Jonathan Maxcy graduated from Rhode Island College in 1787. His poem at Commencement was hailed by the audience and he "was induced with reluctance to consent to its publication." Maxcy was immediately appointed as a tutor by the College, and became president pro tempore in 1792, being given a trial period because of his youth. In 1797 he was formally elected president. Maxcy's skills as an orator and scholar were well-known and served to bolster the reputation of the fledgling College.
Of his presidency it was written: "[t]hough destitute of funds, and patronage from the legislature of the state, guided by his genius and wisdom, the College flourished and diffused its light over every part of the country...Dr. Maxcy was one of the most learned men which our country has produced...[h]is stores of knowledge were immense, and he had at all times the command over them." Maxcy did struggle, however, keeping "command over" matters of student discipline, as the College's men were noted to be rowdy during the young president's tenure. Maxcy resigned in 1802 to become president of Union College in New York.