JOHN VINCENT MOONEY, Fordham University


After having held office as Superintendent of Schools in Brooklyn, New York, from 1887 to 1898, William H. Maxwell was elected to serve as the first Superintendent of Public Instruction for the consolidated Greater City of New York in 1898. He was returned to this post in 1904, 1910, and 1916. In 1918 Maxwell was elected superintendent emeritus for life with the same pay and benefits he enjoyed as superintendent. As an educational administrator, leader among superintendents, author of textbooks and initiator of programs for handicapped boys and girls, he has been the subject of historical interest, though no major study has been done since 1934.^ The present study has combined a narrative approach with a focus on educational developments within the city of New York. From what might best be described as a loose confederation in 1898, Maxwell had encouraged through legislative action a highly centralized school organizational operation by 1902. The most important sources investigated were the Journal of the Board of Education of the City of New York and the volumes of the Educational Review housed in the Columbia University library system. Papers of Maxwell's friends such as Nicholas Murrary Butler were at times very important, as were the newspapers of the period.^ William H. Maxwell was descended from a long line of men active in the affairs of their locality and their country. Extremely well educated for an individual reaching maturity in the 1870's and unable to find the necessary financial support to follow a career in the law, he embarked for America. In his new country Maxwell at first failed to secure a teaching position but his background enabled him to obtain a job with a local newspaper. Success with this alternative vocation served as Maxwell's foundation for establishing his career in educational administration.^ The last decade of the nineteenth and the early decades of the twentieth centuries were periods of tremendous growth and change in the city. Maxwell presided over these conditions insofar as they affected the educational milieu. Kindergartens, high schools, trade schools, schools for handicapped children and uniformity of courses of study, were concepts developed or expanded during this era. The organizational changes saw a loosely-run borough-controlled decentralized operation fashioned into a highly centralized structure presided over by one man. This one man, William H. Maxwell, served as the Chairman of the Board of Examiners which licensed all teachers, chaired the Board of Superintendents which directed the activities of all schools and he reported to a small board of education which was regarded as a rubber stamp for his activities.^ The Hanus investigation and the introduction of the Gary Plan were two challenges to Dr. Maxwell's conduct of the city's educational establishment. The Hanus group examined the school system in detail for two years but its recommendations to overhaul the system were lost as a controversy erupted between the superintendent and the president of the board, Mr. Churchill, over who would control the operation of the schools. On the other hand, the Gary Plan was an effort to bring educational cost down. It became an issue in the 1917 mayoralty campaign. When Hylan defeated Mitchell, Maxwell's ideas were vindicated and the Gary Plan was quietly shelved.^ In this study Maxwell's career as Superintendent of Public Instruction in New York has been examined in the light of the many changes and issues which surfaced during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The structures which were initiated during Maxwell's tenure still serve as the foundation pieces for the present day New York City school system. ^

Subject Area

Education, Administration

Recommended Citation

JOHN VINCENT MOONEY, "WILLIAM H. MAXWELL AND THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS OF NEW YORK CITY" (January 1, 1981). ETD Collection for Fordham University. Paper AAI8119781.