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McGuffey, William Holmeslocked

(23 September 1800–04 May 1873)
  • John Hardin Best

McGuffey, William Holmes (23 September 1800–04 May 1873), textbook writer and teacher, was born in Washington County, Pennsylvania, the son of Alexander McGuffey and Anna Holmes, farmers of Scot and Scotch-Irish ancestry. McGuffey was raised on the family’s frontier homestead in Trumbull County in the Western Reserve in Ohio. The family’s struggles to clear the land and establish a working farm shaped the values that permeated the McGuffey Readers, a series of influential instructional books that William McGuffey later wrote. William’s formal education was arranged with a series of Presbyterian ministers in church schools along the frontier, and at the age of fourteen he was considered competent to become a teacher. In the fall of 1814, at West Union, Ohio, a village near the family farm, he offered “to tutor all pupils” in a subscription school; forty-eight paying students arrived to begin a fifteen-week term, six days a week, eleven hours a day. Pupils were expected to bring their own books, which usually meant the Bible, the only book a family was likely to possess. In between teaching and continuing to work on the family farm, McGuffey also pursued his own academic studies, first at a local academy and later at Washington College, a Presbyterian institution in Washington, Pennsylvania. In 1826 he earned a bachelor’s degree in ancient languages and in philosophy.

Impressed with McGuffey’s academic promise, the president of Miami University, a small, progressive institution in Oxford, Ohio, offered the young scholar an appointment to teach Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Over the next ten years McGuffey became a leading member of the Miami faculty, celebrated for his language instruction and for his course in moral philosophy. His students remembered him as a stern and austere man but a creative teacher skilled at illustrating abstract principles with concrete examples or an apt anecdote. He was a conservative on social issues and doctrinal matters, often taking positions that irked his more progressive colleagues. He advocated, for example, particularly rigid puritanical constraints on student behavior in the college. A conservative even about clothing, he always appeared in clerical black, dark tie, stove pipe hat, and ebony cane.

McGuffey was married in Oxford in 1827 to Harriet Spining (later spelled Spinning), the daughter of a Dayton judge and landowner. They had five children, only two of whom survived to adulthood. After ordination as a Presbyterian minister in 1829, he took an active part in church affairs and became well known in the region for his eloquence as a preacher. McGuffey was active in the movement in the 1830s in Ohio to support free, tax-supported common schools, joining with Calvin Stowe, the first state commissioner of education, his wife Harriet Beecher Stowe, the physician Daniel Drake, and other advocates of public education.

McGuffey’s Miami years ended in 1836 with his appointment as president of the newly reorganized Cincinnati College, which its supporters hoped to develop into an institution worthy of Cincinnati’s claim to be the cultural center of the Midwest. The financial panic of 1837, however, led to the closing of the college in 1839. McGuffey was then named president of Ohio University in Athens, the oldest collegiate institution in the state. But after only four years McGuffey resigned the presidency because of a series of disputes with local residents and bitter criticism of his inflexible policies on tax collections in support of the college. McGuffey and his young family returned to Cincinnati where he briefly taught languages at Woodward College, the city’s classical high school.

In 1845 the University of Virginia offered McGuffey a position as professor of philosophy. Some members of the Virginia faculty criticized McGuffey’s advocacy of emancipationism, the gradual elimination of slavery, but others countered that he was by no means an abolitionist radical. McGuffey gratefully accepted the appointment and remained on the faculty until his death. During the years at Charlottesville he taught “mental and moral philosophy,” preached throughout the region, and worked to promote the establishment of public education in Virginia. His wife died in 1850, and the following year McGuffey married Laura Howard, the daughter of a Virginia colleague. Two daughters were born to this marriage.

McGuffey’s major work, begun during his Miami years, was the compilation of a series of reading textbooks that came to be widely used across the United States in his lifetime and remained popular long after his death. In 1836 the Cincinnati publishing house of Truman & Smith brought out the first McGuffey textbooks: a primer, a speller, and four readers. These books were anthologies of instructional reading materials, graded for increasing difficulty within each volume and from one volume to the next, with ample woodcut illustrations, and questions and exercises for each lesson. The first series was titled the Eclectic Readers; the many later editions were named the McGuffey Eclectic Readers. McGuffey cooperated with his younger brother Alexander to bring out a Fifth Reader in 1844 and in 1857 a Sixth. McGuffey’s original publication contract capped his royalties at $1,000, but later revisions increased this amount. Through many editions (major revisions in 1857 and again in 1879) and several publishing firms, approximately 122 million copies of the Readers were sold by 1920, with the largest volume of sales in the years from 1870 to 1890.

In these anthologies of American and British stories, essays, verse, historical accounts, and speeches, McGuffey’s lessons explicitly and implicitly reflected the Protestant ethic of individualism, work, thrift, perseverance, modesty, truthfulness, the sanctity of property, and, above all, a pious morality. The Readers sought to build moral character, not intellectual values. They were imbued with Victorian sentimentality and portrayed women as innately virtuous. The Readers represented the self-reliant individualism of the frontier as the road to economic success and celebrated American nationalism through accounts of the heroes of the Revolution. They paid little or no notice to subsequent events such as the Mexican War, the blazing of the Oregon Trail, and, later, the Civil War and emancipation. In sum, the lessons of the Eclectic Readers reflect McGuffey’s small-town, agrarian America of the early and mid-nineteenth century, creating a common tradition for generations of Americans. Ironically, the Readers enjoyed their greatest success during the late nineteenth century when American society was becoming more urban, industrial, and ethnically diverse. The influence of McGuffey and his Readers, ideas and attitudes in educating the young, was a major aspect in the forming of American character, for good or ill, well into the twentieth century.


The main collection of McGuffey papers is held at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, where there is also a McGuffey museum. A collection of memorabilia can also be found at the Henry Ford McGuffey Museum, Dearborn, Mich. Popular biographies are Alice McGuffey Ruggles, The Story of the McGuffeys (1950), and Harvey C. Minnich, William Holmes McGuffey and His Readers (1936). A more scholarly work is James Arnold Scully, “A Biography of William Holmes McGuffey” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Cincinnati, 1967). Systematic analysis of the substance of the Readers can be found in Richard D. Mosier, Making the American Mind: Social and Moral Ideas in the McGuffey Readers (1947), and John H. Westerhoff III, McGuffey and His Readers: Piety, Morality, and Education in Nineteenth-Century America (1978).