William Holmes McGuffey

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William Holmes McGuffey
William Holmes McGuffey.jpg
Born (1800-09-23)September 23, 1800
Claysville, Pennsylvania
Died May 4, 1873(1873-05-04) (aged 72)
Charlottesville, Virginia
Occupation Educator, Academic Author
Known for McGuffey Readers

William Holmes McGuffey (September 23, 1800 – May 4, 1873) was a college president who is best known for writing the McGuffey Readers, the first widely used series of textbooks. It is estimated that at least 122 million copies of McGuffey Readers were sold between 1836 and 1960, placing its sales in a category with the Bible and Webster's Dictionary.

Early years[edit]

Greersburg Academy

William Holmes McGuffey was born the son of Alexander and Anna (Holmes) McGuffey near Claysville in West Finley Township, Washington County, Pennsylvania, which is 45 miles southwest of Pittsburgh. In 1802 the McGuffey family moved farther out into the frontier at Tuscarawas County, Ohio. He attended country school, and after receiving special instruction at Youngstown, he attended Greersburg Academy in Darlington, Pennsylvania. Afterwards, he attended and graduated from Pennsylvania's Washington College, where he became an instructor. He was a roving instructor, traveling through the frontier of Ohio, Kentucky, and western Pennsylvania. He was "one of an army of half-educated young men who tramped the roads and trails drumming up 'subscription scholars'."[1] These half-educated young men would travel to and from different settlements looking for a part-time teaching job. They would teach in log-cabins to children whose parents would pay for their education. The teachers would educate the children until the parents ran out of funding or until the parents did not care to have their children educated anymore. One of the small settlements where he taught was Poland, Ohio.[2]

He was close friends with Washington College's President Andrew Wylie and lived in Wylie's house for a time; they often would walk the 3 miles to Washington College together.[3]

Career and life[edit]

McGuffey's house in Oxford, Ohio

McGuffey left Washington College in 1826 to become a professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. A year later, in 1827, he was married to Harriet Spinning of Dayton, Ohio, with whom he had five children. In 1829 he was ordained at Bethel Chapel as a minister in the Presbyterian Church. It was in Oxford that he created the most important contribution of his life: The McGuffey Readers. His books sold over 122 million copies. He was very fond of teaching and children as he geared the books toward a younger audience.

In 1836 he left Miami to become president of Cincinnati College, where he also served as a distinguished teacher and lecturer.[4] He left Cincinnati in 1839 to become the 4th president of Ohio University, which he left in 1843 to become president of Woodward College (really a secondary school) in Cincinnati.

An obelisk.
McGuffey's grave obelisk at the University of Virginia Cemetery in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In 1845 McGuffey moved to Charlottesville, Virginia where he became Professor of Philosophy at the University of Virginia. A year after his first wife Harriet died in 1850, he married Miss Laura Howard, daughter of Dean Howard of the University of Virginia. McGuffey is buried in the University of Virginia Cemetery, in Charlottesville, Virginia. The School of Education at Miami University is housed in McGuffey Hall which is named for him and his home in Oxford is a National Historic Landmark offering tours on weekdays.


McGuffey Hall at Ohio University, named for William McGuffey
McGuffey High School in Claysville, PA
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission historical marker for William H. McGuffey

McGuffey is credited with the following quotation:

"The Christian religion, is the religion of our country. From it are derived our prevalent notions of the character of God, the great moral governor of the universe. On its doctrines are founded the peculiarities of our free institutions."[5]

On College Green at Ohio University stands McGuffey Hall. It houses the Department of University Advancement and is named after McGuffey.

The McGuffey School District in Washington County, Pennsylvania is named for William Holmes McGuffey. The industrialist Henry Ford cited McGuffey Readers as one of his most important childhood influences. In 1934 he had the log cabin where McGuffey was born moved to Greenfield Village, Ford's museum of Americana at Dearborn, Michigan.

In 1998 the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission installed a historical marker at McGuffey High School/Middle School noting McGuffey's historic importance.[6]

McGuffey Awards[edit]

Named for William Holmes McGuffey's influential primers that first appeared in 1836 and remained in print until 1921, the McGuffey longevity awards recognize long-lived, still-in-use textbooks of excellence.[7]


  1. ^ Ruggles, Alice McGuffey (1950). The Story of the McGuffeys. American Book Company. 
  2. ^ Zorn, Robert L. (1976). Triumph and Tradition of the Poland Schools. Inter-Collegiate Press. 
  3. ^ Coleman, Helen Turnbull Waite (1956). Banners in the Wilderness: The Early Years of Washington and Jefferson College. University of Pittsburgh Press. pp. 111–120. OCLC 2191890. 
  4. ^ Grace, Kevin (Jan 4, 2012). Legendary Locals of Cincinnati. Arcadia Publishing. p. 11. Retrieved 2013-05-07. 
  5. ^ Wm. H. McGuffy, "Duties of Parents and Teachers," p. 138, in Transactions of the Fifth Annual Meeting of the Western Literary Institute, Cincinnati, 1836, pp. 129-152. Two sentences are often added to this: "From no source has the author drawn more conspicuously than from the sacred Scriptures. From all these extracts from the Bible I make no apology." The first sentence is taken from the preface to the fourth eclectic reader, and the second misquotes the third reader. (The correct text reads "For the copious extracts made from the Sacred Scriptures, he makes no apology.")
  6. ^ "William Holmes McGuffey - PHMC Historical Markers". Historical Marker Database. Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. Retrieved December 10, 2013. 
  7. ^ TAA, William Holmes McGuffey Longevity Awards, The Text and Academic Authors Association created the McGuffy longevity award in 1993 for recognition of texts and learning materials that have seen long and continued use in education for more than 15 years. Retrieved May 17, 2010.


  • Biography Reference Bank. The H. W. Wilson Company, 2007.
  • John Hardin Best. "McGuffey, William Holmes"; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
  • Richard D. Mosier. Making the American Mind: Social and Moral Ideas in the McGuffey Readers (1947)
  • John H. Westerhoff III. McGuffey and His Readers: Piety, Morality, and Education in Nineteenth-Century America (1978).

External links[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by
Reverend Elijah Slack
President of the University of Cincinnati
1836 – 1839
Succeeded by
Thomas J Biggs
Preceded by
Robert G. Wilson
President of the Ohio University
1839 – 1843
Succeeded by
Alfred Ryors