|Hon. Thomas Maxwell was born Feb. 16, 1792, at Athens, Pa.,
and came to Elmira (then Newtown Point) in 1796; his father removing in
that year to enter into the mercantile business and sell his village lots,
he having bought one hundred acres of land, which constituted more than
one-half of the business part of the city. His father being a man
of considerable property and holding positions of trust and honor, he no
doubt had fair advantages for education, although it did not extend beyond
the English branches.
He married young, and his first wife was a Miss Sayre, sister of Hector and Jonas Sayre, of Horseheads. She died young, leaving a daughter, who also died, about fourteen years of age, in 1832.
His second wife was Miss Maria Purdy, daughter of Andrew Purdy, of Spencer, whom he married, probably, in 1819. She died in 1846.
At the time of his death he was living with a third wife, formerly a Miss Richardson.
Mr. Maxwell was the third clerk of Tioga County, Spencer then being the shire town, and served from March, 1819, to January 1, 1829. His first three years of service was by appointment, under the old constitution of the State. In 1822 he was elected under the new constitution, and again re-elected in 1825. He was elected in 1828 to the House of Representatives, and served during the term of the Twenty-first Congress. In 1834 he was appointed postmaster at Elmira, which office he filled for several years. In 1836, when the county was divided, he received the appointment of deputy clerk, to transcribe all the records pertaining to the new county of Chemung. He was at one time, about 1841, vice-president of the New York and Erie Railroad Company. When Judge Monell became clerk of the Supreme Court (1844 or 1845), Mr. Maxwell received the appointment of deputy, and removed to Geneva, where he remained while an incumbent of the office. While there he was admitted as an attorney and counselor in the Supreme Court. He was contemporary with some of the greatest men in the nation, was on intimate terms with many of them, and enjoyed their friendship and esteem as long as they lived.
With all his ability he was one of the most retiring and modest of men, and it was torture to him to be called upon to speak in public. He once related an anecdote of his first and only experience at addressing the House while he was a member of Congress. He had a petition or resolution to offer, and when he arose to his feet, caught the eye of the Speaker and was announced as having the floor, he said he imagined the eyes of every member were fixed upon him, and the number seemed multiplied until he was surrounded by a multitude of eager and anxious listeners. How he got through he had no conception; but so great was his fright that, when he had finished his remarks, he added, “All in favor will say aye,” and sat down mentally and physically exhausted. “That,” said he, “was the most effective thing I said, for it created a great deal of amusement, and I was repeatedly congratulated for the witty bit I had made.”
Had his assurance been equal to his ability, Mr. Maxwell would won a position second to no man in the State. His memory was remarkable, and anything he read was stored away to be used when wanted. He was a tireless worker, and never relaxed in his labors, only to spend his leisure in his well-selected and valuable library.
Not long after 1840 misfortunes thickened around him; the modest accumulation of his labor was swept away, and his library went with his other property, and that to him was his most grievous loss. He repeatedly said that he designed to collect a library which should be as complete as his means would permit, and his records of local history should be unsurpassed, and that the entire collection of printed volumes and manuscripts should be given to the village. He said when it passed out of his hands he wanted it to be of public benefit, and it should be his legacy to the town where his whole life had been spent.
A large part of his business was the procuring of pensions for soldiers and widows of the Revolution and the war of 1812. In this manner he acquired an immense amount of knowledge of great historic value, and the number of personal incidents he could relate of prominent actors in those wars was almost endless; and they are undoubtedly true, for they were personal reminiscences of those who came to solicit his aid to procure pensions. He never attempted a case without an almost certainty that the claim was a just one; and he could not well be deceived, for there was not a brigade or regiment or hardly a company that he did not remember who the officers were and how long they served. His acceptance of a claim was almost a warrant that it would be recognized by the government. It did not seem to occur to him that he ought to receive pay for the knowledge he had gained, and it was with diffidence that he named most modest fees for his services. Had he been as devoted to accumulating money as he was to the interests of his clients he might have built a temple to mammon.
He was a most unselfish and amiable man, and in the family circle was loved with unwavering affection. His habits were simple and unostentatious, and his demeanor was ever the same, whether entertaining peer or commoner. No one was so humble as not to gain access to him at any moment, and the same courtesy governed him in all his intercourse with his fellow men. His benevolence was only limited by his means, and it was of so unobtrusive a character that he seemed quite unconscious of it himself. The noble nature he possessed never degenerated, either in prosperity or adversity, and the steady poise of his mind was never disturbed either by the flattery of success or by pecuniary ruin. A monarch in the world of intellect, he was too modest to assume his proper place in the front ranks of the great men of his generation. A devoted lover of his country, his patriotism was not limited by party policy or prejudice, and the advance of our Republic to greatness was dearer to him than personal aggrandizement. His religion was confined to no sect nor creed; he indulged in no narrow prejudices, and placed simple faith in the universal goodness of the Creator.