Jonathan Maxcy was well liked by the students. But the story of his presidency is not a "happily ever after" kind of tale.

If you’ve listened to this podcast for awhile, you already know that students at South Carolina College in those early decades of the 1800s were often a rowdy lot. They were the sons of well-to-do families, and many of them were accustomed to doing whatever they wanted.

Elizabeth West: “One of the things that Maxcy fielded complaints about was that he was too lenient in discipline with the students. He was very popular with the students. They liked him very much. But some of the trustees complained that he was too lenient in disciplining some of the students, particularly after the 1814 protest and riot regarding one of the professors at the campus.”

The 1814 protest and riot that Elizabeth mentions is probably worthy of its own Remembering the Days episode, but here’s a very abridged version: A mathematics professor angered the student body when he tried to suspend several students for attempting to steal the college bell that summoned them all to classes every day. Angry students burned the professor in effigy and attacked his house on campus while he and his family were in it. It was the first major student disturbance at South Carolina College, and the college’s trustees thought Maxcy wasn’t being firm enough.

It didn’t help that Maxcy himself was a sickly individual. Because of his chronic poor health, he sometimes missed meetings with the trustees and was occasionally absent from the classroom. The trustees established an investigative committee with the intent of formally finding fault with his leadership.

Elizabeth told me that the investigation eventually fizzled out, and somehow the college righted itself. The students, for a while at least, behaved themselves, and within a few years, the trustees expressed their gratitude for Maxcy’s ableness by electing him to join them as a member of the Board of Trustees. So, along with being both president and professor, he became in the latter years of his tenure, a trustee of the college he was leading.

But by 1820, Maxcy’s ill health could no longer sustain him. At age 52, he died while still in office at Carolina and was succeeded by Thomas Cooper, who had recently joined the college’s faculty as a chemistry professor.

You might recall from a previous episode that there were two debating societies at Carolina — the Clariosophics and the Euphradians. Student members of the Clariosophics decided to erect  a memorial to their beloved president, and Robert Mills, a South Carolina-born architect who would later design the Washington Monument, was hired to come up with an appropriate tribute.

His design of the Maxcy Monument became one of the earliest examples in the United States of the Egyptian Revival Style with its square base and pyramidal spire. It took the students a while to raise the necessary funds, and the effort was delayed when several seniors left the college in a dispute over the poor quality of food being served there. Listen to episode 38 about the Great Biscuit Rebellion if you want to learn more about that.

In the end, the monument cost about $1,200 to build. Students paid Mills $50 for his design work, $873 to the stone cutter who followed Mills’ specifications and another $100 for the tripod perched atop the monument. The monument was unveiled on Dec. 15, 1827, seven years after Maxcy’s death.

Elizabeth West: “So, the monument is older than most of the buildings on the Horseshoe. It was constructed in 1827 — marble and granite and bronze. So he's not buried underneath the monument. That  rumor, of course, has popped up frequently. His horse is not buried under the monument. I don't know where that came from, but that circulated a few years ago. But it is a monument to him. And it's one one of the earliest, very earliest uses of the obelisk form by Robert Mills.”

“The panels in marble, the inscriptions are in Latin and Greek. And that made sense at the time because all of these students could read Latin and Greek, they were required to take those courses to get their degrees at the college. There are translations now in bronze markers at the base of each side of the monument.”

The monument, a popular gathering place then and now, has often been the focal point of pranks. Unknown individuals splashed it in bright pink paint in 1909, and the ball atop the tripod at the apex of the monument has occasionally been painted a variety of colors, though not in recent memory.

Before it was welded in place, the ball was sometimes stolen and later returned. I would be remiss if I didn’t repeat the age-old legend about the Maxcy Monument ball, which states that the ball will spin whenever a virgin walks by. Of course, we’ll never know the veracity of that claim now because of the ball being welded in place.

A ritual before World War II and during the 1950s was rat week — a gentle hazing of Carolina freshmen in which they were made to scrub the entire monument with toothbrushes. Go online and you can find pictures of that ritual in Garnet and Black yearbooks from that era.

You might recall that there’s also a Maxcy residence hall on campus, which is named for the first president. Several other former USC presidents have buildings named in their memory, but Jonathan Maxcy is the only one to have his own monument on campus.

I sat down with Elizabeth West and Michael Amiridis, USC’s 30th president, to talk more about Maxcy’s presidency. It’s interesting to think about the things Maxcy had to contend with — and the things he did not have to deal with — in his 16 years at the helm.

Elizabeth West: “It was a very well-funded college prior to the Civil War. Those early presidents like Maxcy did not have to fundraise. They did not have to contend with athletics. Athletics did not come to the campus until really after the Civil War. They had to intervene more directly in student disciplinary issues and academic issues at times. And, really, Maxcy had to start forming and developing the campus. He was the first to implement the curriculum and work with the faculty on the curriculum, to really oversee the first commencement ceremony. Several buildings were constructed during his tenure really started to form that familiar layout, horseshoe-shaped layout of the campus.”

President Amiridis says it’s important to realize that the establishment of South Carolina College, which would ultimately become the University of South Carolina, was really an experiment, more risky than starting up a new business would have been.

Michael Amiridis: “Look at it as a startup and look at it as an experiment, in essence. It was not even a startup because this was an experiment in the entire country. It was the first time that we were having public universities, and nobody knew if this experiment was going to work or not.”

“You were coming into an uncharted territory, and you had the responsibility, but also the opportunity to define what this experiment is going to look like.”

Dr. Amiridis suggests that Jonathan Maxcy has a modern-day counterpart in Tom Jones, USC’s president from 1962 to 1974, who led the university through tumultuous changes and enormous expansion of enrollment and the physical campus.

Michael Amiridis: “I would compare him with Tom Jones, because Tom Jones did the transformation of the university from a smaller local institution. And he did it. He transformed it into a national university with research being the emphasis.”

Maxcy, Amiridis says, had to lead Carolina in those first two decades of the 19th century without the benefit of what is now a highly prized commodity: data.

Michael Amiridis: “In Maxcy's case, without any kind of a map and no information, no metrics, no communication with other universities. How would you communicate with the University of North Carolina or Tennessee? I'm curious to know if there are in the archives any letters that they are exchanging. Today, we all get data. We share data with the other institutions. I get together with all the presidents every six months. It's a different environment. He was alone. He was in a desert, right? Creating a new institution. So it's fascinating if you make the comparisons.”

I like that image that President Amiridis presents of Jonathan Maxcy toiling away, despite his chronic ill health, without counsel from other colleges and universities, laying the foundation for this institution of higher education that would become the flagship university of South Carolina. It gives us a new appreciation for Jonathan Maxcy, the Maxcy Monument and all that it represents.

That’s all for this episode, which marks the end of the spring 2024 season of Remembering the Days. This is also the last regular episode of the podcast, but let me hasten to say that we plan to produce a number of special episodes in the future. If you subscribe to the podcast, those stories will show up in your feed from time to time, so this isn’t the end of the road, just the beginning of a more relaxed production schedule.

For Remembering the Days, I’m Chris Horn. Forever to thee.