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The Textbook Man

William Homes McGuffey is best known for the reader textbooks he wrote. They became the virtual universal readers in the expanding public school system of 19th century America. More than 122 million copies were sold in many editions. The McGuffey readers had a profound impact on the moral teaching of schoolchildren of the time because of their high ethical tone stemming from McGuffey’s strict Calvinistic faith.

In 1829, he was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church. McGuffey was born September 23, 1800 in western Pennsylvania, a descendant of the Scottish pioneers who flowed into the Quaker state throughout the 18th century. With little formal schooling, he learned rapidly and by age 13 was teaching in a rural Ohio school. He received his bachelor’s degree with honors from Washington College in 1826. McGuffey went to Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, as a professor of foreign languages. During the 11 years he was at Miami, he took a great interest in public education. He assisted local teachers and set up a model elementary school. In 1835 he contracted with a Cincinnati publisher to write four school readers published in 1836. A fifth reader was published in 1844. A sixth was added in 1857. The Readers took leadership in the mid-west and south from their first appearances. They were read in all the states of the Union, widely in thirty-seven states, and almost exclusively in many.

His brother, Alexander Hamilton McGuffey, added a spelling book to the McGuffey series in 1846. The books were an astonishing success. McGuffey served as president of Cincinnati College during the years 1836-39. He left Cincinnati to become president of Ohio University staying there until 1843. McGuffey was one of the three founders of the common school system of Ohio. In 1845 he was appointed professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia, a post he filled with distinction until his death May 4, 1873. “Among the student body, he was the most discussed teacher; some feared him, many loved him, all respected and revered him. They cherished his proverbial sayings and his perennial enthusiasm.” ( He was married to Harriet Spinning of Dayton, Ohio in 1827. Five children were born of this marriage. Harriet died in 1850. In 1851 he married his second wife, Miss Laura Howard, daughter of Dean Howard of the University of Virginia. One child was born of this union. She died when four years of age. His grave and that of his second wife are in the university burying grounds, Charlottesville, Virginia.

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