William Holmes McGuffey

Through his enormously popular series of elementary school readers, William Holmes McGuffey (1800-1873) educated several generations of Americans.

William McGuffey was born on Sept. 28, 1800, in Washington County, Pa. He learned his letters at home, was tutored in Latin by a nearby minister, and attended the Old Stone Academy in Darlington, Pa. He graduated from Washington College in 1826 and became professor of ancient languages at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. In 1829 he was licensed to preach in the Presbyterian Church.

In 1836 McGuffey was elected president of Cincinnati College, where he became prominently associated with a citizens' group seeking to promote public education. This group, which evolved into the Western Literary Institute, sponsored educational meetings and successfully lobbied for the organization of Ohio's common schools.

McGuffey's interest in public education led to a publishing agreement to produce a series of elementary readers to serve student needs on the western frontier, which was divided by ethnic differences and denominational factions. In 1836 the first and second Eclectic Readers were published, initiating a series that ended in 1857 with the sixth Eclectic Reader, compiled by McGuffey's brother.

Each Reader, carefully graduated in difficulty, was a compilation of classical selections, homely aphorisms, and patriotic messages that set a dour tone of piety, thrift, and industry. The righteous wisdom of the Readers, deriving as much from Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac as from John Calvin's writings, dictated the moral position and literary taste of emerging America, influencing the courts, statehouses, and home-steads alike. The growth of free common schools, the stringent nonsectarian Protestantism of the books, and a choice of readings that appealed to all walks of life in all sections of the nation gave the Readers great popularity. It is estimated that over 120 million copies were sold in English and various translations, primarily during the 19th century. Although they no longer reflect the dominant mood of America, the Readers still command a nostalgic following in some areas.

McGuffey became president of Ohio University in 1839 and professor of natural and moral philosophy at the University of Virginia in 1845. With characteristic energy, he continued revising and enlarging the Readers, substituting American for English selections as they became available but never tampering with his successful formula. Although his celebrity rested on his texts, McGuffey achieved local eminence as a teacher at Virginia rather than as a scholar. His sole scholarly effort, a book on mental philosophy, was a derivative and outmoded defense of Protestant orthodoxy published posthumously. He died in Charlottesville on May 4, 1873.

Further Reading on William Holmes McGuffey

The essentials of McGuffey's life and a detailed analysis of the various editions of the Readers are in Harvey C. Minnich, William Holmes McGuffey and His Readers (1936). Ruth M. Elson, in Guardians of Tradition: American Schoolbooks of the Nineteenth Century (1964), contrasts the McGuffey series with other texts. See also Richard D. Mosier, Making the American Mind: Social and Moral Ideas in the McGuffey Readers (1947), and Alice M. Ruggles, The Story of the McGuffeys (1950).

Additional Biography Sources

Crawford, Benjamin Franklin, The life of William Holmes McGuffey, Delaware, Ohio, Carnegie Church Press 1974.

Sullivan, Dolores P., William Holmes McGuffey: schoolmaster to the nation, Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1994.

Westerhoff, John H., McGuffey and his readers: piety, morality, and education in nineteenth-century America, Nashville: Abingdon, 1978.