John Maclean, Jr. was the eldest of six children of John Maclean, Sr. and Phoebe Bainbridge. His father was born in Glasgow, studied for the medical profession, and became a surgeon. At 24, the elder Maclean immigrated to the United States for political reasons. He was invited to take the vacant chair of natural philosophy, which included chemistry, at the College of New Jersey, becoming the institution's first professor of chemistry. He married in 1797, and John was born on March 3, 1800. Entering the College of New Jersey as a sophomore, he graduated in 1816 as the youngest in his class. He taught for a few months in Lawrenceville, New Jersey before earning a divinity degree from the Princeton Theological Seminary. In 1818 he was appointed as a tutor of Greek at the College of New Jersey, beginning a long, varied, and devoted career at his alma mater. Four years later he was elected to fill the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy, though this did not prevent him from subsequently teaching languages and literature. Maclean also served as the College's librarian from 1824 until 1849.